BREMERTON — The great vaudevillian comic Milton Berle is said to have muttered on his deathbed:
“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”
Mike “Mobster” Smith thinks about old Uncle Milty as he battles to keep afloat the only live, full-time comedy club on this side of Puget Sound. It’s not just a business.
Mobster Mike’s is located on the Fourth Avenue entertainment strip of downtown Bremerton between the Quarters Arcade and the Horse and Cow Pub. Smith has made it his mission in life to preserve an uplifting art form that he finds sadly lacking in modern culture.
Smith speaks from painful experience about the importance of the wry smile, the chuckle, the guffaw and the full-throated horse laugh. His business strategy is informed by deep personal tragedy, and the life philosophy that grew from it.
When he and his then-wife had decided to enjoy a couple’s night out some years ago, they left their two young teenage daughters, Crystal and Amanda, at home. When they returned later that evening, they were greeted by flashing lights, fire trucks and shouting police up and down their street. One of the girls had lit a candle to get some mood lighting, and then fell asleep. The candle melted through, setting the house ablaze as they slept. Both girls perished in the fire.
“It took awhile to put things back together,” Smith said. “The marriage came apart, and things did not look good. “I thought, ‘I need some levity in my life. I need to hear people laugh. So why not do what I really love and open a comedy club?’”
Mobster Mike’s was born. For the record, Mike is not a mobster, although he can cut a dastardly figure. Neither does anyone call him that. He simply understood that a club like this needed a catchy, memorable name — and a suitable film-noir logo to set it off.
The key to success for any business is the quality of the product they provide. In this, Smith had a distinct ace up his sleeve.
One of his dear friends is a lady named Pat Wilson, who maintains homes both in New Orleans and on Whidbey Island. (Her booking agency, Comedy West, is in Seattle.) She is one of the top entertainment booking agents in the country, and operates on a first-name basis with producers for shows like “The Tonight Show” and “Late Night.”
His 30-year friendship with Wilson allows Smith access to top talent that he would not normally be able to coax to perform in such a small club. The idea is to offer the same comedy experience in Kitsap as with the famous clubs in Seattle (such as Jet City Improv and Comedy Underground). It also allows him to provide a venue for aspiring local talent to break in and hone their craft — choice of material, timing, body language and projection.
Fancy the club is not. The vibe is definitely funky — dark and mysterious, with mismatched tables and chairs straight from Goodwill. It’s exactly what someone would expect from a club by that name.
Smith sees a subtle but telling difference in style between the fledgling local open-mike performers and the headliners, the real professionals. “If we have a bit of a slow night, you can just see and feel the energy drain from the performer, just go out of him,” he said.
“With the professionals, they give it everything, whether it’s 60 people in the audience or three. I tell them if you play for three, play for 3,000,” Smith said.
Some of the top local performers who got their start at open-mike nights at the club are Laurie Ogle, Owen Eardley and Joseph Rogers. All of them still perform at the club, and they’re worth catching for the $10 cover.
And on nights when there is no comedy on tap, Smith brings in high-quality local musicians. The club also has a full kitchen.
When a top performer plays the club, Smith says, he often can get 60 or 70 people in the club. That’s the limit the fire chief will permit.
But it’s enough. “If I get 35 people in this place on a comedy night, I can pay the bartender,” he laughed.
Smith opened the club in 2012, and for about a year and half, made a comfortable living. Then the Horse and Cow Pub opened up at its present location, two doors down from Mobster Mike’s. Smith immediately felt the drain on his clientele, both for the bar and for the comedy club. “They’re great folks, and we get along very well. But I definitely saw the impact it had on my business,” he said.
What enables him to hang on is the fact that he is also a top local tattoo artist, and his Bremerton studio (Smitty’s Tattoo on Callow) does very well. So he fights on in an effort to make the only full-time comedy club on the Kitsap Peninsula a truly going concern.
Smith knows precisely when he will have arrived. “When I have an autographed picture of a top national talent hanging on my wall, I’ll know. That’s the litmus test.”
And if a person thinks they just might have what it takes, Smith extends an invitation. Pat Wilson, his friend and high-powered booking agent, will be at Monster Mike’s the first week of September to listen to open-mike performers and conduct a comedy workshop. For more information on Pat Wilson’s visit, to meet her or simply for more information on the club, call 360-479-3006 or visit www.mon stermikes.com.
It’s all part of his plan to get the world to simply lighten up. “It’s time we started to laugh again, both at ourselves and the world,” he said. “It seems like we’re all getting so serious.”