Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Rick Jenkins visits the future Comedy Studio space in Cambridge’s Harvard Square on Oct. 19, 2022. (Photo: Marc Levy)

For almost three decades, Rick Jenkins has been The Comedy Studio – he opened it in 1996, moved it when Harvard Square rents got out of control and brought it back to Harvard Square to a grand new space now set to open in early July. But last week Jenkins resigned from the club, which is now in the hands of an investor group brought on when construction costs spiraled out of Jenkins’ ability to fund.

The club will open with an unusual setup with four to five bookers, rotating out over time, that is meant to undo an industry ill: one person controlling access to the stage.

“A team will ensure there’s variation – we want to do things like musical comedy, we want to do sketch, we want to do variety shows and magic, rather than a straight comedy club, and this keeps ideas fresh and provides opportunities for younger people to come up,” said lead investor and Somerville resident John Bonham-Carter in a phone interview Friday. “It also means there is not a single gatekeeper. Comedians coming up will have multiple routes to get stage time through different avenues. This avoids that position of power that exists in most comedy clubs that I think is inherently problematic.”

In the case of Jenkins, a few problems seem to have accumulated over the years: The time he gave a slot to a comic who’d served time for possessing child porn (2014); the time a comic harassed a bartender and eventually showed her a picture of his genitals, drawing a 90-day ban (2020); the time during a residency at Vera’s in Union Square that someone spotted porn on Jenkins’ laptop (2022). Potentially more complaints are on comedian message boards closed to outsiders, as the debate has been ongoing for months and getting louder as The Comedy Studio moved closer to a reopening.

“There were complaints from a number of comics who felt that he was permitting or enabling an unsafe environment for them to work in,” Bonham-Carter said. “They’re incidents in which if he had properly apologized, realized the mistake and addressed the issue at the time, people would have forgiven him. Rick hasn’t apologized sufficiently well.”

Jenkins said his apologies after the incidents were private and he hoped they’d be accepted – but he hadn’t made public apologies, “which seems to be now what they were hoping for or wanted from me. The Comedy Studio has been the center of the Boston comedy scene for a long time. I probably should have stepped up and addressed the entire community.”

Leading to resignation

Lead investor John Bonham-Carter at the future Comedy Studio space on Feb. 13. (Photo: Julia Levine)

When the Studio investment team hosted an open house for comedians May 27 to check out how the space was coming along, it “became more of a referendum, a chance to vent,” Jenkins said. Some of the visiting comics said they would boycott. “And most comedians wouldn’t want to cross a boycott, which I totally understand.”

The investor group asked for an investigation from its contracted human-resources department – a rarity in the world of the comedy club, where there’s often no place to bring a complaint. It found, in Bonham-Carter’s description, that “there’s no denying some of the facts about Rick’s previous mistakes. I think everyone would agree, even the most vocal people, that the real problem was that he didn’t take his corrective actions two years ago” at the time of the laptop incident at Vera’s.

Jenkins resigned at the end of May.

On Friday, he said that being removed from the business of the Studio was weighing on him less than he might expect, though he did have one day of thinking “my life is over.”

At the moment, Jenkins said, “It’s a huge relief. You know, there was so much pressure and so much to do. And it was such a big job. And I’ve been doing it so long that it feels great not to have that constant pressure.”

Home in Harvard Square

Rick Jenkins at his Variety Bar, the front of The Comedy Studio during its time in Somerville’s Bow Market. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The studio first opened its doors in 1996, when Jenkins set up shop on the third floor of the Hong Kong Restaurant at 1238 Massachusetts Ave., Harvard Square, starting with a 75-seat Sunday night show with no advertising. The club wound up as destination for 21 years that helped develop comedians such as Sam Jay, Emma Willmann, Jen Kirkman, Mike Birbiglia, Joe Wong, Eugene Mirman, Ken Reid, Chris Fleming and Myq Kaplan and had guests such as H. Jon Benjamin, Sarah Silverman, Ali Wong, Anthony Jeselnik, Colin Jost and David Spade.

Rent hikes forced Jenkins to relocate in 2017. The new Studio, fronted by a cocktail bar, opened in the Bow Market retail complex in Somerville’s Union Square in 2018. But the relocation was short-lived, as the Covid pandemic hit less than a year and a half later. Due to disagreements with Bow Market management about next steps, the Studio moved again, this time to a residency in Vera’s restaurant and bar in Union Square.

In November 2021, Jenkins announced the Studio was moving back to Harvard Square to a brand-new spot in the basement of The Abbott building – just a few blocks from its old haunts at the Hong Kong Restaurant. Construction on the location began in mid-June 2022 with expectations of opening in January, but that was optimistic, and the dates have been pushed back repeatedly as Jenkins was forced to find additional funds for building the space and paying rent on its unused shell.

The club was last expected to open this month; thanks to a suppliers’ failure to produce the needed custom HVAC vents, that’s now July. Bonham-Carter said the opening-night headliner, whenever that happens, remains the same: Myq Kaplan, a cerebral New Yorker with six albums and appearances on “The Tonight Show” and with Conan O’Brien, David Letterman, James Corden and Seth Meyers.

A change in booking

Though the night promises to follow a decades-old traditional format of stand-up comics taking the stage, Jenkins said he also has questioned whether he’s the right person to be booking those slots.

He said he worried whether “the 63-year-old Rick could do the job a 35-year-old Rick did,” especially as comedy has evolved: “Everything now is either two-minute TikToks or one-hour specials.”

The replacement booker, for now, is Bonham-Carter, who inherited the role as president of the company. “I’m learning this industry incredibly fast, having known nothing about it six months ago,” he said, but he has two of his team of bookers – “all well established on the New England scene” – already in place. The names can be released once contracts are signed, he said.

Supporting the club

Jenkins will have no role in the business but remains a minority shareholder. “There are no plans to reinstate him,” Bonham-Carter said. “The company does not have the resources to buy his shares at the moment, but that is something that will be considered when resources allow.”

There are also comics who continue to support Jenkins, according to conversation in a closed group chat that Cambridge Day was allowed to see briefly. They say that without him, “The Comedy Studio is dead to me” – that “there is no Comedy Studio without Rick. I won’t support it anymore.”

Jenkins, though he said he doesn’t know what’s next for him, was not trying to rally that kind of support. Just the opposite.

“The important thing to me is that the club lives on,” Jenkins said.