’Twas the night before Thanksgiving, and while thousands of Marylanders were hitting the road to grandma’s house or staying at home brining, deep-frying or stuffing their bird, Andrew Unger was hard at work.
Unger was steaming around Magooby’s Joke House, the Timonium comedy club he co-owns with his brother, Marc. There, he was commanding a bevy of energetic black-clad employees who were funneling a stream of customers into a space booming with hip-hop, while corralling the amateur comics who were antsy to perform in the 2017 New Comedian of the Year competition.
Andrew, tall, bearded and brawny, issued orders about stage lighting, sound and other technical concerns, perfecting his showplace right up until the moment when he introduced the first comic, who bounded onstage to hoots and applause.
Andrew, 49, and Marc, 53, have been putting comics onstage for 10 years, since the two opened Magooby’s at its first location in Parkville in the basement of The Bowman Restaurant on Harford Road.
The brothers, who are Jewish, grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., but moved to Baltimore in the late 1970s. The family lived in Randallstown and Reisterstown, where the boys attended Randallstown and Franklin high schools, before Marc ventured to New York and Chicago to pursue acting and Andrew left for a stint in the Army.
After the Army, Andrew pursued business, including investment banking, ultimately making a living for 10 years as a sports handicapper. But something was missing.
“I didn’t feel that I was doing anything useful for the community,” Andrew said.
In the meantime, Marc cultivated a successful career as a stand-up comic, though he’d initially planned to go into acting.
“In 1989, I left Baltimore and moved to Chicago with literally just a bag of clothes and books,” said Marc, who often wears a worn cap and jeans. “I went to study at Second City and did an open mic, and that’s what got me on the path to stand-up.”
Marc grew up listening to George Carlin and Richard Pryor, but doing stand-up himself wasn’t originally in his plans. Then, he said, he realized that part of avoiding comedy was “the fear factor.”
“Because when you’re a stand-up — in some ways I think it’s the most difficult performance art form because everybody has a sense of humor,” he said.
Facing that fear, Marc went to an open mic at Chicago’s Roxy Theater, where he was the last to go on following a brother- sister act that brought down the house with their version of Don McLean’s “American Pie.”
“The first thing that I ever said as a stand-up comic was, ‘Wow, I feel like I’m going on after The Who,’ and it got a little bit of a chuckle,” he said. “And then I did my prepared jokes that probably weren’t very good, but for an open-mic gig they were.”
After that first stab at stand-up, Marc fairly quickly got steady work as a comic. He said his acting background, including Second City, the Players Workshop, New York acting classes and Baltimore theater, gave him a leg up over other comics just starting out.
Gigs brought him to the few comedy clubs in Baltimore, including Parkville’s Tracy’s Comedy Club in the basement of The Bowman Restaurant.
“My brother had talked about wanting to get into the comedy club business, and when I saw Tracy’s, I realized this place had some potential,” Marc said.
Andrew had always loved stand-up too, “but [I] would never have the nerve to get onstage,” he said.
In 2007, the two approached the owner of the restaurant and the manager of the comedy club, striking a deal to take over. Because of Marc’s national comedy connections, they began bringing bigger names to the 130-seat club. The brothers formed a symbiotic relationship. Andrew, with his business acumen, was the operating partner managing the club and running the day-to day business, while Marc contributed marketing, his comedy- industry know-how and creativity.
“My brother and I believed that by bringing in stronger acts and using a much more aggressive marketing approach, a comedy club in the county could be highly successful,” Andrew said. “People love to go out, have a bite, a few drinks and laugh. When we took over, the only place that brought in talented comics was The Baltimore Improv, but they had closed. We felt there was an opportunity to fill a much-needed void, and fortunately, we were right.”
Draws at the club went from about 100 patrons a week to roughly 400, Andrew said, and the two thought about moving to a larger venue.
“I believed strongly that if we could find a space with a larger seating capacity, we’d do more business,” Andrew said. “A friend of mine told me that [Lorenzo’s] Timonium Dinner Theatre was closing, and when I went to look at the space, I realized it was absolutely perfect.”
The new location — an ideal spot close to I-695 and I-83 and minutes from Baltimore City — would more than double the capacity of the Parkville club and offered tiered seating with great views of the stage along with a big parking lot.
Andrew and Marc said moving to the larger location in 2010 was a leap of faith but one that Andrew was ready and willing to make.
“There’s always a risk when you move an existing business that is thriving, but I felt confident the area would support a much larger club and that we could overcome what is a much larger overhead,” Andrew said. “My brother was much more concerned, but I have always been a risk taker. I get that from my dad.”
Marc credits Andrew with having “the chutzpah” to make that leap.
“I knew it came with a lot of risks,” Marc said. “The weekend room at The Bowman was the safer choice. But he really wanted to feel like he had something of his own.”
The partnership has proved successful, though it’s not without its moments of sibling rivalry.
“My brother and I complement each other,” Andrew said. “I have the business sense and he has the creativity. Meaning, I do all the work and he finds creative ways to yell at me.”
The two have capitalized on those brotherly personality clashes with short YouTube sketch-comedy videos called “Magooby’s Joke House: Life at a Comedy Club” and their former radio show and podcast “The Fighting Ungers,” which they stopped producing earlier this year after close to 200 episodes.
Whatever the foibles of their partnership, this year marks Magooby’s first decade — and business is good. The club, known as an “A” room in the comedy world because of its size and ability to draw top-name acts, brings in old-school headliners such as Richard Lewis, Gilbert Gottfried, Pauly Shore, Artie Lang and Tom Arnold, as well as contemporary acts such as Russell Peters, Dov Davidoff, Jeff Dye and Tony Woods. The lineup is a mix of ages, races and genders.
“Ten years later, we are doing better than ever,” Andrew said. “The addition of Wits End Saloon, a bourbon bar we opened within the same space a couple of years ago, has helped for sure.”
The bar, opened in 2013, touts an extensive bourbon selection and pub food and is open every day but Sunday, bringing in revenue not only on show days, but on days when the club is dark. Andrew and Marc said that although running a comedy club is challenging, they’ll keep at it.
“On a busy night, 350 people are all coming in at the same time, ordering food and drinks at the same time, and everyone wants the ‘best seats,’” Andrew said. “Add to that the fact that comedy is subjective, and some comedians’ acts won’t resonate with certain people. We want everyone who comes to enjoy themselves, and based on our reviews, I am satisfied in knowing that 99 percent of our customers love us. Seeing people laugh and having a good time motivates me and makes it all worth it.”
Marc never thought he’d be a club owner and even now doesn’t consider himself one, even though he is co-owner. As a comic, he performs at the club occasionally for special events, such as the Comedy Cantonese showcase on Christmas Eve. He also teaches a six-week seminar on comedic storytelling at the club on Monday evenings.
There have been plenty of changes in the comedy business since the brothers started out.
“The golden age as far as comedy clubs making people into millionaires was really more in the 1980s, but it was still going on in the early ’90s when I started, where you didn’t have to have huge credits,” Marc said. “People came to see comedy, not to see a specific person. Whereas now, audiences can be pickier. They can go on YouTube and see a guy’s performance. But the other side of that is they’re missing out on some really great comics.”
Comic and actress Jenny Zigrino has always loved the stage and making people laugh. She performed at Magooby’s in July. Her credits include Conan O’Brien, Comedy Central and films such as “Bad Santa 2” with Billy Bob Thornton. Her interest in comedy started when she was a teen. Now 30 and living in Los Angeles, Zigrino, who is Jewish, enjoyed her stand-up experience at Magooby’s.
“It was really great. The crowds were fun, and the club was an excellent room for comedy. They had a great bar too, which all clubs need,” she said, adding, “I jammed and played guitar in [Andrew’s] office.”
Although she admits comedy can be a “hard life that sometimes is lonely,” she said she’s grateful to be making a living doing what she loves. “And knowing there is a rich history of Jewish comics makes it more fulfilling,” she added.
Baltimorean Jim Meyer, 45, has known the Ungers since doing stand-up at the Parkville location. He will perform at the club in January with Roy Wood Jr. of “The Daily Show.”
“Even back at the old place, it was just such a nurturing, good environment for comedians. You don’t get many clubs where you actually hang out with the owner, and very rarely does the owner care about comics,” he said. “Andrew not only cares about comedians, he cares about the show; he cares that the show is funny as much as he cares that he’s making money. He’s got that comedian vibe where he’s just blunt. If he thinks something is funny, he tells you. If he thinks it’s not funny, he tells you.”
“Marc is a perfectionist when it comes to his act, when it comes to projects. Andrew is that same way with that club,” Meyer added. “They’re both really good guys. They’re both dedicated craftsmen.”
John Nagle of Towson was at Magooby’s on Thanksgiving eve to compete in t he new comedian contest. He has been performing on and off for years but decided to take his comedy seriously this year. Nagle, 32, performs from his wheelchair and appreciates Magooby’s not only for its “A” room, good crowds and supportive owners, but also for something very important to him.
“It’s handicapped accessible,” he said. “They’re cool to me. They gave me a shot.”
Drew Riley said he always tries to get to Magooby’s for the new comedian showcases.
“They’re always a good time and usually at least one or two people I know are in them,” he said. “I’ve been to other spots where they do a lot of open mics, and this has always been the place that I would prefer to go. It’s a better atmosphere, a better vibe. The staff is always very pleasant, the comedians are generally very funny. It’s one of those ones where you just feel kind of at home.”
For Andrew, there have been many highlights during his club-owning years, but perhaps the best was meeting his all-time favorite comedian, Richard Lewis.
“He was just as funny when we had him a couple of years back as he was in the late ’80s,” he said. “I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting Paul Reiser, Kevin Pollak, Damon Wayans and Tracy Morgan, to name a few.”
For Marc, he remembers with great clarity a phone call from the booker for the Chicago Improv, who offered him a week of work.
“That was a big deal,” he said. “And I’ve gotten to work with some great comics. I got to work with Bill Hicks, who is one of the greatest comics of all time. That was certainly a thrill.”
And he loves the “spontaneous creation” of stand-up. “It’s like you’re painting a new thing every night,” he said.
But the high-point of Marc’s comedy career was meeting his wife, Maria, at Magooby’s following a painful breakup.
“One day, I walk into the club and this is in 2008, and I see this girl and she had this incredible walk — she like floats when she walks,” he said. “She and I started dating, and now we’ve been married for seven years and together almost 10. So, I can say, that’s the highlight.”
Andrew has been married for 25 years to his wife, Larisa, a personal trainer at the JCC and Brick Bodies. They have three children and live in Reisterstown.
Looking ahead, Marc is hosting and performing at their Comedy Cantonese show on Christmas Eve. Billed as a “Night of Jewish Humor, Booze and Chinese Food,” the show has been going for 10 years since the club opened in Parkville.
“It’ll be the same as all the other years, with food and jokes and people complaining they didn’t get enough egg rolls,” Marc said, laughing. “There’s something about the Jewish sensibility, that sarcasm, that quick wit. Because Judaism offers so few actual answers, I think a lot of us try to find that in comedy. There’s something about the introspection and the existentialism of life that I think is an important component to comedy, and particularly Jewish comedy. I don’t know exactly what Jewish comedy is, but it’s there. I just don’t know how to define it.”
Other special events include the Comedy Murder Mystery and the New Year’s Eve Comedy Bash.
Meanwhile, Marc is honing his acting chops again. Past credits include “Veep,” “Friends” and Comedy Central. He is producing a new Web series with his wife called “Thespian,” about Adam Kelner, a “more neurotic version” of himself, who returns to the local Baltimore theater scene to get back into acting.
For two Jewish brothers who started out in life going in different directions — one into business and one into acting — their coming together to partner in Magooby’s Joke House has been a venture that continues to inspire audiences and comics alike. And it seems apparent from where the Ungers draw their inspiration. Entering the club, there are large eye- catching images on either side of the stage of groundbreaking comedy giants George Carlin and Richard Pryor.
For comic Jim Meyer, those images say a lot about Andrew and Marc.
“I think that speaks to what that place is about — understanding and reverence and high ideals. [They] care about comedy. When you put people under the lights between arguably the two greatest comedians who have ever lived, you’re saying something,” Meyer said. “But at the same time that you’ve got these gods of comedy, there are signs throughout the place that are just punchlines from old street jokes. So it’s two extremes of the comedy world — these two remarkable creators and then the folk side of it.
“There’s something about that place that I like,” Meyer added. “There’s a real spirit of getting it, and loving funny.”