HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — When Jay Leno thinks about his home away from home, he thinks about “The Danny Thomas Show” — the ‘50s and ‘60s-era sitcom that revolved around a nightclub performer’s life at the fictional Copa Club: working, hanging out, meeting with his agent (and occasionally interacting with his wife and two kids).

For the better part of the last four decades, Hermosa Beach’s Comedy & Magic Club has been Leno’s Copa: his place to get a bite to eat, to hang out with other comics, to flail around and work on jokes — “it was like going to a gym,” Leno told Spectrum News.

What You Need To Know

  • Hermosa Beach's Comedy & Magic Club has been closed throughout the pandemic and shows no signs of reopening

  • The club, owned and founded by Mike Lacey in 1978, is renowned among comics for its atmosphere and its audience, which are found to be deeply unlike entertainment industry crowds in Hollywood clubs

  • Former "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno has performed at the club nearly every Sunday over the past four decades, and numerous other headlining comedians are known to drop in when working on material for specials

  • Hermosa Beach officials say that Lacey is cleared to open, but that there has been continual discussion about his desires to add seats and alter the club's conditional use permit

And what a gym: the Comedy & Magic Club is renowned in the comedy world.

It’s a top-level club only a short hop from the Pacific Ocean, and a place where world-class comedians are happy to drop in unannounced, just to work on material. Legends like Chris Rock, George Carlin and Jerry Seinfeld have all popped in to work on material for specials, and headliner-level comics will treat it like their second home.

But for the last 16 months, the club’s been silent.

Like the rest of the world, the Comedy & Magic Club went dark in March 2020. Ticket sales went down, and the event calendar turned blank. The top of the club’s website suggests that it will return once the pandemic is under control and asks patrons to follow the club’s social media accounts for updates.

However, its Facebook account is gone, its Twitter account is locked, and its Instagram account hasn’t been updated since June 5, 2020.

It’s not clear that Comedy & Magic Club is ever coming back.

The speculation is rampant. Every comedian interviewed for this story said they heard rumors that the club was up for sale, and some speculated about the owner’s health. Every one of them said that, should the club go, it would be a tremendous loss to the comedy community.

Comedy & Magic Club owner and founder Mike Lacey has never been the easiest person for a reporter to reach. Typically, one would have to go through the club’s box office and be connected to him by the club’s business manager, Rebecca Meyer — a woman whom many interviewed for this piece considered to be his right hand in operating the business.

Even organizations seeking to honor him, like El Camino College’s Alumni Association, have found him nearly impossible to find, with one person calling him “a ghost.”

But, with the club closed, the box office phone connects directly to a voicemail line. And a handful of sources indicate that Meyer, along with other stalwarts of the club, are no longer employed by Comedy & Magic.

An email from Meyer to a Hermosa Beach fundraising organizer in late June spells it out: “We’ve all been let go. I’m not sure of Mike’s plans for the club.”

Social media updates from other longtime Comedy & Magic associates, like longtime talent booker Richard Barrett, bear that out as well. Barrett’s professional LinkedIn profile was updated in July to show that he’s no longer a current employee of the club.

Attempts to reach Lacey and his employees for comment have been unsuccessful.

Comedy & Magic holds a fascinating place in Los Angeles’s comedy scene — among the general public, it’s not as well known as the Hollywood Improv, the Laugh Factory or the Comedy Store. But within the industry, comics see it as a place where a comedian can escape the vagaries of the Hollywood audiences and work a room that is ready and willing to laugh. The jokes that work there will work anywhere; in the past, Lacey’s been quick to credit his crowd as smart and not too jaded to laugh.

“It’s more like a road club. The hip, edgy gimmicks, ’alternative’ comedy — whatever you want to call it, Hollywood is always chasing that,” said comedian Alonzo Bodden. “Now Hollywood is all about how many clicks you get. Comedy & Magic is still about being funny.”

Comedy & Magic has a reputation among comedians as a place where the art of standup is just as important as simply getting a laugh; a scene where it’s OK if you swear a blue streak, but you’ve got to have something of substance behind it. Surface-level, shock-for-shock’s-sake material won’t fly.

“You didn’t have to be clean…but if you’re dropping ‘F-bombs’ just to do it, they’re like, uh-uh,” Bodden said.

Lacey, who opened the club in 1978 when he was 24 years old, is the soul of Comedy & Magic. Profiles and stories written about the club throughout the years note his desire to make the club a clean, comfortable place to be for both customers and performers. (For instance, the club has a “two item minimum,” rather than a “two drink minimum” for shows, so as to not encourage drunkenness.)

The craft of comedy matters there.

It’s a club that’s not easy for new comics to break into; Bodden was about five or six years into his comedy career when he played there for the first time. Jim McDonald, a Hermosa Beach resident who counted himself among the regular comedian rotation before the COVID shutdown, auditioned for 10 years before he was able to get regular bookings there.

“It’s a really high standard of quality, and you know that when you work there, you have a spot, and you’re always going to be working with really above-board people,” McDonald said.

Lacey’s the key to that — he has a reputation of being fair and honest with every performer in his club.

“To a lot of comedy clubs, it’s strictly a business. It’s about putting asses in seats…with him it’s like, no, we’re going to make sure the show is funny,” Bodden said. “He’s a generous spirit who loves the art of comedy.”

His club is a monument to that love. The green room is lined with the signatures of comedians who have played there, like Carlin and Richard Pryor, and the walls of the main room and the lounge are decorated with comedy memorabilia: props that were once used by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton hang not far from costumes worn by Robin Williams and Mike Myers.

“From the standpoint of people who have chosen this as a craft and want to hone it and perfect it, and want a place where the audience is smart enough to know the difference between a dick joke and a real joke,” Leno said.

And it doesn’t hurt that Lacey feeds every comedian the same, whether they’re opening or headlining.

“I’ve worked a lot of clubs where they had food, but the food you got was commensurate with how good or bad your act was — if you’re not good, you’re getting the salad. If you’re really good, you can have anything but the steak,” Leno said. “Mike has always treated the comics great, gone out of his way for them.”

The club also has a generous reputation in the community — Lacey and his crew have been quick to give out tickets for community organizations and youth sports teams to sell.

“Comics could come down to the club with the understanding that they’re working for free…Mike’s more than generous in that regard, not just with the community, but with a lot of comics — they’ll come back to the club out of duty to Mike,” McDonald said. 

There is still a possibility that the club will return. Hermosa Beach officials have confirmed that Lacey has sought changes to the club’s Conditional Use Permit, as he wants to increase the seating capacity in the main room, expand the lounge with outdoor seating, and “modify some conditions of the CUP that he finds too restrictive,” according to a Hermosa Beach city report.

Hermosa Beach Director of Community Development Ken Robertson said that the city’s eager to see the club reopen — not just because of its place in the city's cultural fabric, but because it’s singular among the city’s nightlife offerings: Hermosa’s Pier Plaza bars, unlike Comedy & Magic, has a reputation for rowdiness and occasional violence.

“This is the type of business that brings the type of customer that’s going to spend money in our town,” Robertson said. “Given his prominence and importance, we’d go out of our way for him.” Robertson added that he imagines city officials would even hold a celebration for the club’s reopening if and when it happens.

In the meantime, Comedy & Magic’s regular performers have been bouncing around at other clubs around LA: Burbank, Hollywood, Bellflower. They miss the club, for sure. Bodden hopes that, if the rumors are true and Lacey is trying to sell, the club keeps its essence. “I hope it never becomes a place where we’re like, ‘Remember how it used to be?’ Some clubs keep that feel of a comedy club: 200 seats, a dark room, low ceilings, connecting with the crowd.”

That, Leno said, is the heart of the Comedy & Magic Club: entertainment at its most basic, just a performer on a stage, speaking to a group of people.

“If you remove the mic, it could be 500 years ago: you’re talking, and sitting, and listening. There’s nothing high-tech about it,” Leno said.

“I hope it comes back. I’ll do whatever I can do to help, but it’s up to Mike ultimately. He’s been doing it for 40 years, and I just hope he can keep doing it,” he added.