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Allison Robicelli on Working at a Shitshow Comedy Club

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Here's one more Shitshow Week restaurant horror story. This one's from Allison Robicelli, the proprietor of Robieclli's bakery.

2012_shitshow_week_logo_2012.jpgBack in early 2004, I was standing at the back of the fancy-ass, Sex and The City- featured restaurant where I was working pastry, watching trust fund babies get shitfaced on lychee martinis, waiting for my last table to clear out so I could hop on the train back to Bay Ridge and grab a few hours of sleep before I had to be up at 7 a.m. for my other job — catering fancy luncheons for those trust fund babies' grandparents in Brooklyn Heights.

I sat on the D train with my kniferoll in my lap, rolling over the Manhattan Bridge and gazing at the skyline I have always loved — Brooklyn. Not the one that USA Today discovered last week — MY Brooklyn. The one where there were two or more old man bars on every block, where men wore velour track suits without a hint of irony, where boys were told to go be firemen and the girls were told to be teachers (and, I may add, I am the only girl in my family who didn't). As much as we were considered “blue collar” by the rest of the world (which, let's face it Bay Ridge, is pretty on point), these were still my people. My friends, my neighbors, my family. And no matter how many beurres I'd blanc or ramps I'd pickle, part of me would always be blue collar, too.

I loved what I did. But every day, I'd take the train to go cook for rich people. Rich people who got to eat exciting, inventive food made with spectacular ingredients, while back in South Brooklyn we were stuck with two thousand versions of greasy calamari. That's the night I realized I was done with fine dining. If I was going to bust my ass for $7 an hour, I wanted to do it closer to home — proving that good food belongs to everyone, and not just to the people with the most money.

Shortly after, my best friend's brother-in-law Louie tells me he and a few guys from down on Avenue J just bought this place called "Pip's." Louie spent most of his career running chain restaurants and corporate dining rooms, and is probably to this day one of the smartest people I've met in the business. And Pip's? Well, Pip's was the first comedy club in America, created from an old Beatnik cafe after the collapse of the Borscht Belt, located on the water in Sheepshead Bay. The place was a landmark- name a comedian and they started there: Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Chris Rock, George Carlin, Rodney Dangerfield, David Brenner, Dice. The place was wallpapered with headshots of every significant American stand-up since 1953. By 2004, comedy clubs had moved to Manhattan or into people's living rooms, and despite all its history or significance, Pip's was collapsing, much like Lundy Brother's did right next door.

Louie said to come on board. He'd teach me the nuts and bolts of running every aspect of a restaurant — from build-out plans, to P&L, to navigating city permits, to paying off whoever needed to be paid off both in and out of the government. A total crash course in how to open a small business, where I'd get all the experience without sacrificing a dime of my own cash. Best of all, I was going to be revamping the entire menu, bringing fresh takes on classic bar food to the average schmo. And between my fine dining skills, Louie's brains, Gene's money and comedian Joey Gay's industry experience, we were going to save a Brooklyn landmark.

What we were really trying to do is bail out the Titanic with a teacup.

Everything that could have gone wrong with a place did. Permit delays caused the re-opening to be delayed by months, and even at our grand opening with the late, great Greg Giraldo, we were painting the walls an hour before showtime. We learned the water main on Emmons Ave hadn't been replaced since 1904, and subsequently every time it rained there would be at least six inches of water in the sunken kitchen which I wetvac-ed out every night at the beginning of my shift. I had an abandoned dumpster and oil drums in the back for several months, much to our neighbors consternation, as two different "sanitation professionals" were in "negotiations" on who was servicing the block. The main electric panel in the kitchen would go off for hours at a time, and no electrician could figure out why. The old staff said the place was haunted by the original owner George, a well known practical joker, and blamed him for all the weird things — lights flicking on and off, candles relighting, phantom martini glasses being found on the bar long after we had locked up. I knew better than to believe in ghosts. That is, until I was doing inventory with my right hand man Anthony and we saw a pair of translucent legs walk straight out of the liquor closet and down the hall.

On the second floor, where the office, dry storage and "VIP Lounge" were, parts of the floor would sink a good six inches when you stepped on them, while the landing above the stairs had a hole in it that led directly onto Table 53. Years of structural neglect meant that when it rained (which was every weekend), water would come straight through the walls soaking the club. This was also why I could come in before shift, enter the dry storage room, and find it ransacked with multiple items eaten. I initially suspected the rats that would often walk in from street level, but it turned out to be a 50/50 split of stoned comedians, and a family of squirrels with a penchant for peanut butter that had nested into the exterior walls.

Eventually, Louie trained Anthony to run the front of the house, as the two of us had great chemistry and he'd hoped we could eventually just run the place together. I needed a new sous in the kitchen, and intended to call some of my friends in the industry to find a pro. Instead, the job was just given to the in-house drug dealer, Phelps. Soon he brought in his friend Stormy to run the dishwashing station. Neither of them had ever cooked a thing in their life, but they brought in the best weed, which is a necessity in a comedy club.

The food started off great, then as we started hemorrhaging money faster and faster, the budget started drying up. Our great half pound hamburgers, which to this day I will say were the best in Brooklyn, languished on the menu as people only ordered the frozen shit we'd get from Sysco. One time we did a birthday party for one of the most mentally unbalanced South Brooklyn guys I've ever met who ordered chicken parm, and I made it the way I do at home — full brined chicken breasts, fresh breadcrumb and mozzarella, oven dried tomato sauce. He came back and told me I had done too much, that a guy like him "didn't deserve to eat like that." Louie agreed and yelled at me for my food cost, saying if we'd split the breasts and used cheese from a bag, we'd have made more money. Eventually, everything became frozen as it was the only way to keep from throwing out all our product every week.

Though my menu had been pitched and I felt I was less running a kitchen than a nursery school, I kept on because those people had become my second family, and besides — I was running a business! 24-years-old and someone was entrusting me with the keys to the entire show. Finally, the night came where all the owners decided that I could run the place myself. We had a packed house for Otto and George — a Stern regular that is the dirtiest, vilest, most offensive ventriloquist act that has ever existed. My guys in the kitchen were finally showing they could rock the line, the bar was killing it, and customers were happy.

I sat in the backyard smoking a cigarette and patting myself on the back for running a tight ship, when Anthony comes outside and utters my three favorite words in the English language: "Health Department's here."

I run into the kitchen and start drilling my staff onto what they need to hide, call Louie and tell him to abandon the first romantic dinner he's had with his wife in 6 months and get his ass to the restaurant NOW, and then go up to the front with a smile on my face to schmooze the inspectors. Both were very nice African-American women in their 40s, understanding that we were in the middle of a show and politely trying to be inconspicuous for the courtesy of our guests.

Then, the voice comes booming over the PA system: "Who the fuck is that! The Health Department? Good thing you're here! I found a cock in my shrimp scampi!"

I turn to the stage and look square into the eyes of the most abusive puppet in comedy. I watch his little wooden head slowly rotate into the direction of the inspectors, and he says what I can only describe as the MOST RACIST THING I HAVE EVER HEARD IN MY ENTIRE LIFE. I understand that this is a key part to the story, but I have no choice to omit it because even though it's a quote — it's so vile and repugnant that I cannot bring myself to type it. And mind you, I've been working with comics for almost a year at this point, so I've heard every filthy fucking thing you can imagine about dogs and women and gays and semen and clowns and every other taboo topic you can think of. This was by far the worst.

I knew how to make a cake so indulgent a customer once came to the kitchen to hug me, how to direct servers with trays of flawless hours d' oeuvres through a gala reception, how to set a table with a thousand pieces of china as if it was 1900. Nothing in my years of training in fine dining had ever prepared me for the eventual possibility of having a health inspector being verbally attacked by a puppet. I realized at that moment that not only are we going to fail the health inspection in the most spectacular fashion in the history of New York City, but they're going to shut the club down, and I'm probably going to be arrested just for being mildly associated with Otto and motherfucking George.

Louie rushes in from the restaurant next door at that exact moment. We proceed to lead them to the kitchen, where he gives them the tour with such unbelievable style and grace, which distracted them from the fact that I was ghost white and had possibly pooped myself a little bit. We brought them upstairs, where Stormy had for once come through and managed to lock the dry storage door so there was no possibility of DOH being violently assaulted in the dark by a peanut butter-covered squirrel.

We finally head them to the door. The women look down at their books, one scribbles a few things, and hand us the report: a passing grade with one citation for the hole in the floor. She looks at us, smiles and says "I fucking love that guy on Howard Stern. Glad I got to see him live."

Pip's finally died a few weeks later — not at the hand of DOH but rather a changing Brooklyn. The building is still there, but the comedians have been replaced by cheap sushi. Joey Gay went on to compete on Last Comic Standing, Louie moved to Florida to become a high ranking manager for Sodexo, I met Matt two weeks before the end and we know how that turned out. I've worked at other shitshows since, but none that I loved with my whole heart the way I loved Pip's.

And if you ever see me in person and want to know the joke, feel free to ask. But know that you're going to feel REALLY bad about yourself after hearing it.

— Allison Robicelli
· All Coverage of Shitshow Week 2012 [~ENY~]


2005 Emmons Ave., New York, NY