The king of comedy

He reigns over the biggest U.S. chain of comedy clubs, but for Brian Heffron, business isn’t a laughing matter.
By Katherine Archer
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This place was built for laughs. The lights are dim, the rows of seats rise toward the rear, and the acoustics are so good that audience members never have to strain to hear a punch line. In the back, there’s a kitchen-and-bar designed for quick service. During evening shows, 14 waiters are on the floor. Bartenders must audition because many can’t handle the volume of drinks ordered. Running through the menu, Brian Heffron points to the food and libations available and ticks off the numbers. “I have 2,000 people in here a week and have time to get one more drink out of them, that’s $5 a head. That’s $10,000 a week, half a million a year.” One of the first things he did upon moving into this location two years ago was call the phone company to request that the last four digits of the club’s number be 4242 — “HAHA.” The Charlotte Comedy Zone is the culmination of years of consulting on new clubs around the nation. People wanted Heffron’s opinion, and they paid for it.

A young man stands at the center of the venue and tells a joke about gun control. Just a few months earlier, a shooter had killed children at an elementary school in Connecticut. The roughly 10 people in the middle of the 400-seat room cringe. They are part of a stand-up class Heffron, 45, teaches at Comedy Zone — they want his opinion, too. He shakes his head. “Relatability makes people laugh. When you make a connection and get the feeling of, ‘That is so true.’” Dozens of headshots line the walls: Rosie O’Donnell, Chris Rock, Pauly Shore, Bob Saget — comics who have had the kind of success his students aspire to.

Heffron walks to his desk, where paperwork awaits. “Yeah, I’ve met them all,” he says, nodding at the photos. There are 62 Comedy Zone clubs in the U.S., almost all franchises of Charlotte-based Heffron Talent International, which licenses the name and handles their bookings. “He’s the man behind the curtain,” says Julie Scoggins, a comedian who attended one of Heffron’s classes and now regularly performs at Comedy Zone clubs in the Southeast. “The Great and Powerful Oz of comedy.”

“I found that comedy is the voice I wanted to hear in terms of the way the world works,” Heffron says. “There’s a sense of reflection on society that few other mediums can get across. It’s so dangerous and fly-without-a-net up there.” He may be an idealist, but he’s not a fly-without-a-net kind of businessman. He coaches franchisees to comply with his standards, from the arrangement of tables and chairs to the introduction that servers use. All Comedy Zones must book acts through his company. “You are only as good as your operator. We turn down a lot of people.” Consistency is part of why his is the largest network of comedy clubs in the country, and he hopes to open 50 more within five years.

“He didn’t do it with no hype, either,” says Brad Greenberg, who started and later sold the business to Heffron. “He’s just an average guy who got it done, who rolled up his sleeves, went to work with his lunch pail every day, worked 10 to 14 hours a day, did whatever he needed to do, was honest and reliable. And that’s the story of Brian Heffron.”

His story starts in Rochester, N.Y., where harsh winters chap cheeks. His father was a high-school basketball coach, but Heffron — Heff, to family and friends — got the entrepreneurial gene from mother Kathy, a teacher and real-estate agent always hunting for a property to flip. He ran lemonade stands, organized fundraisers for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and cut grass to buy bikes. During high school, he saw George Carlin and Jerry Seinfeld perform in New York City. “I was in awe.” After getting his business degree from University of Dayton, he and Len Kure, a college friend, rolled out a map on Heffron’s parents’ table. Tired of Rochester winters, he pointed to Charlotte, a city he had never visited, and said, “That’s it. Let’s go there.”

Heffron, Kure and two friends arrived in 1992 with no jobs and little money. They rented a tiny apartment. Six months later, only Kure and Heffron remained. At night they watched the newly launched Comedy Central cable network. He began writing software with two friends, working to develop a voice-recognition program. Eventually, he pitched it to Greenberg, but as soon as he walked through the doors of the Comedy Zone in Charlotte, he knew he wanted to stay. Employees wore jeans, had long beards and were laughing. He wrote a letter to Greenberg, pleading for a job; he would sweep the floors if he had to.

clientuploads/Archive_Images/2013/11/heffron-map.jpgGreenberg had started out booking acts for the Peter Adonis Male Traveling Fantasy Show, a burlesque revue, but noticed rising interest in stand-up during the mid-1980s. He opened the first Comedy Zone inside the Radisson Plaza in Charlotte in 1985. By the 1990s, his Creative Talent Network Inc. booked comics at more than 80 venues across the nation.

Heffron got his wish. He booked talent during the day. At night, he tended bar and flipped burgers. “Whatever we put on his plate, he could tackle,” Greenberg says, “even though sometimes he didn’t know what the hell he was doing.” Heffron had in mind what he jokingly calls an “evil plan.” “Even though I was young and an idiot, I still knew I had to get some experience to get my hostile takeover.” Around 2000, Greenberg got married and had a child. Traveling to different clubs had worn on him. Was the kid kidding when he said he wanted to buy the business? Heffron asked his mother to lend him $500,000. “I believed in him,” she says. “There was no question about it.” The purchase included the booking agency, the Comedy Zone logo and trademarks, and 19 franchise agreements.

Little of the loan was for expenses, so after buying and renaming Creative Talent, he started charging them to his credit cards. Payroll went on them. Food. Gas. He waited for checks every day, nearly maxing out his cards before they arrived. He seldom slept more than five hours a night. Things started to improve after a few years. He adopted Greenberg’s strategy for expansion. Sometimes potential franchisees approached him; he went after others. But he only enters smaller and midsize cities such as Greensboro, Charleston, W.Va., and Jacksonville, Fla. “The hardest thing is going into a city that already has six clubs,” says Kure, who handles bookings and is one of six employees. “It’s hard to compete, which is why we don’t do that.” Heffron determines the menu, oversees marketing and books talent. “It’s a testament of how good he is at it to keep that many clubs up and running,” says Jerry Zolten, an associate professor at Penn State Altoona who teaches classes on the history of stand-up comedy.

Franchisee agreements account for between 60% and 70% of annual revenue, which he won’t disclose. Bookings generate about $1 million more. Kure also books off-site events, for which comedians such as Jay Leno sometimes charge up to $150,000. In 2010, Heffron Talent arranged more than 3,000 acts for special events; that brings in about 15% of revenue.

Marketing, his minor in college, is particularly important. Celebrity comedians sometimes call, needing to work on material before a TV special. The catch: The appearance can’t be publicized until just before the show. Social media such as email blasts, Tweets and Facebook posts allow him to reach customers quickly. Earlier this summer, Dave Chappelle performed at Charlotte Comedy Zone, the only one Heffron owns. On only an hour’s notice, 1,000 people showed up. Radio interviews are still the most effective means of advertising, and big names sell themselves. But the vast majority of Comedy Zone performers aren’t household names. “We have to start from scratch for each artist: urban, hipster, cool guy, mom comic, nerdy comic, clean comic. Figuring all that out is so cool, clientuploads/Archive_Images/2013/11/heffron-list.jpgespecially when it works.” Younger customers scout comedians online, which helps him find new acts. “I bring in Hannibal Buress in January, and he sells out all the shows. Where did they find him? YouTube, Google.”

The storm rolled across the lake quicker than Heffron had expected. The clouds were dark, menacing and full. The bass had been biting right up until lightning cracked across the Canadian sky, so close the electricity killed the engine. Kure sat on the edge of the metal boat, eyeing the clouds. Lightning struck a tree on the shoreline behind Heffron, who was 20 at the time. Kure watched white-hot sparks shoot from its limbs. Heffron kept his head down, continuing to yank the starter cord. Suddenly the engine roared. “He knew what the end product should be, and he got us there to shore,” Kure says.

Heffron still fishes when he wants to relax, typically going to his lake house with his father and Kure. Before hitting the water, he studies detailed fishing journals. He thinks about the lure, if it should be chartreuse or light chartreuse. He considers the water temperature and the wind. If one decision is wrong, he believes, the fish will not bite. He has a favorite phrase, one he repeats often: “If Heff says he’s going to do it, it’s going to be done right.”