J Anthony Brown, James Gregory come full circle at the Punchline, closing out Sunday, March 29

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Thursday, March 26, 2015

On February 17, 1982, James Gregory and J. Anthony Brown were the first two stand-up comics to grace the stage at the brand spanking new Punchline Comedy Club opening for some dude named Marc Weiner & the Weinerettes, a puppet act.

Thirty three years and 40 days later, both Brown and Gregory will be back on stage Sunday at the Punchline to help close out the old space, soon to be torn down for new development. (Buy tickets here.)

Both Gregory and Brown were up-and-coming comics in 1982, still working day jobs, still dreaming that they could turn making people laugh into a full-time living. "We were just looking for funny, nothing specific," said Chris DiPetta, the original manager and a current minority owner.

The Punchline propelled both men's careers. The time they spent on that cramped stage would lead them to bigger and better things.

Gregory headlined the Punchline many times and sustained himself as a successful comic for decades. He's slowed down a bit in his older age with health issues, DiPetta said, but he still works on occasion. Brown is now part of Tom Joyner's morning show, heard by millions every week. (Locally, you can hear him on Kiss 104.1.)

"I couldn't believe it," said Brown earlier this week, when he said he heard the Punchline as he knew it was closing. "There are some places that are milestones in my life. I had such a connection to this place. It helped me get my foot in the door while I was living in Atlanta. It was the start of everything for me."

Brown recalled original co-owner Ron DiNunzio coming to an Atlanta club owned by Burt Reynolds where Brown and Gregory would perform on occasion and pitched the idea of the Punchline. He asked them to be there opening night. They agreed. "I thought he was connected with the Mob," Brown said, with a chuckle.

DiNunzio told Gregory and Brown to decide between the two of them who would be the emcee and who would be the feature act. They flipped a quarter. Brown won so he got more time on stage. Gregory had the honors to open the club, first for a "media/friend/family" night, followed by the first one with a paying audience.

"We killed it," Brown said.

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Brown incorrectly swore to me earlier this week that Harry Anderson ("Night Court") was the headliner that night. DiPetta said Brown worked with Anderson a few months later so it's understandable why his recall would be blurry.

DiNunzio recalls they sold out that first weekend and for much of the next two years.  "I'm planning to go to the show on Sunday so I can see the whole thing through full circle," he said.

Why did the Punchline take off so quickly?

"It was a new form of comedy for the city," DiPetta said. Atlanta in 1982 had never had a full-time comedy club. It was the first such club in the Southeast and others soon followed. In those early years, the owners nurtured the comics and the staff had a great time working with them, including future superstars such as Jay Leno, Tim Allen, Jerry Seinfeld and Jeff Foxworthy.

During the comedy club boom that continued into the 1990s, the owners franchised the Punchline name throughout the Southeast. They even opened a couple of offshoot Punchlines in metro Atlanta, including one in Underground Atlanta.

But when over-saturation and cable specials galore gave people more than enough stand-up comedy, the Punchline owners retrenched. DiNunzio and co-partner Dave Montesano sold the club to lawyer Jamie Bendall in late 2003. Bendall, who fashioned himself as a stand-up comic, over the years would accompany comics to their promotional radio appearances with radio and TV folks like the Regular Guys and "Good Day Atlanta" and frequently hit the stage himself as an emcee.

The Punchline has struggled a bit in recent months as the bigger, newer Atlanta Improv in Buckhead stole away headliners with higher payoffs.

So perhaps this change of scenery will enable the current owners to create a fresh, modern version that can sustain itself another 33 years.

Comedy preview

James Gregory and J. Anthony Brown

8 p.m. Sunday March 29


The Punchline, 280 Hilderbrand Drive NE, Atlanta

A $40 Craig Robinson show at 10 p.m. will close out the space for good. A 10 a.m. auction to sell furniture and kitchen equipment is scheduled for Tuesday, March 31 at 10 a.m.