Star Bar and its popular comedy night get a reprieve

It’s been 17 and a half years since Rodney “Rotknee” Leete got a solid night’s sleep on a Monday. That’s because Leete has helmed Rotknee Presents, Atlanta’s longest-running standup comedy show, since the early aughts, at Star Community Bar in Little Five Points — a show which goes late and gets rowdy on a night that is typically dead for even Atlanta’s thriving bar scene.

From its humble beginnings as a precursor to a popular karaoke night (the comedy lasted, the karaoke did not), back when Atlanta’s comedy scene was still in its fledgling phase, Rotknee Presents has weathered multiple owners and close calls about Star Bar shuttering for good, including a dramatic and abrupt closure announcement on New Year’s Eve 2019, before the present-day owners swooped in to the rescue.

Credit: Courtesy of Clayton English

Credit: Courtesy of Clayton English

Rotknee Presents has temporarily had to make camp at the Earl in East Atlanta during building renovations. And it has carried on awkwardly via Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year, however, the most credible threat to the booked mic’s future in years left Atlanta’s comedy scene in a state of preliminary mourning, as news broke in September of plans to demolish and redevelop the former bank building on Moreland Avenue where Star Bar has sat since its founding in the 1990s. According to those reports, developers at Third & Urban were exploring whether to turn the space into a vague “mixed-use development.”

The outcry was immediate, with a Change.org petition spearheaded by Little 5 Points (L5P) Community Improvement District (CID) garnering more than 7,800 signatures.

Scott Pendergrast of Point Center Partners LLC, which owns the building that includes Star Bar, BOND Community Federal Credit Union, Abbadabba’s and 12 other small business tenants, confirmed on Nov. 11 that the building was under contract for sale but said at the time that he could not discuss further details due to a confidentiality agreement.

However, over the Thanksgiving holiday, things took another turn. Star Bar was granted yet another 11th-hour stay of execution, as Third & Urban pulled out of the deal with Point Center Partners, according to Star Bar co-owner Luke Lewis.

Lewis confirmed on Monday that a new lease was in the works, though it had not been signed yet. “The immediate news is that we carry on into 2023 and hopefully beyond,” he said. “Long term, we have asked for a price to buy the building.”

Credit: Courtesy of Lace Larrabee

Credit: Courtesy of Lace Larrabee

Yet another close call had comics and comedy fans alike asking what the scene in Atlanta would look like without its grungy, gritty hub for laughs? For comic Lace Larrabee, who made the semi-finals of “America’s Got Talent” this year, it would be a “massive blow to the history of standup comedy in Atlanta.”

“Back in the day, there were only a few places you could go up that were legit. You could pop in; it’s smokey, it’s run-down looking. You’ve got this host yelling at people to shut up all the time. Everyone is intermingling,” she said. “There wasn’t a comedy club, gatekeeper or this untouchable booker. You didn’t need a manager to get in there. It was the definition of Alt Comedy in Atlanta.”

Atlanta comedian and writer Clayton English, who won “Last Comic Standing” in 2015 and now headlines gigs across the country, said back when he was starting, there were only a handful of open mics. Star Bar stood out because it offered a built-in audience that was comedy-savvy and eager to hear good material.

Beyond just the comedy night, English said Star Bar was a place you could go if you just needed somewhere to be. “I’ve seen good concerts and cool shows. It was like a cool-ass Cheers,” he says.

That close-knit community/family vibe also rings true to Larrabee. When she married her husband, fellow comic Jarrod Harris, Leete officiated their wedding.

Credit: Courtesy of Ian Aber

Credit: Courtesy of Ian Aber

“I will always say Star Bar made me a better comic for so many reasons,” she said. “Early on, when I was trying to find my voice and figure out who I was, Star Bar showed me how I could be honest about my experiences in the world. It taught me to play around with people’s expectations of me versus what I actually think and say. It pulled the real me out and helped me become okay with the alternative side of me. And it challenged me because the Star Bar audience is smarter.”

To put it lightly, vying for a spot on Monday night is a process. Comics looking to get on the show have to call Leete’s cell on Thursday evening at precisely 5 p.m. By 5:01, it’s already too late to get a spot on the 20-comic lineup. In the text that he sends to comics interested in landing a spot, Leete includes some caveats: “I have two rules. Be at the bar at 8:30. DO NOT do any other shows that evening.” He estimates he receives at least 30 calls, all within that one-minute window each week. The aim of that detailed process, he says, is to “not be harassed 24/7.” He won’t call the comics who made it back to let them know until 10:30 a.m. that Monday morning so that they don’t have too much time to get antsy and overprepare.

Credit: Courtesy of Ian Aber

Credit: Courtesy of Ian Aber

Ian Aber started in comedy 11 years ago, the first four of which he spent doggedly trying to get a spot on the show. When his husband, who works in recruiting and sales, suggested a clever tech hack to get through by calling the carrier’s 800-number, Aber recalls that Leete immediately called him back, asked how he pulled that off, said never to do that again, but put him on. Aber became a regular and even recorded his comedy album there in 2019.

What distinguishes Star Bar for Aber is that “you can be experimental, you can take chances,” he said, adding that one of his best jokes, an extended bit about “Murder Kroger” when it was first trying to rebrand itself as “Beltline Kroger” — “The only reason they’ll ever call it Beltline Kroger is if someone is beaten to death with a belt” — came together as an ad lib at Star Bar.

Over those years, the stage has hosted a lengthy roster of well-known names like Hannibal Burress, Margaret Cho, Eric Andre, Tiffany Haddish, TJ Miller, Ron White and SNL’s Vanessa Bayer.

Aber said that during his 26 years in Atlanta, he’s seen a lot of his favorite haunts get taken down. Losing Star Bar would be “another nail in the coffin of the Atlanta I grew into,” he said, adding that he’s troubled that a constant barrage of new development may continue to “price out the people who want to pursue artistic endeavors here.”

Due to the show’s stature in the comedy world, not just locally but nationally, Lewis said keeping Rotknee Presents on Monday nights was a “no-brainer” from the minute he and business partners Christopher Jackson, Dan Meade and Bruce McLeod bought the Star Bar in 2020.

Meanwhile, the outcry over the last two months has translated into a “bit of an uptick” in traffic to the bar, but not as much business as he’d hoped. Both Lewis and Pendergrast urged fans of Star Bar to continue patronizing the joint. “We’re not dead, we’re not gone, we’re still here,” Lewis said. “Come by, have a drink, hang out with us and say hi.”

Of course, if the building does go away, one thing is for sure, at least to Leete: “I’m an old punk rock guy, and I’m going down with the ship,” he said.