Cincinnati's Golden Age Of Comedy Clubs In 1981

Mar 16, 2017

Alex Bernstein was a Wyoming High School senior when he made stand-up comedy debut at Cincinnati's D.W. Eye bar on Calhoun Street in 1981.

"I was at the right place at the right time," says Bernstein, who performed 78 times in a year as a teen at D.W. Eye, the Sand Bar, Lakewood Tavern and the old Wishing Well restaurant at Reading and Galbraith roads.

Alex Bernstein in 1981
Credit Provided by Alex Bernstein

Bernstein, a New Jersey-based digital marketing worker, comedian and freelance writer, and Michael Flannery, the Goodwill Industries public information officer who still moonlights as a comedian, talk about the early 1980s comedy scene with me on WVXU-FM's "Around Cincinnati" at 7 p.m. Sunday.

A 1981 Wyoming High School graduate, Bernstein has written a book about the start of his comedy career at D.W. Eye called "PLRKNIB" (pronounced PLERK-nib).

That's a punch line for one of the jokes he told at the club at 277 Calhoun St., across from the old University YMCA and Calhoun Hall. The D.W. Eye building was torn down for a DiBella's Subs, Einstein Bros. Bagels and a parking garage in the U-Square development.

"I had something that no other 17-year-old in Cincinnati had: A venue, a place with an audience. A place to practice, improve, try new bits," he says.

A very talented core group of young Cincinnati comics were his mentors: Roger Naylor, Drew Hastings, Mike Irwin, Bert Chili Challis, John Riggi, Chip Chinery, Jack Previty, Rico Bruce Wade Diaz and Flannery. (What's fun about "PLRKNIB" is that he uses the real names of his cohorts, instead of masking them with pseudonyms.) Some of their photos are on Bernstein's PLRKNIB site.

Michael Flannery then and now
Credit Provided by Michael Flannery

Of that group, young Alex was one of the most prolific.

"He always had new material, while the rest us would just add a joke or two to our routines," says Flannery, who twice was named Showtime's "Funniest Person in Ohio" (1985-86).  Bernstein says he was too young to know better.

My favorite routine in his book were jokes about his mother:

                "My mom's cooking is so bad – In our kitchen we haven't got a timer – So she uses the smoke alarm…

                "My mom's a terrible cook. She made steak the other day. I said, 'Make mine rare.' To my mother, 'rare' means 'unique.'  It came back burnt…. and covered with glue."

Alex Bernstein
Credit Provided by Alex Bernstein

It wasn't until after I read the book, and interviewed Bernstein, that he told me I had worked with his mother at the Enquirer  -- society columnist Maxine Berkman.  He still uses the "Smoke Alarm" joke today, 36 years later.

Here's Bernstein's quick bio: After studying theater and writing at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, he moved to New York City to pursue stand-up career and wound up with a successful improv group. He wrote briefly for Gilbert Gottfried's "USA Up All Night"  cable TV show. In 1993, he moved to Los Angeles and wrote some screenplays and worked on several independent TV pilots.

He and his wife moved back to Jersey in 1998 to start a  family.  Eventually he established a career as "a digital marketing director in the financial industry, which is what I continue to do today," while freelance writing at night.

He also runs stand-up comedy and improv workshops for teens at a New Jersey temple;  writes and performs with an improv troupe; and is "performing stand-up more now than at any time since those high school years."

Tune in "Around Cincinnati" 7 p.m. Sunday to hear more about Cincinnati's early 1980s comedy club scene on WVXU-FM (91.7) and WMUB-FM (88.5).