Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — On paper, Jack and Tere Assadourian seem an unlikely couple to run an L.A. comedy club. They’re immigrants — an Armenian man from Lebanon who grew up selling handbags and managed restaurants after moving to the U.S. and a woman from Mexico City who never set foot inside a comedy club before becoming the co-owner of one. But 35 years later, running their mom-and-pop comedy club comes as natural as breathing.
Jack wastes no time rattling off the story of his life, from his birth in Lebanon to fleeing the country during the civil war in 1975 to coming to the U.S. when he was 18. Fast-forwarding through his former lives as a handbag salesman, a restaurant manager and, of course, his status as the life of the party at the the place he bought that would become the HaHa when it was still a Mexican restaurant hosting karaoke nights.
With his wide-eyed smile, glasses, thick accent and thicker mustache, he is the archetype of the immigrant dad who found a way to (very) proudly make his own version of the American dream. His wife, Tere, may not have the same charisma as her husband, but the she holds her own when it comes to comedic timing.
“Am I showing off too much?” Jack asks, stopping midsentence to acknowledge his wife staring at him blankly.
“You’re going back since the time you were born … [the reporter] doesn’t need your life story,” she said. Both of them paused, looked at each and then busted up laughing.
Inside the dimly lighted showroom of the HaHa Comedy Club in North Hollywood, there’s a late afternoon quiet before the crowds begin packing the room by sundown to the back wall of plush VIP couches. The “HaHallywood” mural on the right wall is a reminder that in this room, whether the comics are famous or not when they take the stage for the first time, they could eventually become stars of the place.
Before the nightly madness sets in, the Assadourians sit amid the tables next to the stage where stars like Kevin Hart, Damon Wayans and Gabriel Iglesias honed their craft and became famous.
The couple are used to being behind the scenes, so much so that most people walk by them at shows unaware that they’re the owners. If you ever decide to go old school and call the club for tickets or show times, there’s a good chance you’ll be speaking to Jack, who goes by his middle name, Michael, when talking with customers on the phone. He’s sure to crack at least one or two jokes before you hang up. If you are walking through the bar into the showroom, Tere — with her sweet-but-sharp personality, feathered blond hair and Spanish accent — will most likely be ushering people into the next show as she greets old friends, comics and customers.
For the longtime couple, the secret to their success is being hands on and using their instincts and knack for spotting talent to keep the HaHa humming with laughter for more than three decades and countless shows at their current and previous locations, both on Lankershim Boulevard.
“At the HaHa, people never look for a name [on the bill],” Tere said. “They don’t ask who is gonna be on the show. They just get tickets, and they wanna come because they know they’re gonna have a good time.”
In 1988, the couple were driving down Lankershim in NoHo when they came across what would become their first location, which in its first life was a Swedish smorgasbord slinging all-you-can-eat pancakes. Jack, at the time a restaurant manager at El Torito, thought to flip it into a Mexican buffet called Hola Amigos. They threw together other elements to make it fun — a karaoke night, celebrity photos, paintings and other Hollywood ephemera. They turned the stale restaurant into a popular destination.
Eventually, they caught the attention of another restaurant in Northern California that had already trademarked the name, forcing them to change theirs. Employing some fast-thinking logic, Jack nixed the “H-O” on their sign and went by L.A. Amigos for years. But it still wasn’t quite the right fit for the vibe he and his wife were cultivating.
“The HaHa became the name one day because I said if a person driving up the street read the name L.A. Amigos, they’re not gonna know it’s a fun place,” Jack said. “I said if it’s a fun place, there’s always laughter. … I made it fun as a host before I ever really thought about making it a comedy club.”
Literally days after renaming it the HaHa Cafe, comedians were drawn to it. Stand-ups Kym Whitley and Buddy Lewis, who both went on to become stars on stage and TV, approached the owners about starting a comedy night. The Assadourians gave them a day of the week to show what they could do to bring in business — the first attempt of what would become the club’s popular Wacked Out Wednesday comedy night.
“Kym and Buddy said, ‘We’re gonna bring you a day of comedy. You’re going to have a line around the block to get in,” Tere said. “It didn’t happen that way. They found out the promotion and everything wasn’t that easy.”
Though it may have started out as hit-or-miss from week to week, word eventually got around and bigger names started showing up, including Chris Tucker, Eddie Murphy and Damon Wayans, who made the HaHa one of their L.A. stamping grounds.
For Jack Jr., who’d grown up with a father who was always a wise-cracking, life-of-the-party kind of guy, the restaurant’s pivot into comedy seemed oddly destined for success.
“Comedy runs in our blood,” he said. “I never knew the part about performing stand-up in a club, but my dad was a very funny guy. All my dad’s brothers … all funny. My dad used to buy an airline ticket just to be along with his friends to entertain them on European vacations because he was so much fun.”
As comedy nights at the restaurant became more popular, Jack and Tere decided to specialize in stand-up, forking over $100,000 for a new marquee (a hefty sum in the ’90s) and redesigning the inside, including moving the stage around to different spots and reformatting the room to make it ideal for nightly stand-up gigs.
By this time, Tere had given birth to three kids, including their youngest, Jack Jr., who would wind up becoming a comedian himself.
“I would always be at the club,” Jack Jr. said. “That’s why I have so many injuries on my body, because the club was always under construction. I was in and out of the hospital, because I was in a construction area. My parents are always working seven days a week, no days off. They’re true hustlers.”
Part of what made the club feel like home for L.A. comedians was that it did feel like they actually ran it, or at least that’s what the crowds thought. Whitley and Lewis, who’d kicked off the club’s trajectory in comedy, were often cited as the owners, especially as their careers blossomed. As the club became known for hosting more Black comics, crowds just assumed Whitley owned the place.
“Sometimes I would be standing outside, I’d see crowds walking by during an urban night and they’d say, ‘You know who owns this place? Kim Whitley from ‘Oh Drama,’ and we made her and Buddy feel as if they were the owners,” Jack said.
Since the beginning of their ride in stand-up, the Assadourians have taken pride in their comedians and their club enough to be content behind the scenes, while figuring out new moves to keep the business afloat.
Eventually, that meant moving to a new location after their then-landlord started charging too much for them to continue their lease in 2014, according to Jack. Luckily, they found a new spot not too far down Lankershim, the previous site of nightclub Blue Moon Nights. With a 160-seat main room, a patio and a bar, it felt like a good place to rebuild.
Today, the club’s Lakers-esque purple and gold exterior is instantly recognizable. Its facade features paintings of such legendary faces as Richard Pryor, Paul Rodriguez, Joan Rivers, George Carlin and Greg Giraldo, imprints of comedy’s storied past that belie the place’s ambition to keep pumping out new young talent that performs at the club every week.
Continuing the tradition of the club as one of the few mom-and-pop comedy operations in L.A. means staying active and never being scared of changing things up to usher in the next generation, adding to the success of the couple’s funny version of the L.A. immigrant story.
“It’s gone from just being a small, little Mexican restaurant to this iconic venue where celebrities like Chris Tucker, the Wayans family would come … you would never think that would happen,” Jack Jr. said. “My dad was always evolving and growing the club. Every day, he would just change it. Like, ‘OK, today we’re doing dancing, tomorrow, we’re doing karaoke.’ He tried comedy, and the comedy is really what stuck.”