Chuckles is a welcome addition to a local entertainment landscape that was, once upon a time, a thriving town for comics. "Memphis has always had a market for comedy," says Gilliam. "Back when I started, there was Sir Laffs-a-Lot, Laugh Factory, the Comedy Zone and even a place called the Comedy House. You had multiple clubs operating at the same time."
Since then, numerous, clubs have come and gone, and various music venues and bars have tried to fill the void on a part-time basis with comedy nights. But Chuckles represents what could be the start of a rebirth for stand-up in the city. "My partner and I, we just felt that there was a hole we could fill," says Gilliam.
"We're trying to bring comics that are regularly working the circuit," says Gilliam. "But some of the people we've had, they don't do a lot of clubs — they play theaters. Some, because of my personal relationships with them, want to play the club. That's why we can get the Sinbads and D.L. Hughleys of the world."
While the majority of the acts so far have tilted toward the urban and African-American comedy scene, Gilliam is quick to note that Chuckles will have a broad-based booking policy. "We don't really want be labeled as an urban club," he says. "It's basically a comedy club — we're bringing acts from across the board.
"We want to keep it diverse and have acts coming in here that everybody can identify with. I think people are quick to say, ‘Oh, that's a black club.' But Sinbad, D.L. Hughley — they appeal to everyone. We're just a comedy club, similar to what Zanies is in Nashville or the Stardome is in Birmingham. That's what we want to be."
For Gilliam, the groundwork for Chuckles was laid in 2012, when he launched the short-lived Bartlett Comedy Spot. The club was doing solid business but came to an end over Gilliam's differences with his then-partner.
This time, Gilliam teamed up with Ware, and the pair spent months planning and preparing the launch of Chuckles.
"It was a process," says Gilliam. "We sat down and put the numbers together and then looked for a location for six or seven months. We were all over Memphis trying to find a location. We started out in East Memphis in the Hickory Hill and Winchester areas, and then we came out this way on Germantown (Parkway) and saw a couple buildings we were interested in until we finally found the perfect place."
Chuckles' location, which formerly housed a couple of different churches, is on the 1700 block of Dexter Springs Loop off Germantown Parkway. After several weeks of renovation, the club — which has a full bar, kitchen and lounge area — opened in May. The main showroom seats 400, and the atmosphere feels like the kind of upscale venue more common to a major metropolitan market.
"We wanted to sell comedians on coming back here regularly because of the overall experience. All the comics that have been here so far think it's a lovely room, an A-plus room," says Gilliam. "A lot of clubs you go to, some of them are just hole-in-the-walls. We took our time to get (Chuckles) to the point to be a perfect place for performers and the customers."
"We're working on booking some other big names," says Gilliam. "Like I say, we're trying to be versatile on who we bring. We want to reflect the area, and eventually have people come from all over Memphis as well as Arkansas and Mississippi to see comedy. We feel like we've got the place that's going to do that."
Comedy is back in Memphis!