The only thing more surprising to me than Steve Sweeney's lawsuit against Comedy Connection owner Bill Blumenreich was the fact that Blumenreich had a contract with Sweeney, considering the timing.
The last time I saw Steve Sweeney, he was sitting next to me as we judged the Boston Comedy Festival contest finals back in September from a balcony perch at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, and Sweeney later went downstairs to deliver a short performance of his own amid the finals and a celebration for the Smothers Brothers.
Here is a 2006 clip of Steve Sweeney performing in Cambridge, showing how and why he has made people in the Boston area laugh for years. He has become quite the regional legend. But let's remember where he came from. After all, when I talked to George Carlin in 2007 and mentioned I lived in Boston, the first comic who sprang to Carlin's mind was Sweeney. Sweeney was in HBO's 8th Annual Young Comedians' class of 1983, which also included Bill Maher, Paula Poundstone, Carol Liefer, the Amazing Johnathan and Joel Hodgson, hosted by John Candy. He also appeared for a time as host of his own morning radio program in Boston. In 2004, one of his bits also became part of Comedy Central's Shorties Watching Shorties. You can hear him and watch the animation:
But here's where things got tricky. In the fall of 2005, after I took over the comedy beat at the Boston Herald, Sweeney showed up at the paper to promote his new venue with Dick Doherty in an Asian restaurant in Back Bay, clearly trying to take comedy fans away from the Comedy Connection. That venture didn't work out. So I was surprised in 2006 when I started seeing Sweeney's name show up as a regular weekend headliner at the Connection in Faneuil Hall, usually to cover for Blumenreich's Boston headliner who he'd send off to Chicopee for a Saturday night show. Blumenreich eventually discovered in 2006 that he could do much better booking and promoting shows at regional theatres, and also through Dane Cook's "Vicious Circle" tour, and eventually got out of his lease with Faneuil Hall in the summer of 2008. He dropped all of his local talent and only books national headlining tours in the Wilbur Theatre, but it should be noted that most of this talent continues to venture into Western Mass. and the Hu Ke Lau every weekend.
But the allegations the Globe got are these: Despite competing against each other, Blumenreich apparently agreed to sign Sweeney to an exclusive one-year contract worth $100,000 annually, with the stipulation that Sweeney not perform at any club within 40 miles of Boston. Did I mention already that Sweeney has developed into an entirely Boston-metro act??? Sweeney told the Globe he wrote to Blumenreich in July 2008, which is also when he shuttered the Connection and shut all of the regional headliners out of steady work. That Blumenreich was so dismissive of Sweeney to the paper, saying: "People who thought [Sweeney] was funny 30 years ago are in their 60s and 70s now, and don't go to shows." That only makes me think there's something more going on here. Why would Blumenreich say something like that of someone he had no trouble booking on a regular basis?
For anyone in and around Boston comedy, this is quite the gossip topic. For anyone else who happens to follow comedy, it's equally intriguing just to see how the business side of comedy works, or doesn't.