Small Business Profile

M.D. Sweeney has turned a bug for comedy from his college days into a theater where aspiring comics hone their skills preparing for bigger stages

By AMANDA BRONSTAD
Staff Reporter

All M.D. Sweeney ever wanted to do was direct comedy. Since taking a film course at the University of Michigan more than 20 years ago, Sweeney had his eye on Los Angeles and his heart on becoming the director of the next Monty Python series.

"I had to create my own world, my own network, my own studio and my own business," Sweeney said. "It's not being seen by millions or thousands of people. But I'm doing on a small scale what I wanted to do on a big scale."

To feed the dream, he formed Acme Comedy Theatre, a sketch theater group now housed in a former synagogue on La Brea Avenue. "It was never expected to be a money-maker for me," Sweeney said. "Whatever I made, I poured back into it, and there's been a very modest income taken from it."

The theater, which started in a former wallpaper store in the San Fernando Valley, now boasts four shows a week, with its 41st show set to open next month. The 99-seat theater, home to two comedy troupes, has been a jumping off spot for comedians and writers on shows like ABC's "Who's Line Is It Anyway?" Comedy Central's "The Man Show" and NBC's "Just Shoot Me."

The theater is more like a school. About 100 students go through a 10-week long training session, which costs $350 to $550 per class, depending on the level. There are four sessions yearly.

Community base

"It's a very supportive group feeling and Sweeney has worked very hard to make sure that's consistent," said Kristen Trucksess, a teacher and actor in the Acme troupe. "Once you're a member, you have a home."

The Ohio native spent his first few years in L.A. taking odd jobs and never losing sight of the desire to become a director. While working at a one-hour photo shop, he bought a $1,500 16mm camera with which to make short films. He later joined the performance group at L.A. Connection Comedy Theatre as an actor while holding down a job as art director for "TV's Bloopers & Practical Jokes," where he worked in the mid-1980s.

But it wasn't until he was introduced to L.A.'s comedy mainstay, The Groundlings, that he realized what he wanted to do. "I decided I wanted to start my own version of The Groundlings, and that's when I started with workshops of my own," Sweeney said.

He started out of a friend's space at Two Roads Theater on Tujunga Boulevard in Studio City. After his first show in 1990, Sweeney changed the group's name to The Tujunga Group because he liked the name of the street.

After two years, early recruit Adam Carolla (now of Comedy Central's "The Man Show") helped him find a new venue. Sweeney moved his troupe to an old wallpaper store on Lankershim Boulevard in order to have his own space. He named it Acme Comedy Theatre, after the ubiquitous generic brand name in WB cartoons.

Roar of silence

At first, the crowds didn't exactly knock down the door.

"Some nights we would have my wife and someone's cousin in the audience," said Paul Rugg, a screenwriter who performed with Sweeney's group from 1990 to 1994. "But Sweeney always had faith he would keep doing a good show, and people would come find it."

He managed to get past the L.A. riots and the Northridge Earthquake, although having a Valley location proved too much of a disadvantage to similar clubs on the other side of the hill. So in 1995, he discovered the old synagogue. After getting a $100,000 bank loan and hiring the architect of Tiffany Theaters and the Falcon Theatre, Sweeney opened Acme Comedy on La Brea Avenue.

Acme alumni include Wayne Brady, an Emmy Award-nominated star of ABC's "Who's Line Is It Anyway?" and Wil Wheaton, late of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and "Stand By Me" in its cast. A few months ago, the first comedy troupe to appear under the Acme name on national television was featured on HBO's "SketchPad."

Still, comedy theater is not easy. Last year's $200,000 in revenues drawn from class fees and ticket office sales were flat compared to the year-earlier period. Sweeney declined to say what its operating expenses were. Even with the ups and downs, Acme Comedy has quadrupled sales and attendance since its founding in 1990.

"Theater in general is a hard business," said Eric Vennerbeck, executive director of The Groundlings. "I think Sweeney is really good at what he does. He's a bright guy. I think of lot of (his success) has to do with his talent as a director and as a theater operator and perseverance, more than anything else."

PROFILE:

Acme Comedy Theatre
Year founded: 1989
Core Business: Sketch comedy
Revenues in 2000: $200,000
Revenues in 2001: $200,000
Employees in 2000: 3
Employees in 2001: 3
Goal: To have a national audience in five years through TV, features or the Internet.
Driving force: Making people laugh and not having to work for someone.

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