Cranston club abruptly closes, comics out the cash

More than a half dozen Providence area comedians are angry and out of cash after they say a newcomer to the comedy scene put the joke on them by not paying up.

The comedians said some of the shows they were supposed to perform actually happened, while others had to be canceled due to poor attendance, but either way, they say they were each promised hundreds of dollars, money that was never delivered.

NBC 10 contacted the owner of the leased performing space called "The Joke Store" by posting a comment on The Joke Store's Facebook page.

Within three hours four Providence area comics called to complain about what they called "poor business practices," of The Joke Store Owner John 'Johnnie Armani' Souza.

The Joke Store is a room within the Park Theater in Cranston, and Souza says the owners of the theatre leased him the space rent-free for several months provided that he would relinquish a certain percentage of the drink sales back to the theatre itself as payment.

But everyone involved, including Souza, agreed that the theatre never made a cent from any of the multiple comedy shows that were planned over the past several weeks, and the comics haven't been paid either.

More than a half dozen comedians aren't laughing at all about not being paid for shows they either performed or booked with John Souza.

'Rockin' Joe Hebert is a stand-up comic from Pawtucket. He told NBC 10, "Weeks before the show I told him my policy since I didn't know him. I told him I would require cash, C.O.D. (cash on delivery), that it was a C.O.D. appearance. So I showed up (the night of the show), and there was no show, there was no audience at all. The show was scheduled for 8 p.m., and then at 8:05 p.m. it was canceled. I went looking for him afterwards to get my money, and he said there's no money, I'm sorry, I can't help you."

Comic Nick Albanese has been working in the business for nine years, and says he's just now finally able to make a living from stand-up comedy.

But Albanese said huge setbacks like performing two days straight for no pay have really put him in a tight spot financially.

"After the show there was a fight in the hallway, a lot of guys were yelling and saying where is my money? Now I'm a pretty laid back guy, so I just sat back and waited to see what happened. Then, they walked away and I approached him, and he's like, I don't have the money right now, and I understand, I know how business runs, I'm reasonable, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt, and he said he'd be in touch," he said.

"Then later, I called him and I asked him if he could write me out a check, and I'd hold on to it, and cash it down the line when he said to. But when we talked on Friday he said, Oh, I forgot my checkbook, can we make it Saturday? Then on Saturday he said I have the cash, but I have no car. So I offered to meet him, and he said, oh I don't have the cash. So it was lie after lie. He has a line for everything. It's never his fault; it's always other people's fault," said Albanese.

"Memorial Day is gone for me. I can't replace those two days! It was a 600 dollar weekend for me; three shows, one on Friday, and two on Saturday, and I can't replace them. I would have booked another gig for those days," said Hebert.

Some of the shows in question actually went through, but most were canceled due to low attendance, but either way the comics say the agreement was that they were still owed the money.

Souza admitted, on the record with NBC 10 that he did owe each of the comics the cash, but said, "When I tell you I don't have the money, I mean I don't have the money. Doing a smear campaign against me isn't going to make the money appear, period."

He said the comedians should understand the financial predicament he's in, and wait, despite the fact the money was promised to be handed over the day of each show.

"What happened is I pretty much put all of my money and time into the club, and then when it didn't get busy or we had a couple of bad days we took the hit, and now I'm trying to rectify that situation."

Souza said, "Well, I'm going to pay them, but it didn't have to come to this."

So, to that, the comics say, 'Ok when will we be getting the money? And with what money will we be paid?"

Souza said the comics would be getting their money, but that he has expenses so they have to wait.

NBC 10 asked him again if that means the comics will soon be getting their money. "Yes, I'm trying, but there are a lot of expenses in this business, so they have to wait."

Souza said his expenses included gas for his car trying to get to the club; there are linens, and other things.

Some of the comics said they plan to take Souza to small claims court, but admit the odds that they'll ever be paid are slim because they believe Souza simply has no cash to ever make good on his many promises.