Good Company: Eric Phillips and his 3E’s Comedy Club
There’s nothing funny about opening and operating a business during a pandemic, but if anyone can stand up to the challenge, it’s entertainment entrepreneur Eric Phillips.
Owner of 3E’s Comedy Club
What he’s reading: Phillips subscribes to Colorado Springs’ local newspaper, The Gazette, and reads the print edition every morning, along with online trade publications covering the comedy industry.
ColoradoBiz: We’ve got plenty of technical questions for somebody crazy enough to open a brick and mortar in 2020, but before we dive in, care to share your impression of the Chris Rock-Will Smith episode, which unfolded over a joke in a stand-up routine?
Eric Phillips: It was comedy! I understand the sickness [Jada] has – I get it – but you’re coming to a place where a host has been hired to do crowd work, and it’s nothing personal. That particular joke was so mild. Plus, it’s not just Chris Rock writing the jokes. Writers help write those jokes. I think [Will Smith] went overboard. He was the last person I would have expected to do something like that.
It’s true that comedy can be offensive. Has the cancel culture movement taken a toll on the industry?
Some comedians are afraid now, some aren’t. Look, I always tell comedians, people like shock. You can say whatever you want to say, but it has to be funny.
How would you describe the current state of stand-up?
Comedy goes in ebbs and flows. It’s up, then sometimes it’s down. I think comedy is coming back around. Clubs closed during the pandemic, but people are going out to shows again. You see lots of open mic nights; young comedians are going to bars and clubs. You also saw comedians doing Zoom shows during the pandemic.
Was opening your own club a longtime dream?
I was in the military, stationed in Georgia in the mid-90s, and on the side I’d promote shows for different comedians. Some are big names now, like Shuckey Duckey and Earthquake. I got to meet these guys in their early years. I loved the people I met in comedy. But when you promote, you’re barely breaking even. If I brought a comedian in, I’d pay for his plane ticket, put him up in a hotel, and pay him for the show. Meanwhile, the comedy club would make money off food and beverage and all I’d get was what I charged at the door. So yeah, from those early days on, I always wanted my own club.
How’d you go from entertainment promoter to small business owner?
I was stationed in Colorado Springs twice, and when I got out of the military I stayed. I started a property management company. During that time, I served on a lot of boards and commissions. I got involved in the community, and this gave me a chance to not just see what the community needed, but to build relationships, too, and those relationships were critical when it was time to open the club.
Are relationships the most important aspect of operating a successful small business?
I always tell other small business owners that when you want to open a brick-and-mortar, you’ve got to get engaged in the community. When 3E’s first opened in September 2020, a lot of people came not because it was a comedy club but because they knew me.
You launched 3E’s at a time when established businesses across the country were closing their doors. Did you ever think about delaying the opening?
Life gets in the way. You just keep going. We’d started working on 3E’s in 2019, and I signed the lease in February, before COVID closures in the U.S. When COVID started, I kind of shrugged it off, thinking it would go away. Then came March 2020. We had the opening in September as planned, but with limited capacity, and then we closed in December only to reopen in January.
How did COVID impact the look and feel of 3E’s?
It changed a lot of things. We took down some walls; we put up some walls. We couldn’t get people to work because it was a risky time, and I couldn’t set up the chairs and tables like we would have because we had “6-feet apart” restrictions. But we kept going. We had a lease that we had to pay the rent on. Landlords still needed their money, and I couldn’t get any relief. Since we were a new business, we didn’t have tax returns from 2019.
Without a PPP loan, or other relief, how’d you stay afloat?
I used my own personal savings, plus small grants and little loans here and there. I bootstrapped a lot of stuff. And I made money offering extras, things we would have eventually added anyway. We have a café and lounge where we serve food and beverage, and the club holds open mics on Wednesdays and weekly beginner comedy classes. We host different events, too, just to get people into the building. We’ve had everything from a high school graduation to an awards ceremony for a Black magazine and a reception for violinists. We also had the mayor’s event here. Most important, I found support in the strong business community in Colorado Springs. Even though we had more minorities in [my hometown of] Cleveland, it might have been hard to do what I’m trying to do here back there. That’s not to say there’s no racism or prejudice in Colorado Springs – there is – but it seems that if you’re working to get something done, people will help you regardless of your color, race or ethnicity.
Colorado Springs isn’t the first place that comes to mind when thinking about hip downtowns and thriving comedy scenes. Has the city changed since you arrived?
Colorado Springs has changed a lot over the last 20 years. As we grow to a city of 500,000, we’re the second largest city in Colorado. I served on the city planning commission for several years. During that time, we got a lot of new people coming in from Texas and California, and those people wanted to do something different. Colorado Springs is a big military town, but it’s not just a military town. A lot of times people from a military post won’t venture off the post unless there’s a major event. I got to Colorado Springs in 1989, then left and came back in 2000. There weren’t any comedy clubs downtown then. There was one club off Academy called Loonees Comedy Corner. Academy used to be a main street, but as Colorado Springs grew, there was a big emphasis on developing its downtown. Most comedy clubs in big cities are downtown. So, I wanted to open something downtown.
What makes 3E’s distinctive?
It’s the only comedy club downtown. We’ll have four headliners a month usually, and I try to mix it up with women, Latinos and Black comedians. I make a conscious effort to put women on shows. I have whole shows devoted to women. I want to give Colorado Springs variety because the city is diverse.
You must have had some dark days while opening shop during the pandemic. What kept you going during the hardest times?
Family motivates me, and so do people. I love to see people having a good time and enjoying themselves. And I love seeing young comedians learning how to be better comedians. This will be our first year operating in a somewhat normal environment. I can’t wait to see how it goes.