Lighting Laughter – Richard Rutherford, Lumens, and Comedy

Posted on December 1, 2014

When it comes to comedy clubs, lighting is no laughing matter. At least not to Richard Rutherford of Rutherford Design in Northridge, CA. Rutherford may not be the proverbial “king of comedy,” but he can legitimately lay claim to being the king of comedy club lighting, having illuminated clubs just about everywhere, including the world-famous Hollywood Improv.

Of course, comedy clubs represent just a fraction of what his company does. Having been in lighting since the 1970s, he’s illuminated everything from the dance floor in Saturday Night Fever to the big iconic Hollywood sign. He’s also been the recipient of multiple IES awards. In this interview, though, he focuses on comedy clubs and shares some thoughts, which while they may not leave you laughing, will nevertheless probably give you new insights into this important genre.


You’ve done some great comedy work, what do regard as your key contribution to comedy clubs?

“Our work has raised the bar technically so that operators of comedy clubs can provide their customers with a much better experience.”

Who has performed at the clubs under your lights?

“Every comic you’ve ever heard of – and many you haven’t, too.”

How did the whole comedy club business come about for you?

“The first one was actually just another project we picked up as a lead directly from a manufacturer who thought we’d be a good fit with the client. It was a 650-seat turn-of-the-century theater being remodeled with municipal funding in a downtown area as part of a revitalization project. We’ve found that we really understand how the rooms need to operate and we really wanted to learn more about the business aspects of comedy, so here we are!”

So, how does lighting a comedy club compare to theatrical lighting?

“Essentially, it is theater 101 with a few twists; it’s the same play, different scripts and performers every night, no problem. There are a few elements I have developed specifically for a couple clients so that visual branding is consistent in each of their rooms. There are also specific color palettes as well.”

How is programming done at comedy clubs?

“Usually there are three or four root looks for each show segment. Walk-in looks, dinner looks, pre-show video presentation, MC and headliner looks. Once these are established, we will add and create options. There is always someone at a console, but they are typically multi-tasking like crazy with audio and video as well as part-time announcements and MC duties.

“While some would think everything at a comedy club could be pre-programmed and click a mouse, we’re talking live performance showrooms where the unpredictable is expected and on-the-fly is often required. Having said that, we try to lay out simple combinations of scenes so the transitions are easy to find, but always with simple maneuvers to add or subtract front or key lighting levels. We need to keep it a bit flexible so adjustments can be made for performer skin tones and changes in attire.”

Richard Rutherford kcmo-interior-stage

Do you have to train staff when you install lighting in a comedy club?

“Of course! We don’t expect that the AV person will be an expert, but because the nightly operations are quite consistent and they have a ‘script’ to follow, we make adjustments in ergonomics and programming so they can provide consistency of customer experience.”

What are the common challenges when designing for a comedy club?

“Budget — when is budget not an issue? I think I had a project like that once!

Power consumption used to breathtaking on even some small projects, but with the quality of LED lighting, we are using several 20A circuits where we used to need an entire 100A three-phase panel.”

Many comedy clubs are in historic buildings, warehouses or other structures with unusual architectural features. Does this present a challenge?

“A visually spatial balance is critical in a comedy club, I believe. You want to be careful not to overdo the system, but at the same time you want to give the room the right feel. This is very important if you want to create the right environment to make the comedy come off. The ceiling heights in most of the comedy clubs I’ve seen are never what I would like; getting good angles for rear, side and front lighting is sometimes challenging.”

You’ve been doing this for some time, so have the perceptions of lighting on the part of comedy club owners changed over the years?

“Video, or should I say HD video, is typical now in most of the showrooms. In the past, many of the comics just wanted a DVD for their own archive and quality was nearly secondary to quantity. Now, making sure things are lit well enough for re-broadcast is critical. The balance between that and live audience experience is always challenging with small spaces and small budgets. Owners are more aware than ever that the three important things for good video are lighting, lighting and lighting.”

Are clubs using gobos to brand themselves?

“Not anymore…remember that video thing? There is some specific signage and physical elements we account for in our stage designs for specific clients.”

Are LED panels making their way to clubs?

“Budget is typically restrictive, but technology has helped with that, so we’ll wait and see on that. We have implemented more digital signage in many of these projects, and in some cases it is used as part of the archi-tainment lighting system.”

Where do you see comedy club lighting going over the next five years?

“Bigger and brighter, what else? I think that as companies develop better and more varied products, we will be doing more architectural and archi-tainment lighting as part of cohesive showroom systems. In one of our recent projects, the entire house has a pipe grid with RGBA theatrical fixtures and broadcast wash fixtures as house lighting. Remember that video shoot thing again! All the wall sconces and architectural task lighting is integrated on three DMX universes so the operator can fine tune the customer experience.”

Any other comments?

“I’m very grateful to have an amazing client list, from rock stars to Fortune 500 companies. My gratitude for the people that have helped me along the way is more than most of them will ever know.”