Bonkerz History: A (Relatively) Short History of Bonkerz

Bonkerz History begins way, way back in 1984, when Joe Sanfelippo, along with his brother John and “other brother” George Maltezos were running a 15,000 square foot live music venue and dance club called Papagaio, in their home town of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  It was an extremely demanding business.  Between 10 am band load-ins and 4 am closings on every Friday and Saturday, they had to turn their office into virtual dorm room with pullout couches and a full bathroom just to get a few hours of sleep between shows.

Add into the mix, the normal operation of a 6 night per week nightclub and it was a commitment that took all three of them to keep.  Wanting to expand their business, Joe, John and George were looking for ways to grow without hurting the good thing they already had going.

The answer came unexpectedly a year later.  A friend who was a rock promoter came in with an off-the- wall-idea.  There was this substitute host on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson who was an up-and-coming comedy star.  You could book him and get plugged on Carson, which would assure a huge crowd for the show.  We agreed to the date, got the plug and sold out 4 shows in advance the next day.

Original Bonkerz Comedy Club Sign - Bonkerz History
Original Bonkerz Comedy Club Sign

As a live music promoter I was used to advancing shows and setting up a load-in time.  When I called to advance this show I was asked if I had a mic and a light.  “Of Course”, I responded. “Is that it?”  When the answer came back “YES”, I turned to John and George and said, “We are going to become a freaking comedy club, this is awesome!”  There were no comedy clubs within 100 miles of Milwaukee back then, so needless to say it was an immediate success.

Now we needed a name for Milwaukee and Wisconsin’s first professional comedy club.  We decided after we closed for the night, that we would order in pizza and brain storm in the office for however many hours it would take to find the right name.

As soon as we took a few bites I started the long and arduous meeting that lay ahead. With the Yellow Pages being a major factor in advertising back then I had the following requirements in mind.  It had to be a one word name, starting with one of the first letters of the alphabet so it would show up right away and make you think of something that really makes you laugh.  It had to make you want to go BONKERZ.  Three minutes later the name was established and we finished eating our pizza before it got cold.

Fast forward to 1987 and we were presented with an opportunity to move our business to sunny Orlando, Florida.  With our lease running out and a growing dislike of snow and ice, we decided to go for it.  We opened in a small room that looked like a circus tent in the back of Orlando’s then biggest nightclub, Park Avenue.

Hard work and good luck combined to make this club a huge success.  With Universal Studios coming to town, some of today’s biggest comedy stars moved to Orlando in hopes that starting their careers near a major studio would help launch their careers.  There were so many comics moving to Orlando that we needed two open mic nights a week just to accommodate them.

Among the scores of regular comics getting started were Dan Whitney, who became Larry the Cable Guy, Scott Thompson better known today as Carrot Top, Darrell Hammond who has been on SNL for 20 years, and a 17-year-old kid named Billy Gardell who went on to be the star of CBS’ hit sitcom Mike and Molly.  The Bonkerz Comedy Club comics in those days included Jerry Seinfeld, Drew Carey, Kevin James, and Andrew Dice Clay.

Construction of Bonkerz Comedy Club - Bonkerz History
Construction of Bonkerz Comedy Club

Two years down the road our good friend Rick Messina, who went on to manage the careers of Drew Carey and Tim Allen, presented us with a great opportunity.  Showtime Networks was launching a new product called The Showtime Comedy Club Network.  Rick got them to pick Bonkerz as a filming location.

Within weeks of the first airing, our office phone was ringing off the hook with opportunities to open Bonkerz locations around the USA.  We had to quickly determine how to be in more than one place at the same time and came up with the licensing agreement business model that we still use a version of today.  Interestingly enough, those Bonkerz/Showtime segments were picked up by Comedy Central and ran for about 10 years.

Joe and Margaret at their Wedding Reception - Bonkerz History
Joe and Margaret at their Wedding Reception

In the late 1990’s Joe, John and George had compiled so many other businesses that they came to the decision to restructure with Joe being the person who would run and keep Bonkerz.  John and George currently run a group of 5 entertainment venues in Florida and a real estate/contracting business.

Casino entertainment became the new focus of Bonkerz.  With so many states authorizing casinos there were a lot of new opportunities to explore.  Starting with Bally’s Casino in Tunica, Mississippi, Bonkerz began an ongoing journey of branding with casinos and casino chains.

Around the same time Joe met his wife Margaret.  In addition to being the love of his life, Margaret was extremely adept at finance and related matters.  As a graduate of the University of Central Florida’s Business School (Cum Laude) Margaret was (and is) able to concentrate on the business side of the company, freeing Joe to spend more time on sales and creative.  Together Joe and Margaret continue to build Bonkerz into a multi-faceted Comedy Production Company.

The turn of the century has seen Bonkerz continue to expand its horizons. On-going growth on the casino side necessitated the opening of a second office in Las Vegas in 2009.  We started producing shows in Las Vegas at the Palace Station Casino.  Shortly thereafter, our dear friend, Louie Anderson, asked us to produce a new Las Vegas show for him, and more opportunities started pouring in.

Bonkerz has accomplished many new projects since coming to Las Vegas.  Bonkerz has helped to produce Billy Gardell’s Road Dogs of Comedy filmed on location here in Las Vegas for Showtime (talk about full circle).  Joe continues to consult with multiple TV shows including NBC’s America’s Got Talent, where he has placed over a dozen comics on the show including Grand Finalist, Grandma Lee.

Bonkerz currently produces shows for over 2 dozen venues including several locations throughout the Las Vegas area and all across the USA.  In Florida alone, we have clubs in East Orlando, Downtown Orlando, Sanford, Jacksonville, Daytona, Ocala, Homosassa and various other comedy series around the state. Bonkerz also has locations in Indiana, Ohio, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Today is the day we want to make you GO BONKERZ!

Grandma Lee on America's Got Talent - Bonkerz History
Grandma Lee on America’s Got Talent