You can count on four fingers the number of times Tommy Williams has taken the stage at Charlie Goodnights in Raleigh, the comedy club he opened in the early 1980s.

The first time: Williams played a 30-second cameo as master of ceremonies the night of Oct. 12, 1983, exactly 17 years ago this week–when he introduced the first act ever to play at his now-famous comedy venue. It wasn’t over fast enough. The other three times: He won’t say much, except to emphasize the fact that he’s shied away from the limelight. “It’s intimidating up there,” he says, once you finally get him to talk on the subject. “It’s a small club–250 seats. The stage is high. You’re three feet higher than everybody else. They’re all sitting down.”

But behind the scenes, Williams hasn’t been shy in his starring role as Goodnights’ booking czar. Over the years, he’s chased down the best new comedy acts in the country and brought them to the Triangle: Jay Leno, Ellen Degeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Drew Carey, Jeff Foxworthy, Dennis Miller, Ray Romano, John Stewart. They all stopped at Charlie Goodnights on their way up. Meanwhile, Goodnights has earned a reputation as one of the top five comedy clubs in the country, according to a recent poll in USA Today and an article in Wall Street Journal.

Some big established stars have come to visit, too. Recently, Robin Williams surprised the audience by showing up unannounced one night on stage. He was in Chapel Hill filming a movie, and wanted a taste of “that immediate feedback” comedians get when they work in a small club with a live audience, says Tommy Williams.

Since Goodnights opened in 1983, other full-time comedy clubs have opened, many riding the nation’s comedy club craze that peaked in the late 1980s. During the ensuing years, many comedy clubs nationally have closed, but Goodnights kept going, Williams says, “by booking only the best comics and maintaining our quality.”

Williams also credits the club’s continuing success to the two restaurants located in the same building as Charlie Goodnights on Morgan Street, in the 1930s Art Deco Whites Ice Cream Co. building that Williams renovated in the early 1980s. In addition to generating revenue to pay the high salaries that the comedians demand, the restaurants create in-house traffic to fill club seats.

Nightly, about 60 percent of his comedy club patrons dine before the show either downstairs at the Old Bar–which specializes in moderately priced Mexican fare, steaks and ribs for dinner and attracts single coeds after the show–or upstairs at Champagne Charlies, which caters to a more upscale crowd and Williams’ love for champagne.

Williams infuses the club with variety, booking about 150 different acts each year. He chooses them himself after scouting clubs in other cities, like Caroline’s and Gotham in New York. He seeks out advice from other comics, other club owners. Over the years he’s watched thousands of audition tapes, and spends a lot of time on the phone–and the golf course–talking up comedy with some of the comedians he’s met along the way who have become close friends.

Some of the acts are brand new, with what Williams has identified as star potential. Others are lesser known, but consistently “great at their craft.” Most of the good ones are unique in some way–a fact that may help them rocket to the top, or leave a Goodnights customer occasionally dissatisfied. After all, says Williams, good comedy “is pretty much a matter of opinion.”

Example: When Seinfeld visited Goodnights in the 1980s, some people in the audience didn’t like his act. “Some people like vanilla. Some like chocolate,” Williams says. “If you don’t like the act one week, you will the next. We’ve always got someone new coming through,” he adds. “Goodnights is like a movie theater. If you didn’t like a movie, you don’t stop going to the movie theater. You wait a week for the movie to change, then go back.”

Despite differences in style and routine, Williams has also learned that the best comics have a few basic things in common. Most of all, “they work at their craft,” he says. In addition to gathering a strong retinue of jokes, “they work on punch lines, they work on their facial expressions, they develop a catch or a unique look.” In other words, “they pay their dues,” and practice, practice, practice, like Jay Leno, who was doing 250 shows a year when he performed at Goodnights.

Williams has become a bit of a connoisseur of comedy and counts as close friends comedians like Richard Jeni (Jim Carey’s buddy in The Mask), Jake Johansen (who’s been on Letterman more than 25 times), Craig Shoemaker (known for his on-stage alter ego, The Love Master) and Bobby Collins. (Collins played at Goodnights the first year it opened and Williams says “his comedy is just as great as ever.”) He admires their work and says all four are brilliant. Plus, like most great comics, they are comfortable standing in the spotlight. “A good comedian knows how to command a crowd,” says Williams.

Speaking of crowds, Charlie Goodnights will celebrate its 17th birthday Thursday night, Oct. 12, with a massive outdoor party in the parking lot of the club, a live band and lots of cheap beer. But don’t hold your breath waiting for Williams to take the stage. “I’ll leave that to the professionals,” he says. EndBlock