Throughout the middle part of the 20th century, comedians like Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Joan Rivers, Woody Allen, and Bill Cosby shared stage time with folk musicians, Beat poets, and activists in the basement bars and coffeehouses of Greenwich Village. The Improv Comedy Club, founded in 1963 in Hell’s Kitchen, expanded to a Hollywood outpost in 1974, paving the way for the first — and, with two dozen venues, still the largest — chain of comedy clubs in the United States. The Upper West Side’s Comic Strip, opened in 1976, would be where the likes of Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld, and Dave Chappelle were discovered. The 1980s saw MacDougal Street’s Comedy Cellar emerge as the most inviting workout room in the country for talent including Ray Romano, Louis C.K., Jon Stewart, Dave Attell, and Colin Quinn.
Comedy troupes like The State, which formed at NYU, and Chicago transplants the Upright Citizens Brigade ushered sketch comedy into the mainstream during the 1990s. And the 1995 opening of Luna Lounge provided an experimental home to cutting-edge comedians like Marc Maron, Janeane Garofalo, Sarah Silverman, Todd Barry, and Kathy Griffin. Today, modern hubs The Creek and the Cave, The Stand, Union Hall, and The Bell House place as much emphasis on comedy as the fostering of community.
Like the local scene itself, the New York Comedy Festival has evolved, expanding over the past 10 years from a series of large-scale solo shows to productions of all sizes and programming of all stripes. With 70 live events between November 5 and 9 including stand-up, sketch, panels, podcasts, album releases, and even a musical, 2014 boasts the biggest incarnation yet.
As the 11th NYCF begins, performers Maron, Amy Schumer, Hannibal Buress, and Chemda Khalili and Carolines on Broadway owner and festival founder Caroline Hirsch talked with the Voice about New York comedy and their personal relationships with the city that boasts the best stand-up scene in the world.
Hirsch: The first [Carolines] location started as a small cabaret on Eighth Avenue and 26th Street. It probably held about 100, 120 people. I remember we were doing gangbuster business with Pee-wee Herman there — Paul Reubens — and Steven Wright and Billy Crystal. It was a tiny, intimate room. And then we moved to the Seaport to open up a bigger room, and that sat close to 200 people. And then I moved up [to Times Square] in 1992, and it seats close to 300 people. It was a natural extension to come into the theater district and the entertainment business. This is an area with agencies, production companies, movie studios, networks. So this is a great place to have the club as part of the entertainment scene.
Schumer: I was born at Lenox Hill Hospital on the Upper East Side. I lived in New York my whole life. Went to college in Baltimore, then moved right back to NYC.
Khalili: My family moved to NY when I was four. My mother said that I was sick with ear infections up until we moved to the States. She always attributed better health to NYC fitting my body chemistry, but I’m pretty sure I was healthier because I was ingesting less dairy. I grew up in Queens, so when I get pissed I sound like Leah Remini. I moved to the Lower East Side in my early twenties because it was cheap — can you imagine? — and because I was able to rollerblade — yup! — anywhere I needed or wanted to be.
Maron: I moved to New York the first time in 1989, and at that time I was commuting back and forth from Boston to New York. I was living on the Lower East Side from ’89 through ’91 or ’92. In ’92 I went to San Francisco, was out there two and a half years, and came back to New York from, like, ’94 until 2002. And I moved back again 2004 until 2007. So I have an on-and-off relationship with New York City.
Buress: I came to New York for the first time in ’06 and I stayed in Washington Heights, Inwood. Real far up north uptown. I kind of bounced around during that period of time. For three or four months I stayed in hostels in the Upper West Side and hostels in the East Village, with friends in Brooklyn and friends in Queens. I came back, moved to Williamsburg. I’ve lived in Williamsburg six years now, in two different spots.
Khalili: Everyone gets robbed. I was robbed by my crackhead roommate. I had to leave in the middle of the night. She came in late one night, arguing with her boyfriend, calling him names and yelling racial slurs at him. When he left, she pounded on my door, trying to direct her bullshit at me. After she went into her room, I snuck out with my TV and some of my favorite things. When I called the police about it, they could care less. They left saying that they’ll try to find her, and I had to remind them that they didn’t even write down her address. They shrugged, letting me know that that’s life and I should get over it.
Maron: I lived on 2nd between A and B in basically a studio apartment. It was a pretty bad neighborhood at that time. Before the big shift there were drugs and a lot of darkness and weirdness down there, and I was compelled by that. When I came back around I was making a little money at Comedy Central, and lived in an apartment on 16th Street and Third Avenue. It was still close enough downtown; being close was what I liked about New York. Eventually, before I got married the first time, I moved to Astoria for more space. I loved it. I kept that Astoria apartment for, like, 15 years.
Schumer: In my life I have lived on the Upper East Side, the Lower East Side, Murray Hill, three different Chelsea apartments, West Village, Hell’s Kitchen, Astoria, two different places in Williamsburg, Tribeca, and two different Upper West Side apartments. I live Upper West [now] because it’s not crowded, and beautiful, and people look like shit up here.
Buress: There are a lot of days where I’m just able to walk to a comedy show, which is awesome to be able to last-minute decide. Sometime I think I don’t want to do comedy, so “Eh, I’ll stay in the house.” And then somebody’s, “Oh, Matchless is going on,” or “Alligator Lounge has a show,” and I’m like, “All right, I guess I can take a three-minute cab over there, do a set.” So it’s nice to have that, to be able to be in a area like that that just has a good energy to it.
Khalili: The highlight is the art scene. And if the city is not careful, they’re going to price all the cool people out…A lot of artists have to commit and execute crazy ideas in order to work out their material and get ahead. I used to go to Faceboyz Open Mic at Surf Reality [shuttered in 2003 — Ed.]. I saw a woman paint onstage with her own period blood. I figured, “Whatever I come up with will never be as shocking,” so it made me feel safe to try out anything.
Hirsch: The club early on was not a kind of showcase club. Jon Stewart, Dave Attell, all these people came out of the opening acts and middle acts for our headliners, which is something Carolines created way back in the early ’80s, taking a performer and highlighting them. The first person I did that with was Jay Leno, followed by Jerry Seinfeld, followed by Garry Shandling, followed by Sandra Bernhard and Billy Crystal. So there was a great group of comics coming up the ranks at that point. They were probably coming off of watching George Carlin in the ’60s do it, and that was the next generation coming up.
Buress: You can do multiple sets in a night and really work out material. There’s an energy; there are all different types of crowds; there are people visiting from around the world. Like, any given night at the Comedy Cellar you’ve got a mix of New Yorkers and people from Europe, Australia, and then all across the city there are different types of comedy shows and crowds everywhere. So it just has a good energy.
Maron: The New York comedy scene was smaller then than it is now. You were really jockeying to get on at three or four clubs. You really had to learn to slug it out, make sure your jokes were solid and that you were 100 percent on top of the situation and the crowd. A lot of that changed as alternative comedy came up, but the sort of mentality of the New York club is still the same. At the Cellar, you don’t want to fuck around too much. You want to do your jokes and, you know, kick ass. You’ve only got 15 minutes at the most.
Khalili: Manhattan used to be more wild. There were nooks and spaces where people expressed themselves without barriers and high cost. Those places are getting harder to come by. I remember when Giuliani was enforcing the “no dancing” law. I had a bouncer stop me from swaying to a band because they didn’t want to get shut down…again. It was weird, because no one knew what cops could interpret as dancing.
Schumer: Weekends I would be doing a dramatic play and also stand-up. I would have to run from the theater to the comedy club. I loved the hustle. The lowlight was this play I did called Soccer Moms From Hell. Disgusting production. But it was still great because I met people I still love and work with.
Maron: I was always a club comic that somehow got connected with alternative comedy, specifically once Luna Lounge started. It was a good place for me to work out what I wanted to work on. The clubs were sort of too specific in a way, and I wanted to explore different thinking. So in ’95 or ’94, whenever Luna started, I became sort of a fixture there because it enabled me to not be so caught up with jokes, to explore a deeper level, which was very positive for me. Ultimately I don’t really consider myself an alternative comic. I came up in comedy clubs, but I learned, after I was in San Francisco, there’s a different way you can do comedy there than in New York. I like doing alt rooms and I like doing comedy clubs, so for me it’s evolved in a sense that there are more outlets to do comedy. There are more places to take risks that you might not have been able to take before in comedy clubs.
Hirsch: I come from the days of The Improv and Catch a Rising Star, where there was value on the people that were put up onstage…One of the blatant changes right now that I don’t like is there’s so much free comedy around. That’s a real problem, because that’s going to be tough for the future of comedy.
Buress: I have moments when I’m out in L.A. for a while and I’m comfortable and I’m kind of livin’ that life where I get up early and go shoot whatever I’m shooting. I think, “I could move out here and get a house and have a nice backyard and all that.” Then I get back to New York and I’m like, “Uh, I like New York better.” But I won’t rule it out. New York is amazing, but sometimes people get older or you just need a shift and need to wind it down a little bit. So we’ll see.
Schumer: [The scene] is the same as when I started. I like it. It’s why I can’t leave.
Hirsch: The only place I really considered, even that I went out of my way to do architectural plans and plan it out, was Las Vegas, being a place where people want to be amused, they want entertainment, they want to go there for that. Luckily, I didn’t go there, and then the bust happened in 2008. Las Vegas still has not recovered.
Khalili: I considered relocating because of how high the rents have gotten. But when I travel elsewhere, nothing speaks to me like NYC.
Maron: The last time I left, I was ready to leave New York, to be quite honest. I don’t miss New York that much, generally, but I’m happy that I had such a long time there. I’m happy I know how the city works. It’s not daunting to me in any way, and I can have a good time when I go there. I know how to work the trains; I know where I like to go. I’m very comfortable in the city, and I have a lot of love for it. But when I was there, I just got tired of having people on top of me all the time. I like living in my house and driving my car out here. But lately I’ve been missing New York. There’s a vitality to it, an electricity to it that is very conducive to creativity, especially stand-up creativity.
Schumer: I like these sick, sad, loud, honest people. I fit in.
Buress: It’s the best city for stand-up in the world…It’s a great place to grow and get better, so I’m always thankful that I do what I do where I do it.
Hirsch: New York is the number one destination for everything, and comedy fits right in with it. You only have to look around to see such a diversity. So many different nationalities; so many things to poke fun of. Not only is it the melting pot of the world, it’s the melting pot of ideas. And comedy is based on ideas. Comedy is based on all of us feeling the same thing at the same time. That’s what makes things funny. You couldn’t pick a better place for it.
The New York Comedy Festival runs from November 5-9. For performance and venue information, visit nycomedyfestival.com.