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From the outset, it’s all about the stage time. Serviceable material develops later on. But feeling comfortable in front of an audience, adapting to any given room, and evolving — painfully, incrementally — into an assured stand-up comedian requires years of endless trial and error in countless venues.
New York’s colorful comedy history comprises spaces old and new, legendary and temporary. Some historic venues that made careers were never actually proper comedy clubs — like Sixties-era coffee shops the Gaslight and Café au Go Go, which introduced luminaries like Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers, and Woody Allen to the world. Others, like the Improvisation and Catch a Rising Star — both long shuttered — would create a template for a generation of comedy clubs that popped up across the country in the Seventies and Eighties.
Today, New York is dotted with joints like the Comedy Cellar, Carolines on Broadway, and Gotham Comedy Club that are still thriving and bringing in some of the biggest talents in the business. Meanwhile, newer venues such as the Bell House in Brooklyn and the year-old Astoria café space Q.E.D. are allowing stand-up to reach the outer boroughs like never before.
Because of these venues and the multitude of others forgotten to time, the city remains the most diverse, challenging comedy incubator in the world. Here, the best of the best compete for finite bookings, and careers can gel with a single pivotal set.
With the annual New York Comedy Festival under way (running citywide through November 15), several of the event’s participants spoke with the Voice about venues that inspired important moments in their own careers — the places that will themselves be recalled with historical fondness by generations of comics to come.
Caroline Hirsch, founder of the New York Comedy Festival and owner of Carolines on Broadway (1626 Broadway, midtown, 212-757-4100): After I moved the club from its original location in Chelsea [to the South Street Seaport], it all really began and the comedy club took off. It will always remain one of the most important venues to me. Carolines became a place where comedians wanted to perform and were discovered.
Judy Gold: My favorite memory from Carolines was in 1989. There was a show on A&E called Caroline’s Comedy Hour. It was their first season, so only the big-name comics were booked. One afternoon I got a call that one of the acts missed his plane, and could I come down to the seaport and take his place? It was my first real TV gig, and I killed! I guess it was a good thing that I didn’t have time to psych myself out.
Bonnie McFarlane: I did my first television show at Carolines, and I bombed like a champ — I suppose we’re more biologically inclined to remember the bad stuff. I brought cinnamon buns that I had made that morning to calm my nerves, and everyone thought I was nuts. Mostly because I didn’t put icing on them. Trust me, my cinnamon buns don’t need icing. I’ve since overcome my fears of the place and have even triumphed there on several occasions.
Caroline Hirsch: We moved up to Times Square after seeing the growing demand for comedy [and] in 2012 we celebrated our thirtieth anniversary. Carolines on Broadway has become a landmark institution in the comedy world. It has been remarkable to see careers launch out of the club and watch Carolines talent headline shows at the New York Comedy Festival. It has given me the opportunity to work with and meet some of the most talented people in the business.
Sam Morril: Carolines on Broadway was where I first saw Dave Attell live. I was in high school, and he blew my mind. I didn’t know that’s what comedy could be. Years later, I remember waiting on line to audition for “New York’s Funniest” for six hours, then being told I had to come back the next day. I came back to perform the next afternoon and did an act-out for three judges, like a novice. Regardless, Lou Faranda, the booker, was kind to me. He saw something in me when there wasn’t much to see. He’s the first club guy to pass me for regular spots. Carolines is a rare combo of old New York, touristy, and kinda swanky. It’s a special club.
Caroline Hirsch: We hosted the twentieth anniversary of Carolines at Carnegie Hall [881 Seventh Avenue, midtown, 212-247-7800]. We found the inspiration from that anniversary event to create the New York Comedy Festival. We brought all the headliners from Carolines on Broadway back, and the energy and talent in the room that evening really sparked the idea. And twelve years later, we are still here.
Phoebe Robinson: I have a tendency to fall a little bit in love when I see comics do extended sets, which to me is the sign of an amazing comic. This happens with close friends like Baron Vaughn, and it certainly happened when I saw Patrice O’Neal at Skirball [566 LaGuardia Place, Washington Square, 212-992-8484] in 2010, Bill Burr at Carnegie Hall in 2011, and Marc Maron at Skirball in 2014. Both these venues are magical, and of course Carnegie is legendary. Just stepping in the room, you sense whatever you’re about to watch is going to be special and something you’ll cherish the rest of your life. Skirball is smaller, but it is such a perfect place for stand-up. The energy is hot and the crowd is always hip and willing to go a little raw and dirty with the comics. I would love to do specials at both of these venues one day, to be reminded of how small you are and how lucky you are to be in something so big and historical.
Televised stand-up continues to reach, and ignite the curiosity of, young fans across the country. For those who dedicate themselves to the craft and outgrow their local scenes, NYC’s established clubs await as inevitable proving grounds.
Kara Klenk: I was an NBC page and then a Conan page in the fall and winter of 2005, so 30 Rock’s Studio 6A is where I first got to watch comedy done professionally up close and personal. It was insane, intimidating, and unpredictable, every night. It made a huge impact on my decision to get into comedy.
Phoebe Robinson: Studio 8G, Late Night With Seth Meyers, was where I made my late-night stand-up debut. And it was just the perfect night: My set crushed, Seth couldn’t have been nicer, some of my closest friends were there, and Seth invited me over to the couch! After the taping, a couple of writers told me that he had never invited a comic to the couch before, so I really was touched. It’s such a little thing, but it was just a nice gesture to say, “I really enjoyed what you did.” At that point, I had been doing stand-up for a little over six years, and doing a late-night spot was one of the top goals, so I was happy to cross it off the list. Also, I got to do it in New York City, which is where I started stand-up, so it was very touching. One of the best nights of my life.
Bonnie McFarlane: I taped three Letterman appearances at the Ed Sullivan Theater. It’s a pretty big milestone for a comedian to do Letterman, and gosh, golly, I’m proud of it. Each time I stepped out onto that stage I said to myself, “I’m on Letterman!” and a big load of serotonin ejaculated into my brain.
Kliph Nesteroff: I came to New York in 1999 shortly after starting stand-up in Toronto. I was terrible, but being booked at Stand Up New York [236 West 78th Street, Upper West Side, 212-595-0850], a holdover from the 1980s comedy boom, was exciting. My dumb jokes about Lite-Brite did well enough, although I was upstaged by a good nine other comics with Monica Lewinsky jokes. That same week I was part of a sketch show at Carolines that was directed by original SNL writer and Square Pegs creator Anne Beatts. She was a character — loud and demanding, insisting a specific brand of Champagne be in the back of the limo chauffeuring her to and from our rehearsal space above the legendary Studio 54. We were adjacent to The Late Show with David Letterman, and walking past Biff Henderson on the street was the biggest thing in the world for me at the time. I was nineteen years old, totally new to the business, and my material was threadbare, but being among those landmarks and legends was the greatest introduction to Manhattan I could possibly have.
Joe Zimmerman: I’d been doing comedy maybe six months in North Carolina and was very much an amateur open mic–er. I came to New York for a week, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I was staying a block from Stand Up New York. I just saw it walking past with my suitcase, and my very first day there, like a complete idiot I just walked over around noon and knocked on the door. Someone answered the door expecting a UPS package. I explained that I was a comic looking to get on stage that night. Anyone who knows comedy and New York would expect this story to end with her telling me to go away. But somehow she ended up getting me five minutes that night. [I thought], “Wow, if I can hang with these New York big dogs, maybe I have a bright future ahead of me!” In hindsight, I’m sure it didn’t go that great.
Bonnie McFarlane: The World Famous Comic Strip [1568 Second Avenue, Upper East Side, 212-861-9386] is the first place I ever did stand-up in New York. I came from Canada, straight from the Newark airport to the club. I still had my suitcase with me. They put it in the office and I went on five minutes after I arrived. I have no idea how I did, but I do remember the club owner, Lucien, asking if he could go over my set with me in his office. I said, “No, thanks, I’m kind of beat.” I still got spots there pretty regularly.
Sam Morril: The Comic Strip is where I started comedy with my life partner, Joe Machi. We would wait by the bar for hours to go on after the regular show. I spent hours admiring the headshots on the wall — Dangerfield, Eddie Murphy, Louis C.K. I have a lot of fond and negative memories of the Strip. I met a lifelong friend in Joe there in a comedy class taught by D.F. Sweedler. That being said, they would use any excuse not to pass us for regular spots. Nothing teaches you how to crush a room like feeling disrespected. It made us better.
Judy Gold: I started doing stand-up full time in the mid-Eighties, and the first clubs I passed at were Catch a Rising Star and the Comic Strip. Then I started working at the newer clubs such as Stand Up New York, Carolines, and the Comedy Cellar [117 Macdougal Street, Greenwich Village, 212-254-3480]. I have so many memories from all those places, but sitting at the comics table at the Cellar feels like home. I remember sitting in the back of the Comedy Cellar when the club was new. It wasn’t packed every single night in the old days. Bill Grundfest hosted and Rick Crom would play the piano. I would eat borscht in the back of the room and watch Darrell Hammond do the most unbelievable impressions. His Phil Donahue was the best.
Sam Morril: Getting passed at the Comedy Cellar was an amazing night for me. I remember getting trashed at the table before my set: “Gary Gulman’s reputation is on the line.” He was the one who recommended me. I knew there was more on the line than that. I was always scared of the Cellar, but I always wanted to work there. It was where the heavyweights hung, so I never showed my face until my audition. Now, night after night, I can’t bring myself to leave.
Nikki Glaser: The night you get the OK to work the Comedy Cellar is as defining a moment for a comedian as your first late-night television spot: You call your parents — or therapist — you celebrate, you cry. Then you worry. Working the Cellar is like having a child. You love it so much, but you live in fear that someone will take it away from you. I’ve seen some of the best comics in the world lose their shit when they don’t get as many spots as they did the week before. That place is everything.
Jeff Ross: [The Cellar] is a great place to work out material. It’s a great place for camaraderie. It’s extremely well managed. Security is good: If somebody acts up or videotapes us, they get bounced, no questions asked. And they’re willing to take shots with new people. Every few months, the next funniest person in New York gets a shot. It just happens. You know that expression, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere”? Getting onstage at the Comedy Cellar, that’s making it here.
The modern comedy boom continues expanding via YouTube, Twitter, and podcasts while remaining integrally rooted in the live experience. And in recent years, comedy has even crossed the East River, with some of the city’s most important new venues popping up in Brooklyn and Queens.
Chris Gethard: The Manhattan Neighborhood Network [537 West 59th Street, Upper West Side, 212-757-2670] is not a traditional comedy venue, as it is a fully functioning public access television studio. But I can say without any hyperbole that this place totally changed and saved my life. When you have a dream of working in television — but none of your ideas are wanted by television — it can be a frustrating conundrum. Realizing that the people at MNN are pro-artist, anti-censorship, and tolerant of any nonsense you could throw at them allowed me to stop chasing things I didn’t want and start building things I did.
Bridget Everett: When I first moved to NYC in 1997, I spent countless nights in karaoke bars. It was really the only opportunity I was getting to sing. I always made the most of it: crawling on top of the bar, ripping off my shirt, putting someone’s face in my crotch. One night I was doing my thing at Sing Sing on 5th and A, and Jason Eagan was there. He came up after I sang “You Oughta Know” and asked if I’d be interested in doing a show at Ars Nova [511 West 54th Street, Hell’s Kitchen, 212-489-9800]; he was the artistic director. I said yes, not knowing what that show would be or how I would pull it off. But that night changed the course of my life, and it all started with karaoke.
Chris Gethard: I took my first Upright Citizens Brigade [307 West 26th Street, Chelsea, 212-366-9176] class in June 2000, when it had just moved into a repurposed down-and-out strip club and I was the twenty-year-old human equivalent of that same vibe. I was a depressed college kid living in New Jersey who felt this urge to be creative, but with no idea how to make that happen. UCB became a safe haven and home for me. It didn’t matter how old you were, where you came from, what your day job was. As long as you were funny, you were welcome. It was a beautiful thing to be a part of in its — and my — early days.
Jim Tews: UCB Chelsea is more of a sketch venue, but it’s one of my favorite places to watch and perform stand-up. It’s in a basement, where I think all comedy venues should be, and when the house lights are down it feels like the rest of the theater disappears. You just see faces, and they just see you. It’s a memorable place for me because that’s where I met Louis C.K., and ultimately how I ended up on Louie for a few seconds.
Bridget Everett: I had a late-night guest spot at Joe’s Pub [425 Lafayette Street, Astor Place, 212-539-8778] on New Year’s Eve, 2005-ish. I was a new and fast fan of the downtown performance scene, and just getting to be a small part of it felt like I had won the lottery. Murray Hill and Dina Martina were hosting. They were irreverent, open, wild, and full of life in a way I’d never experienced. That night was a real turning point for me. It taught me a lot about reaching for the edges of my creativity and going for it hard. Joe’s Pub has been the place where I’ve done just that ever since.
Kara Klenk: Ochi’s Lounge [now closed] was downstairs at Comix, and it’s where I did most of my first stand-up shows in 2007. I did packed shows, shows for two English as a Second Language speakers, LGBT shows, theme shows, shows that made people stumbling down to the bathroom from the upstairs show go, “Wait, like, what is this?” It’s where I met tons of other comedians who later became my good friends and loathed enemies. I always loved the vibe there.
Ian Abramson: Seeing Hot Tub With Kurt [Braunohler] and Kristen [Schaal] at Littlefield [622 Degraw Street, Gowanus, 718-855-3388] for the first time was like discovering the type of music you love. A place where absurd ideas thrived, but traditional jokes were just as appreciated. It was a true gem.
Adam Cayton-Holland: In early 2008 I did [Michael Showalter and Eugene Mirman’s semiweekly comedy show] “Tearing the Veil of Maya” at Union Hall [702 Union Street, Park Slope, 718-638-4400]. I was still pretty new and green, maybe two, three years into stand-up. I got there, saw Zach Galifianakis waiting in the wings, and nearly shit myself. I went on first, told a joke and it went OK. Then another, and it went better. Then another, and it went great! All of a sudden I was kicking ass. I saw Eugene Mirman and Zach watching my set and heard them both laugh at a joke of mine. I still remember it as one of the coolest moments of my career. Afterwards, Zach bought me a beer and told me, “Good set.”
Jim Tews: Union Hall was one of the first places I went to watch shows when I first moved here. I lived in Harlem, but would have no problem going all the way to Park Slope just to see whoever was on Eugene Mirman’s “Pretty Good Friends” [the successor to “Tearing the Veil of Maya”]. The room lends itself to a lot of different types of comedy, too. Another venue in a basement — the low ceilings and dark room are so crucial. It feels like everyone in the crowd reads a lot, but they also appreciate a good fart joke.
Phoebe Robinson: Union Hall is where Jessica Williams and I tape our 2 Dope Queens podcast for WNYC. I live in Brooklyn, so the convenience factor is high, but honestly, this space is like how a vacation home is for couples. Union Hall is where Jess and I catch up, rekindle that comedy fire, and it’s just the place where our comedy marriage really solidified. 2DQ has really grown a lot and the audience has with us, so the shows feel like we’re hanging out with friends and family, as opposed to performing for a nondescript audience. I love how intimate the space is, I love how awesome the staff is, and I love the feel of the showroom. It just has such good, positive energy and I love surrounding myself with all the joyful molecules that place has. I wish I could live there.
Samantha Varela: Union Hall and the Bell House [149 7th Street, Park Slope, 718-643-6510] are the backbone of the NYC comedy community, and they both hold a special place in my heart. Union Hall became the home of my touring show, “Picture This! NY,” and has consistently had some of the most enthusiastic audiences our show has seen. Bell House is bigger but maintains its intimate and comfortable vibe, and is where you go to prove you’ve made it to the next level in your career. Both venues have perfected that balance a good comedy venue needs: a safe space with supportive audiences and dynamic energy that encourages experimentation.
Jim Tews: The Creek and the Cave [10-93 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, 718-706-8783] is the most accessible place for comics. The multiple performance areas and spots to hang in make it the ultimate clubhouse for the established comics as much as the wayward ones. Rebecca Trent, the owner, gave my friend and I a weekly show there when I was still new to the city. It was what I needed to find some footing. The Creek is that kind of place for a lot of people.
Chris Gethard: Rebecca has built a real clubhouse for comedians, and she is a huge champion of artists. When I started doing less improv and more stand-up, Rebecca sat me down and gave me a game plan on how I should approach it, and it was a huge help. She allowed The Chris Gethard Show to do closed-door pilot rehearsals in her space. She allowed me to tape my album in her space. She makes her space other people’s space, and it’s invaluable.
Adam Cayton-Holland: “Comedy as a Second Language” at Kabin [now closed] was always really cool to me and gave me spots whenever I came through town, mostly because my buddy Sean Patton vouched for me. When that room was just jam-packed and sweaty and you were performing mere inches from the audience in front of you, it was tough to beat. That room really defined what comedy in New York is to me: packed, electric, with heavy hitter after heavy hitter just cranking jokes out one after another. One of my favorite spots to perform, always.
Josh Adam Meyers: I first performed at Kabin in 2012. It [was known as] “The L.A. Comic–Killer.” I had to follow Colin Quinn, who completely destroyed. I have never been more nervous in my life to go onstage, even after five years of doing stand-up every night. My first joke fell flat. I took a second, caught my breath, and then went on to get close to a standing ovation. As I walked off stage, every New York comic in the room grabbed me and told me I should live here in New York City. Felt good.
Audience tastes can be fickle. Popular scenes inevitably fade over time. No matter the day-to-day challenges, disparate missions, and even rivalries and infighting, local venues sustain and unite members of the New York comedy community. See this play out in real time this week over six nights and 25 venues at the 2016 New York Comedy Festival. Visit NYComedyFestival.com for full info on performers, locations, and tickets.