I hated the sweaty Manhattan comedy club I visited a few years back. The dark, airless room was crammed with tipsy tourists and its annoying minimum drink policy made me quickly resentful. I don't even remember the comics, except one wisecracking, ferret-faced fella who relentlessly berated a latecomer for taking a seat in front of him.
But next time around, I'll deploy some of the savvy advice I've picked up from a couple of rib-tickled resident experts.
"There are two types of NYC comedy: the downtown alternative-comedy scene and the club scene," says Hy Bender who runs the listings-packed Best New York Comedy website (bestnewyorkcomedy.com). "Downtown comedy is cheap – $10, $5 or free – and tends to be fresh, young and experimental, with everything from standup and sketch to improv and storytelling.
"In contrast, club comedy is relatively expensive, with cover charges from $15 to $60 and often a two-drink minimum. But it tends to focus on veteran stand-ups performing polished material and longer sets. For anything beyond standup, choose downtown without hesitation – but definitely try to experience both scenes," Bender says, adding that top comics often practice material downtown then perform it in the clubs.
"There are few greater joys than catching Louis CK, Chris Rock or Jerry Seinfeld trying out 20 minutes of jokes in a free downtown show – although these tend to be last-minute and unannounced," he says, recommending regular events such as Seth Herzog's Sweet (sweetcomedy.com) and Hannibal Buress' Comedy Night (comedyattheknittingfactory.tumblr.com) as possible spots to catch these "happy surprises."
But scheduling your visit by venue rather than hoping to spot famous comics is a better strategy for a great night out, according to Bender. His fave stages include the two Upright Citizens Brigade theatres (newyork.ucbtheatre.com and east.ucbtheatre.com) as well as the Pit (thepit-nyc.com) and Magnet Theater (magnettheater.com). Each offers intriguingly varied rosters and good value – including many free shows.
When you're ready to sample the club scene, he recommends legendary hot spots, such as the Comedy Cellar (comedycellar.com), the Stand (thestandnyc.com) and Carolines (carolines.com), which regularly showcase long sets by leading comics.
Speaking of comics, what do the comedians themselves recommend?
"The best venue hands down is the Comedy Cellar," says New York-based comedian Mark Normand who's often on stage several times a night throughout the city. "Gotham, Carolines and Stand Up NY are great, but the Cellar has great acts and a perfect layout for standup – you might even get a fun drop-in à la Chris Rock, CK or Chappelle."
Like Bender, Normand agrees the scene is much deeper than its high-profile stars. "There are so many great comics here, but most are unknowns. You have to check out Dave Attell – he's the king – and also Greer Barnes because he'll never leave," he says, adding Colin Quinn, Todd Barry and Ted Alexandro to his dream lineup.
Beyond that, there's a roiling wave of grassroots talent sweating it out every night, with Normand's ones-to-watch, including Sam Morril, Emily Heller and Adrienne Iapalucci. It's this intense level of competition, he says, that keeps the city at the top of the circuit. "You see other guys nailing a killer new bit and you think, 'Crap, I gotta step it up. And he's also younger and better looking than me!' That's why NYC is the best."
And if you're keen to add to the competition by hopping on stage yourself? "Open mics are like cocaine: It seems like a good idea before you do it then afterwards you feel embarrassed and shameful," Normand jokes. "Just remember it's probably not gonna go that well and if you bomb it doesn't mean they hate you. Open mics put you in a fight or flight situation and comics need to learn to manage that."
OUR READERS WRITE
- There used to be a joint called Hamburger Harry’s. Comedy out the back. So bad it was good! It was where Zach Galifianakis started. Gotham is also great. @GetLostMag
- Comedy Cellar! Good vibe, great part of town and an amazing lineup of acts. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life. @JordenHutchison
- The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre is a must. Lots of performers from the extended SNL family, past and present.
- The Comedy Cellar is my all time fave place to see comedy. It’s my dream to perform there! @juliacomedy
- Magnet Theater! I love going to late night free improv there. How can so many funny things be only $5 or free in NYC? And the Comedy Cellar: still a classic venue. @bentzen
- Upright Citizens Brigade is the best and they have a free show on Sundays. You have to queue, though – but it’s fun. When I went it was improv and Amy Poehler and John Krasinski were in the troupe. @MikalaT
- Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre! Great variety of shows/comedians and very affordable. @colene
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