The New York Comedy Festival has featured big name headliners at Caroline’s, the comedy club that runs the show, and venues like Town Hall and the Beacon Theater since its inception in 2004. But in the last few years, it has expanded to includes gigs at small comedy clubs as well as performance spaces, music venues, a bar in Park Slope in Brooklyn and a Mexican restaurant in Long Island City.
“There are so many more places featuring comedy in New York than when we started the festival and we’ve tried to reflect that in the last few years,” says festival founder and Caroline’s owner, Caroline Hirsch.
Indeed, comedy is everywhere in New York. After what seemed like a zillion comedy clubs opened here in the 1970s and 1980s, many closed in the 1990s; alternative comedy then sprouted at spaces like Luna Lounge, then came a spasm of burlesque showcases and the growth of the improv theaters pioneered by Upright Citizens Brigade. These days, however, it seems like every place from a punk rock bar in Williamsburg to a hotel in midtown offers comedy on its menu.
“The landscape has changed,” says Scott Rogowsky, who hosts a live late-night show, “Running Late,” three times a month at The Pit, an improv club. He points to the The Creek and The Cave, the Mexican restaurant that hosts comedy nights and has become a hangout for many comics.
“I’ve never seen this much comedy in New York,” says Heather Dunsmoor, talent booker at Union Hall in Park Slope and one of the bookers for Bell House in nearby Gowanus. “Two years ago we were only booking music but decided to diversify and now 50% of our shows at Union Hall are comedy.”
This “democratization of comedy,” as Brooklyn-based comedian Eugene Mirman calls it, is in keeping with a generation that doesn’t need a Johnny Carson or David Letterman but can build a reputation on Twitter or YouTube. Brooke Posch, Comedy Central’s vice-president of East Coast development, says more young comics are teaming up early on with producers and directors to create web material, and Rogowsky says some stand-ups started in those formats. (The catch, says Caroline’s general manager Louis Faranda, is that many newer performers have 10 minutes of funny material but not enough to headline in clubs.)
Posch says this has led to new kinds of comedy, such as “a comedian showing a video, or a two-woman show.”
Matt Besser, co-founder of Upright Citizens Brigade, also sees the blurring of lines. “Stand-ups and improv comedians used to be like the Jets and the Sharks — you had to choose one or the other but now you can just be a comedian,” he says, explaining that the plethora of comedy spots means a performer can do stand-up without going on the road and can still be part of an improv group. “We have more hybrid shows.”
Shows are shaped differently too. For example, many alternative clubs turn evenings over to a comic to curate, a format Mirman helped pioneer. (He hosts a regular show at Union Hall and runs an annual festival at Union Hall and Bell House.) “It’s a huge trend,” Posch says. “Every comic has his or her own show now.”
Posch and Rogowsky say the humor itself is shifting too. “This is a very self-aware generation,” Posch says. “People are coming on their jokes as they deliver them. It’s getting very meta.”
Rogowsky, again pointing to Mirman as a driving force, says there’s more absurdity and surreality. “In stand-up and sketch comedy there’s more conceptual performance, or someone reading a letter,” he says. “The average person might say, ‘What the hell is this, this isn’t standup.'”
But Mirman, while tracing that absurdism back to Steve Martin, points out that unlike some alternative comedy of the 1990s, much of the current material still has a set-up and a punchline, even if it’s in storytelling form. “It’s a merger of a lot of stuff — the absurdist and the observational and the alternative,” he says. “But it defies expectations, which is good. You never know what I’ll do.”
Laughter’s relief for the troops | The new gold rush to viral comedy | Home is where the laughs are