This week Vulture is running a series of stories about the comedy produced in, and inspired by, New York and Los Angeles. Today, veteran comic Wayne Federman remembers the venues in which he's performed.
Here, in alphabetical order, are thumbnail descriptions and quick memories of various New York and Los Angeles comedy clubs I have performed at since starting out in 1982. I try to answer the important questions. Was it a street-level or underground club? Was there a bar in the room? Did it have a brick wall? Could comics enter from a backstage area? Was there a piano onstage? Some of the clubs are long shuttered, some are still hanging on, and others are flourishing, as stand-up comedy has boomed, busted, and re-boomed.
Note: the seating capacities are rough estimates.
Note: most clubs use a Shure 58 microphone.
332 8th Avenue, NY
Carolines — named after co-owner Caroline Hirsch — was one of the only places in the city that actually paid comedians to perform headliner sets. The "big three" clubs at the time (The Improv, Catch A Rising Star, and The Comic Strip) were primarily showcase clubs where you might get $50 for a weekend spot. This early version of Carolines had a small, raised stage in the corner with a piano. Richard Lewis was the first comedian I ever saw perform with a sheet of notes onstage — predating the alternative-comedy trope by almost a decade. It had a small greenroom. I believe it served Chinese food.
Carolines at the South Street Seaport, NY
Not just any seaport — the "historic South Street Seaport." The outside looked like a huge corporate headquarters. You entered through a large glass atrium. One side was a yuppie-esque bar/restaurant and the other side was the club. No piano or brick wall and the audience was tiered, creating great sight lines. This is where they first taped the A&E stand-up show Carolines Comedy Hour. The club closed after five years and moved to the even more "historic" Times Square.
Carolines on Broadway
1626 Broadway, NY
This location is probably what you think of when you think of Carolines. Those multi-color geometric panels looking out onto a huge half-moon, multi-tiered room that can be cut in half with curtains. This underground club was designed for stand-up comedy (it actually won an architecture award). Traversing through the large kitchen to get to the comics' dressing rooms you feel like you're inside a Martin Scorsese steadicam shot.
The Comedy and Magic Club
1018 Hermosa Avenue, Hermosa Beach
This is a hybrid club: Some nights are showcases; other nights, booked headliner shows. For years, magicians performed alongside the comics, hence the name. This is a street-level club with an actual backstage. Comics enter from behind a curtain. The walls have displays filled with great show-biz memorabilia and there are mechanical clowns on either side of the stage. In the greenroom, there's a cinder block wall covered with the autographs of comedians through the decades.
The Comedy Store
8433 Sunset Blvd., L.A.
With its giant circular marquee and the names of comedians painted on the outside walls, the Comedy Store is Hollywood's iconic black mansion of stand-up comedy. It is huge, storied, and intimidating. There are dark hallways and stairways, a scary basement, green rooms, lighting booths, offices, a kitchen, several bars, and a back alley. It began with the Original Room (then 99 seats, now 200), added the Main Room in 1977 (500 seats), and finally, in 1978, opened the Belly Room (70 seats).
The Original Room is where shows still go until almost 2am. For years the legendary Mitzi Shore would sit at her booth and decide which aspiring comics would become paid regulars, which would become doormen, and which would never be invited back. The back hallway, filled with hundreds of 8" x 10" headshots plus several giant black-and-white photographs, brings you to the back entrance of the Main Room. That room has the feel of a 1950s Las Vegas supper club with a huge backstage area: dressing mirrors, toilet, green room, and even a shower. Finally, upstairs is the Belly Room, which was created for female comedians, but lately, has become an experimental space that now hosts the popular Roast Battle on Tuesday nights.
Catch A Rising Star
1487 First Avenue, NY
For a time, "Catch" was the Studio 54 of NY comedy clubs. With lines around the corner, limos doubled parked down the block, and celebrities vying for entrance, it was the scene. There was a big window out front and you walked past a long bar to get to the main room. The stage was a couple feet off the floor. It had the obligatory brick wall but it was "dressed" with books, a hat rack, posters, a sign that read, "Rick Newman's Catch A Rising Star," and a small painting of Charlie Chaplin, Milton Berle, Abbott and Costello, and Eddie Cantor. (Berle was the only one of the group that ever performed there.) The club was more wide than deep with a small, raised seating section in the far back corner near the bathrooms. Catch also had, for some unexplained reason, a mirror on the back wall directly opposite the stage so comics could watch themselves while they performed. There was always a piano onstage and, on weekends, they added drums and electric bass. Music was a big part of the show and Catch had the best house band of any comedy club I've ever played (Pat Benatar was discovered there). Downstairs were the offices, money, and tales of sex and drugs.
The Comedy Cellar
116 Macdougal Street, NY
In the 1990s — during the comedy bust, when major clubs were closing throughout the city — the Cellar struggled. But these days, audiences line up around the block to experience the club made hyper-famous by the power of the acclaimed TV show, Louie. With the night's lineup handwritten on a white board below the now-iconic dressing-room-mirror marquee, the nightly wild scene at the Cellar rivals even the legendary Catch A Rising Star in its heyday. The room itself is a low-ceiling, underground, brick-wall club with a piano (it also had singers in its earliest days). The layout is surprisingly narrow and yet extremely wide. The comics usually enter the showroom from a back stairway via the Olive Tree Café. Near the back door in the restaurant sits a small, exclusive "comedians' table." Sitting at that table is the modern equivalent of having a seat at "Budd's table" at L.A.'s Improv in the 1980s or Milton Berle's table at Lindy's in the 1950s. It's where the cream of NY's stand-ups find both refuge and community before and after their sets.
The Comic Strip
1568 2nd Avenue, NY
The last standing of the original three NY showcase rooms, it's a street-level, brick wall club that used to have a piano on its stage. When it began, the Strip lived in the shadow of both the Improv and Catch, but, thanks to its "discovery" of Eddie Murphy in 1980, the room became a rival destination for hordes of bridge-and-tunnel comedy fans. It was also noted for allowing in underage patrons. The bar, built by the soon-to-be booker Lucien Hold, welcomed customers who were then funneled into a tiny hallway which led into a dream comedy room. The Strip was both deep and wide with a small balcony off to stage right. Its large seating capacity, combined with low-ceilings and an excellent sound system, helped create thunderous rolls of laughter that comedians still marvel at.
1118 First Avenue, NY
Walking into Dangerfield’s feels like you've jumped back in time about 70 years. You enter a large bar area. There's a coat check. There is a maître d', dressed in a tuxedo. All the waiters wear red jackets, and those waiters — not young, hot waitresses — serve you drinks. No brick wall. Red tablecloths and lamps attempt to add a touch of class to this throwback room that still entertains tourists from around the world.
11637 Tennessee Place, L.A.
This was a no-piano, high-ceiling club with the bar in the back of the room. Dana Carvey was discovered for SNL at IGBY's. It had the name of the comedians on wooden planks on the walls high above the room. It also hosted several stand-up TV shows and it's where I got to work with Bill Hicks. This location has a beautiful entertainment history: In the 1970s it was a disco, then a comedy club, and is now a strip club called Plan B.
The Laugh Factory
8001 Sunset Boulevard, L.A.
Born out of the stand-up comedy strike of 1979, the Laugh Factory is now a Hollywood fixture. It began at its current location with just a small storefront room with a mini-stage on the back wall. It sat about 60 people. I met USC freshman Judd Apatow there in 1985. Around 1987, the Factory took over the Chinese restaurant next door and was transformed into a huge comedy showplace. It's one of the few clubs with balcony seating upstairs and the stage now features a theatrical, iconic proscenium arch in the style of the old Hollywood Bowl. Also, every Thanksgiving and Christmas the Factory serves up free meals for the homeless and needy of L.A.
432 N. Fairfax Avenue, L.A.
Largo, along with the UnCabaret, were LA's alternative-comedy meccas before alternative and mainstream began morphing. A full bar was in the back and a small stage was tucked in the corner. Largo was designed for live music, but on Monday nights it hosted a booked stand-up show (whose roots go back to two defunct clubs, The Onyx and Pedro's) that soon created a tsunami of fans and national press. Every week, writers, rock stars, directors, composers, singer-songwriters, actors, and journalists converged on this tiny club. It was lightning-in-a-bottle. Largo had a small office above the kitchen that doubled as a green room but mainly the acts just squeezed in the back, hung outside, or gathered on the couch in the small entrance hall. Curiously, in order to retain their liquor license, Largo was required to serve food, so everyone seated at a table was forced to buy a meal. It remains the only club I've ever played with a one-meal minimum.
Largo at the Coronet
366 N. La Cienega Boulevard, L.A.
The owner of Largo moved a couple miles west and took up residence in a beautiful old theater. There he presents stand-ups (and their "friends"), podcast tapings, variety shows, and lots of live music. There is no drink or food minimum. Largo at the Coronet is a small concert hall that hosts the best comedians in the world for people who can afford it. It was here that Tig Notaro famously went onstage and proclaimed, "Hello, I have cancer."
171 Ludlow Street, NY
The Luna Lounge was a Lower East Side music venue, except on Monday nights when it hosted an alt-comedy show called "Eating It" (the show had its roots from another club called Rebar). Spearheaded by Marc Maron and Janeane Garofalo, "Eating It" gained a raucous following even before a 1996 Times article called it, "... the best place to see comedy in New York City." It was New York's version of what was happening (also on Mondays) at Largo in Los Angeles. Comedy fans at Luna poured into a large outer bar area, then into a narrow hallway, and finally, a lucky few made it into the actual showroom. The stage was pretty high, with a red curtain and the audience surrounding the performers on three sides, and there was an elevated sound booth in the back. Luna would pump the audio from the showroom into the outer bar area, which I'd never seen before. I remember doing bits, not just for the people in front of me, but for those jammed into the hallway, and also to those all the way out at the bar.
358 w 44th Street, NY
The Improv on 44th street was the first comedy club I ever performed at. I had read about the club in Phil Berger's book, The Last Laugh, which provided a peek inside the world of stand-ups. The Improv was the brainchild of Budd Friedman and his wife, Silver. Together they pictured a fun room where Broadway performers could hang out and sing into the night. But soon comics found the stage, took over, and Budd became their champion. Rodney Dangerfield volunteered to be the house MC and it just kept rolling. They didn't pay comics or even have a liquor license but slowly that all changed and a stand-up revolution blossomed out of this small room in Hell's Kitchen. By the time I first performed there in the ’80s, there was full bar in the back room. The room, of course, had a brick wall. And it had a door that exited onto 44th street right next to the stage.
8162 Melrose Avenue, L.A.
The West Coast version of the original comedy club, it was the rival to the Comedy Store. There was a division between the two L.A. clubs and comics were forced to choose sides. The Improv's outer bar and restaurant became a nightly, swarming hangout scene where comedians, actors and actresses, writers, models, athletes (Wilt Chamberlain was a regular), and various "suits" convened. The Improv's most exclusive location was a table reserved for owner Budd Friedman. If a young comic was invited to sit at Budd's table, it was a coveted public endorsement. A hallway led to the showroom that was much larger than its NY sibling. The walls were decorated with giant murals, and the elevated stage was so big that it held a baby grand piano. Although, at the Melrose club, the bricks were actually made of plastic — a perfect metaphor for Los Angeles if there ever was one.
NerdMelt Showroom at Meltdown Comics
7522 Sunset Boulevard, L.A.
The room sits in the back of a sprawling comic book store and was named after a mash-up of Nerdist (comedian Chris Hardwick's comedy/nerd brand) and Meltdown (the store at which the room lives). There is a small snack bar in the back but mainly the showroom is a simple no-frills, let's-put-on-a-show space that creates an astonishingly supportive atmosphere. It has a slightly raised stage/platform with basic theatrical lighting. There are no tables, just padded black chairs that were donated by a fan in exchange for a lifetime of free admissions. The comfy green room/tech booth, adjacent to the stage, has a sloping ceiling with a couch, puffy chair, desk, and various DVDs and books. It is the home of the wildly popular Wednesday night stand-up show The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail (now also a Comedy Central TV show). The room also hosts a full slate of themed comedy shows like Harmontown, SetList, Doug Loves Movies, and Historical Roasts.
2005 Emmons Avenue, Brooklyn
The club was named after the character from Great Expectations. It was also the only room that was owned by an actual retired comedian — George Shultz, although it was mainly run by his two sons. As a comedy nerd, one of the great joys of getting booked at Pips was the opportunity to talk to George about the old days of Hanson's Drugstore, Lenny Bruce, and Woody Allen. The room was right across from the docks and catered to a challenging Sheepshead Bay clientele. Outside, Pips looked like a regular storefront. To the right of entrance door was the stage, an odd performing area I called the "Lion's Den." It was like a pit, with the stage perched above a sort of sunken living room that housed most of the crowd. Directly opposite the stage was a balcony that contained the remainder of the audience. The bar was in the back. One night, in 1983, I watched Paul Reiser and Jerry Seinfeld, fresh off their Tonight Show debuts, make a triumphant return to Pips via limousine. Larry Miller opened for them.
239 3rd Avenue, NY
This is the newest room on this list that I've played. The Stand is a shmantzy street-level cocktail bar and restaurant coupled with an intimate club down below. It's got a classic brick wall with a Comedy Cellar–esque narrow-but-wide showroom. A sentimental touch is in the Stand's logo, which contains the image of Mike DeStefano, a NY comic who battled heroin addiction and HIV before dying of a heart attack at age 44.
UnCabaret at Luna Park
655 N. Robertson Avenue, L.A.
Luna Park was a large music supper club, bar, and restaurant in West Hollywood. But it was the small "cabaret room" in the basement that hosted a wildly creative alternative-comedy room on Sunday nights. One descended down a narrow, mirrored staircase. There were chairs, stools, and couches. A small bar was in the back. Here, comedians were rewarded for being honest and confessional, with the rule at UnCabaret being "never repeat a joke." Plus, the producer of the show, Beth Lapidus, would often interrupt the act, on a second mic, to prod comics to try and dig deeper into a story or premise. The UnCab has had many locations through the years but the seven years at Luna Park helped expand the palate for modern stand-up.
Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre – Chelsea
307 W. 26th Street, NY
UCB had a few homes, including a burlesque theater, before landing at its current Chelsea location (just several hundred feet from the site of the original Carolines). The theater is an underground room, below a grocery store. Performers can enter the large stage, just inches off the ground, from behind a wall. The audience sits in bleachers, although often the overflow crowds are seated on the stage and stand, crammed in along the back wall. It has a large dressing area. Although UCB is primarily a room for improvisation (and a school), it has also featured stand-up shows on its schedule. UCB created a new economic model for comedy that wasn't based on selling drinks. The shows are inexpensive (or even free like Monday night's Whiplash), which draws crowds, which in turn lures comics looking for receptive audiences to work on material. In 2005, UCB opened a Los Angeles theater on Franklin Avenue; now both L.A. and NY have two theater locations.