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We all share the common problem of finding ourselves with multiple consecutive weeks of vacation time, unlimited access to a free car, and a pocketful of disposable income every summer, right? Because June is here, and there’s no better time of year to kick-off a comedy pilgrimage to some of the greatest clubs in America! U-S-A, U-S-A! All you need is a couple of free weeks and a license to laugh.
Have we got a four-city tour for you of some of the best comedy clubs our fine country has to offer! Heck, maybe you already live in one of these cities! Even if you don’t have the luxury of unlimited free time or unlimited cash flow to travel, comedy bucket lists are 100% free!
New York City
Sinatra once said if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. Headlining a show at Caroline’s on Broadway is that equivalent for comedians. No matter the day of the week or the time of the year, there’s always stand-up cooking on the grill of this Times Square staple. Founded originally in Chelsea by self-described “lifelong comedy fan” Caroline Hirsch in 1982, the club has booked the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Tim Allen, and continues to host big name talent like Louis C.K. and Adam Carolla.
This is the placed to go to see a polished stand-up set — and probably pay a two-drink minimum in the process.
Located below the Olive Tree Café & Bar in Greenwich Village, the Comedy Cellar shirks the headliner format of bigger comedy clubs. Instead, it primarily produces showcases in which a handful of comedians, of all shapes and talents, will perform shorter sets. Big names have been known to drop by this basement venue to try out new material, so you never quite know what you will get on any given evening. That said, you may recognize the venue from the FX cult comedy show Louie.
If you are looking for diamond-in-the-rough-around-the-edges comedy, it will definitely be worth elbowing through the hordes of drunk NYU students on MacDougal Street to catch a show here.
Their first official theater was famously formerly a strip club/nudey bar/burlesque joint depending on which legend you choose to believe. The comedy group known as the Upright Citizens Brigade has since moved on to bigger and better real estate – calling the basement of the grocery chain Gristedes home to their flagship theater. They have also expanded to Los Angeles and with another theater in New York’s East Village. The theatre hosts a robust, lively improv and sketch school and its performers are a veritable farm team for the hottest writing and performing talent in TV and Film.
Depending on which night you’re planning to go, you could find long-form improv, sketch, a one-person show, or a comedy wrestling smack down of sorts. No show will ever cost more than 10 bucks, so this is at the very least your most budget-friendly option. And probably your best chance to see the next big thing in comedy New York has to offer.
Chicago might be the granddaddy of improv and sketch comedy as we know it in the United States, and Second City its Chief Comedy Poobah. Opened in 1959, from the start Second City Chicago developed a unique method of improve which begat a unique way of crafting sketch comedy. Since its early days, Second City has become an institution of sorts. Claiming more than 13,000 students each year nationwide, it has turned out such comedic luminaries as Nichols & May, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Tina Fey, Steve Carrell, and Stephen Colbert.
The New York Times has called them a “Comedy Empire,” so if you are in Chicago this is the place to see where Rome started.
The theater formerly known as ImprovOlympic has some luminous alums of its own as far as Chicago comedy goes. Puppeteers of long-form improv as we know it today, and authors of its veritable bible, Charna Halpern and Del Close were instrumental in the founding of this theater in 1981. It now claims itself to be the best improv in Chicago, and in 1996 opened another theater in Los Angeles. The UCB group met and trained here before coming to New York- who knows what highly influential minds of the future are coalescing this very moment on the iO Chicago stage?
If improv is your speed, this is a must-stop while in Chicago.
Around since the late 1980’s, Annoyance has always offered fairly diverse comedy faire including “improvisation, sketch, full-length plays, cabaret, and full-length musicals.” The folks at Annoyance too offer their fair share of impressive alumni, such as Vanessa Bayer, Jeff Garlin, Amy Sedaris, Andy Richter, Jane Lynch, and Jason Sudeikis. An equally impressive claim to fame is their hosting of the longest running musical in Chicago history – called Coed Prison Sluts.
Right now there’s a show running called “Skinprov,” boasting partial nudity. If this sounds like your jam, Annoyance probably will have more where that came from whenever you’re in town.
Comedy clubs are nothing without a little name-dropping, and Punchline in San Franciso can certainly deliver. 32 years young, the club has seen the baby steps of comedy greats like Dana Carvey, Robin Williams, Drew Carey, and Ellen Degeneres. In addition to being the Bay City’s longest-running comedy club, it is also one of the only full-time comedy club in San Francisco.
If you find yourself hungry for comedy in the North Beach area of the city, Punchline’s sister venue Cobb’s Comedy Club is another stand-up stronghold of SF.
A staple of standup comedy in Los Angeles, the Laugh Factory has showcased some of the best comedy talent the country has to offer since 1979. The very first comedian to take the stage? Richard Pryor. In addition to launching careers, the Laugh Factory gives back to the community by running comedy camps for underprivileged children and opens up the club to offer free dinners for the needy on Thanksgiving and Christmas. They also run endurance contests for comedians trying to deliver marathon single performance sets – and if you need more convincing, the LA Laugh Factory holds the Guinness World Record for “Longest Continuous Stand Up Comedy Show.”
When you’re cruising the Sunset Strip, you can’t miss the iconic neon orange and yellow sign and you won’t want to miss whatever comedy is happening there.
Pasadena is technically in LA, and has more to offer than the Rose Bowl Parade. For example, this classic comedy club. Opened in 1960, the Ice House fed the growing alt scene in California hosting a variety of folk musicians and alternative comedians. Lily Tomlin, Bob Newhart and the Smothers Brothers have recorded live comedy albums there. While we are name-dropping again, Steve Martin, David Letterman, and Billy Crystal have shown off there material here as well.
This legendary venue now offers two stages and a lot of history to enjoy an evening out a little east of all the action.
Forget impressive individuals who passed through these halls, this theatre and school was the birthplace of Pee Wee Herman’s Playhouse. Using the improvisational techniques championed at Second City, the Groundlings troupe continues to create some of the most groundbreaking (pun-intended) sketch comedy out there – and continues to feed the SNL beast with such hilarious sacrifices as Will Ferrell, Jon Lovitz, and Maya Rudolph.
There’s a solid possibility that the people you see onstage here, you will see onscreen soon thereafter. And there’s a 100% possibility you’ll see some amazing comedy.
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Whew, boy are our arms tired… from laughing! You know, October sounds like the second best time of year for a road trip. Did we miss any great ones on this tour? What are the best comedy clubs in your town? Help your fellow comedy nerds plan pilgrimage part deux, won’t you?
Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.
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