second comedy boom

Remembering Rififi, the Underground Venue that Changed Comedy in the 21st Century

Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images for AmeriCares, Barry Brecheisen/WireImage, meh Akpanudosen/Getty Images for Variety and Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Throughout the 2000s, New York’s East Village used to house one of the most peculiar, albeit entertaining, comedy clubs. Named Rififi, the space on 11th Street, near First Avenue, became the stomping grounds for the East Coast’s so-called alt-comedy scene at a time when Luna Lounge was on its way out and experimental comedy was on its way in. In the early-2000s Eugene Mirman and Bobby Tisdale convinced the owner to let them stage a cheap joint comedy show, which would become the now-infamous Invite Them Up, a weekly stand-up special that featured such comics as Aziz Ansari, John Mulaney, Kristen Schaal, and Nick Kroll, among others. In the beginning, it was often an ill-attended, surreal showcase of character-based and conceptual bits. But from around 2002 to 2008, Mirman, Tisdale, and their comrades-in-arms helped turn Rififi from a low-attendance comedy club into a hotbed for many of the influencers and key players of the second comedy boom. Unfortunately, the club, now deemed a cultural relic by many fans and comedians alike, closed in 2008. We asked more than two dozen Rififi alumni to share their favorite memories; the weirdness and glory of the East Village’s alt-comedy scene lives on below. Viva Rififi!

John Mulaney (Mulaney)
I moved to New York in 2004. This was very good timing. Invite Them Up was already a big show, the show you wanted to do, Wednesdays at Rififi. I had been to the venue before when it was called Cinema Classics, for a Sunday night show I think. But once I was settled there I went to Invite Them Up every Wednesday. Mike Birbiglia emailed Eugene Mirman on my behalf and I think I got to do the show by 2005.  Nick Kroll and Jessi Klein then started Welcome to Our Week on Thursdays. At some point Jessi stopped doing that show and Nick Kroll and I started doing Oh Hello on Thursdays. Then Greg Johnson started a show Fridays. Greg’s show would drift into a party called Trash that started around 11 pm. Then Gabe and Jenny started a Monday night show. Andrew Du Bouchet started a Tuesday night show. My timing is probably wrong on all of this but it more or less happened like that. I loved hanging out there so much. Decent bar. Well laid-out. Always someone I knew there. I never in my adult life had a bar that I just went to like that. I also am now realizing I had my last drink there. September 22, 2005. Kroll and I constantly had to finish Oh Hello in time for the Burlesque show. So normally during the last ten minutes of our show the Burlesque performers would be changing side stage. I just remember trying to wrap up a lot of shows while people pulled wigs out of garbage bags. Greg Johnson and I went to a community board meeting when the venue was in danger of being closed. Silent Nights, the Bloomberg program that shut down … I don’t know … noisy venues … was happening then and there had been tons of complaints against Rififi, especially for that Friday party, Trash. So Greg and I went with this whole litany of reasons why Rififi was important. I think one line of it was really earnest like “Performers such as Sarah Silverman even drop by Rififi.” So we were about to speak about how important it was as a live venue and one of the board members said, “we’ve also heard Rififi has been conducting live performances which of course would be illegal since they don’t have a cabaret license.” So Greg and I just kind of sat down like, “Oh, okay, this is gonna close.” The last night of Rififi was very special. I am very happy I was able to spend the evening there. I still have photos from that night. I don’t have any photos of high school but I have photos of Rififi.

Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley)
You know, when I was in Chicago I’d heard about this show, Invite the Up, which was the show that Bobby Tisdale and Eugene Mirman used to run and I was doing stand-up in Chicago and I’d heard that album and I knew that was the best show in New York but when I moved there at the end of 2007, I was like, my goal is to do that show, and I was lucky enough to do it twice before it went away, before the show ended and the venue went away. It was this great place where I could go watch the best comedians in the world, like Jim Gaffigan or Demetri Martin or Zach Galifianakis for five bucks and then I got to perform with these guys on these shows and it was unbelievable and mind-blowing. I remember the first set I did there and how amazing it felt. It was sort of this big center of the New York alt-comedy scene. It was a little grungy, it was a very small room, it was always hard to get in, there were always great comedians and it was a great performance space. It was on the Lower East Side so it just had this perfect vibe, a venue is only as good as its show, right? And the best show in the city undeniably, Invite Them Up, was there, so that’s what made it special and then all these other shows came around it. Invite Them Up was the show that had the best comedians. There were so many funny comedians and they would never announce the line-up so you would just go and it would be like [someone] amazing, Mike Birbiglia, Louis C.K., everybody would do that show all the time. They were sold out every time, you had to get there early. It was only $5. It was unbelievable. And that room had a great energy, it was this dingy sort of dirty room, it was great. I did Invite Them Up there in November, a couple months after I moved there and I had seen so many comedians go up, amazing comedians all trying to do stuff and I was like, “Fake it till you make it! I’m just going to try something new and pretend like I’m like them.” And then it went really well, it went great and it sort of changed my life because I started touring with Eugene Mirman from that and then from that set I got a writing job, so it just kind of got things going. And in New York if you did that show, suddenly you were legit. It was like a TV [gig], you could do any other show.

Nick Kroll (The Kroll Show)
Eugene Mirman and Bobby Tisdale were doing Invite Them Up, and that was the first time I went to the theater. It just seemed like the most fun, and there were other shows around town, like Eating It, at Luna Lounge, but Invite Them Up felt like the first one that was being run by other comedians that I just wanted to be around and be a part of. I went and watched shows for a while before I got up there. I don’t remember the first time I performed at Rififi, but I do remember the first time I did Invite Them Up. I worked for a really long time to get a place, and I did my set, and it didn’t go very well. I was so bummed about it, and I waited like a year before I asked to go back. It felt like such a big deal to get on that show that I just wanted to back with something really, really good, or that I felt like was gonna kill. At every stage in your career, there are markers for what feels like success, and getting up on Invite Them Up felt like a real marker.

I started doing a show there — I think we might’ve been the first or second show after Invite Them Up on another night, which was me and Jessi Klein doing Welcome to Our Week. We did that for a couple years, before she moved to L.A. for a while. But we would go around the corner and have dinner. David Chang had just opened Momofuku Noodle Bar, and he and I had friends in common, so I would see him often on the way to work. Or I would pop in there before a show or something and eat noodles. It was really cool to have a guy who was doing something in a very different field, but sort of a kindred spirit, figuring it out as well. Jessi and I would sit down and talk about what we were going to do that night, and then have people on, and it was a really fun show. When she left, John Mulaney and I started doing Oh Hello, and we did that in characters we are still doing today, because we have yet to find anything more gratifying than being Upper West Side monsters.

We used to do that every week. We would host the show, we would do time up top, and then we would interview most of the guests. So unfortunately for people who were excited to perform there, they then had to deal with the onslaught of us attacking them with interviews. But it was so fun, and at that time, people would come to the show and say, “Oh, well this will never leave New York. This is funny for New York.” It’s really been fun to see everyone coming out of that place, doing their very specifically — what we thought was — alternative East Village comedy and watching it translate on a much larger scale. Now, Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland are two of the most important Americans.

We used to drink for free, which was a big draw. We all had a crush on the bartenders. Robert was the owner. To be honest, it felt like he fell into having one of the hottest comedy spots in the city. He was a guy who owned like an art movie house that turned into a very hot comedy spot. I remember Bobby Tisdale blowing a lot of fireballs. We had to rush out of our show every week because there was a burlesque group that followed us. If we were running late, the burlesque dancers would come and walk through and close the curtain and start changing to make it clear we had to wrap up our show. It was equal comedy space and burlesque house. There was a fun Friday night dance party called Trash, where ambi-sexual NYU kids would lip-sync to Morrissey.

I remember our show, Paul F. Tompkins came down and did it right after he taped his Comedy Central half-hour, and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world that he finished his taping and then came down and did another show. I remember me, Mulaney, and the Stone brothers up there onstage — it felt like the Mount Rushmore of comedy. I remember Joe Mande giving us a DVD of his set, and he was just finishing at Emerson, and I didn’t think he was ready, but Mulaney did. We put him on the show, and to this day, I still don’t think he’s ready. He did the windows at a glasses store, and he would steal sunglasses for me. For me, I split my time between UCB and Rififi, and having a physical place to perform and go to shows and hang out is such a helpful and formative thing. I look at the people that I still work with and am friends with, and so many of those relationships came from UCB and Rififi.

Chelsea Peretti (Brooklyn Nine-Nine)
Rififi was very close to where I lived and that was a huge draw during New York winters. I really liked that there was such a big emphasis on trying new things. I liked having that extra nudge to experiment. And it made watching the show more exciting also. Watching Bobby Tisdale host and do insane things all the time. He had clear obsessions but he never did the same set twice, which I loved. I think Bobby and I did some sketches together initially. In one he was a guy who seemed to be my dad giving me counsel on the birds and the bees and stuff, but then it turned out he was just my neighbor sitting on my porch and being inappropriate. It was called “Sweet Angel” (as were all of the sketches we did). I had my Michael Jordan flu set there where I did my set in spite of having the flu and wore a face mask. I think I was preparing for a festival or TV set or something so I felt I couldn’t cancel. I am like Michael Jordan in so many way, such as tenacity level, and my shoe I made with Nike. Here’s a picture.

Eugene Mirman (Bob’s Burgers)
“I just started walking around the Village, trying to find a place to do a show, and somebody suggested this place called Rififi,” Mirman told Splitsider in 2012. “I convinced them to let me do a show, and three months in, they offered [comedian] Bobby Tisdale a show. I was like, ‘Why don’t we do it together because, why try to have two half-full shows when we can work on one show [Invite Them Up]?’”

Wyatt Cenac (The Daily Show)
I do remember when the Invite Them Up album came out and how amazing it was and how great the comics and the crowds sounded. After that I found myself thinking, “at some point, I want to go to New York and do a show there and then have it turn into a Buffalo Exchange.” I only did one show there. It was right after I moved to New York in 2008. Joe Mande and Noah Garfinkel invited me to do a show there. I think it was one of my first shows in New York and the show was really fun. A couple of friends from work came and hung out. There was a great crowd and the space was cramped and dark in the way that a good comedy show should be.​ While I wish it was still around. I was glad that I got to experience it once.

Baron Vaughn (Fairly Legal)
I’d heard rumblings about it way before I was there. I started in Boston; Eugene Mirman started in Boston, and Eugene Mirman had a show there. I’d heard that about a few times before I ventured in a few years later. I’d met Nick Kroll at an audition where we ended up having to improvise with each other. We hit it off, and he invited me to stop by his show there. He and Jessi Klein had a show called Welcome to Our Week, but Jessi had just recently moved to L.A. Nick was hosting alone with occasional guest hosts while he figured out a new format (that ended up being Thursdays, and then Oh Hello, where he and John Mulaney workshopped the character now know as George and Gil). That might have been the first show I performed at Rififi. Then it was Giant Tuesday Night, which was hosted by a Conan writer, Andres du Bouchet, as character Francisco Guglioni. And then Invite Them Up.

There was a time when Reggie Watts had a residency there. It may have been the only time they did a residency. Anyway, if I remember correctly, it was the beginnings of Reggie figuring out how to do longer sets, and he was his taping sets with his new camera. I know it was new because he was showing it to myself and Marianne Ways (a New York comedy producer) before the show. Marianne and I were very concerned about it being stolen and said so. Since it was new and all. Reggie was Zen about it. After the show, he’s greeting people. Marianne and I reminded him again to keep an eye on his camera. Reggie was Zen about it. Even pointed it out and said, “Look! It’s fine.” And it was. So we let it go. When the crowd cleared out, who should come over to us laughing about how his camera was stolen? It ended up turning into Reggie calming us down about how upset we were, even though his camera was stolen. ‘Cause Reggie was Zen about it. The first time I did Invite Them Up I thought I bombed. People said otherwise, but it wasn’t the laughter I was used to getting at other shows. I never knew if it was because I was too sincere, or they were cool, or maybe they were just hot that day. But the second time I went up was immediately after walking through the door. I’d thought I’d stop by and show my face, and I did so right as Bobby Tisdale was frantically looking in the front bar for someone to do “30 Seconds of Stand-up” (a recurring bit on the show). Within another 30 seconds, I was walking onstage dressed for a cold fall as I proceeded to have the best set I’ve ever had at Rififi. I peaked right there and never got close to it again.

Max Silvestri (Don’t Walk)
It was for sure the most fun time of my life. Certainly not the healthiest or most productive, and I much prefer my life now, but that period of 2005 to 2008 was the most fun for sure. For literally two straight years I spent at least four nights a week there, hanging out with comics, drinking hard with comics, hosting shows, and sometimes doing comedy. It was a clubhouse for a certain type of performer, and there is nothing equivalent in New York anymore, and that’s a giant bummer. I landed there being such a comedy nerd, and I loved stand-up but also writing and making videos and weird little sketches and whatever made me laugh, and guys at Rififi like Eugene Mirman and Demetri Martin and Nick Kroll were all at the forefront of that, and you’d be on a show where it was very much encouraged for Jon Glaser to show a PowerPoint if he wanted. That freedom was super exciting, and it was a freedom for everybody, even your heroes, to fail on a given night doing a crazy complicated bit they would never repeat. I made the best friends of my life there, like Gabe Liedman and Jenny Slate and Joe Mande and Noah Garfinkel, and we are still best friends today and doing comedy 9 years later and that’s still the coolest thing. And that I could be a nervous amateur with a handful of sorta-smart jokes and be allowed to follow, say, David Cross, in a lineup was absolutely insane to me.

The first time I was asked to perform on the Wednesday show Invite Them Up, hosted by Bobby Tisdale and Eugene Mirman, was a giant deal for me. It felt like my Tonight Show at the time. I’d been hanging around for a handful of months, performing on other shows and getting to know people, and one Wednesday Bobby asked me to do “30 Seconds of Stand-Up,” which was this bit he often let young comics or guests do, where they’d literally do 30 seconds. Last second Bobby had to give that spot to someone else, and he felt bad and gave me a full spot on a show a few weeks later.

Now, my parents at this point had never really seen me do comedy, but they’d been getting breathless and exaggerated reports from me on how well stuff was going in New York, probably because I got to buy Patton Oswalt a drink at a show or something. And I told them I was doing Invite Them Up, and that it meant a lot. Now, the night of the show comes, and I’m rushing to Rififi, and I get a text from a college friend that says, “Uh, your parents are here?” My parents are not surprise people, but they’d happened to be in the tri-state area and found info for the show online and decided to hop in and check me out. Incredibly unlike them. Also, Rififi is not what you call a parents-friendly venue. It was a gross dive bar covered in graffiti with a cramped back room and it always smelled like someone had tried to put out a wig fire by peeing on it. And I get there and my parents are in their Sunday best, surrounded by drunk, flannel-wearing 23-year old comedy fans lining up to get in. But I’m able to talk somebody into giving them the two comfortable seats in the back, and luckily I’m going up first. Before my set, Bobby Tisdale, the host goes up, and says he is starting a 64-piece maraca band, and he wants to give a sample performance. And he brings up two male volunteers from the audience, and hands them their maracas and tells them to play. Then the D.J. hits the music and for, no joke, five minutes the two audience members shake maracas while Bobby pretends to have graphic gay sex with them. In all different ways. Just the whole gamut. Whatever your first 3 guesses are on how to mime gay sex, he also did guesses 4 through 12. And my parents are watching this from six feet away, stone-faced. (Bobby’s bit did not make that much more sense in the room than on the page, but it was high energy.) Then he abruptly brings me up, and I do my 7 kinda-shitty minutes, and for sure at least three of the minutes are about my mom catching me masturbating as a kid. And everyone in the crowd knows they are my parents and are watching them instead of me.

Like, this is the life I’d been bragging about? Right after my set they quietly excused themselves and headed home. The next time one of them came to a comedy show of mine it was 7 years later.

Jenny Slate (The Kroll Show)
I remember meeting [Nick Kroll], like, eight years ago at Rififi. And I remember [him] saying one night that Rififi smelled like a bag of Doritos had thrown up. And it always smelled like Dorito barf in there. In that particular moment I was like, This guy is the funniest at making observations that I’ve ever seen.

Larry Murphy (Bob’s Burgers)
Rififi was the first place I performed solo in New York. I did Invite Them Up, which was in full swing. I had started out in comedy back in Boston with Eugene Mirman who co-hosted that night with Bobby Tisdale. That first time I don’t think I knew what it was. It was a small, packed room. In the excitement I went long. Eugene said, “That was great, but … it ran long. You can’t do that here.” He was right. I’d come to realize everyone wanted on that stage. And they were all extremely talented. It was pretty heady because I was now in New York, but honestly I don’t think I’ve laughed more. So many funny people were there at one time. Before I moved down Eugene suggested I get in touch with Greg Johnson who had a show there on Friday nights. I knew Greg from the Comedy Studio in Cambridge. Just a super funny guy who I really enjoy. We started doing Fridays together. Kate Berlant, not yet a comedian, helped us book it. It wasn’t difficult since it was massive talent pool. Just a ton of creative energy in one place. I got a chance to do sketches and bits with some of the funniest people around. I also loved watching all those performers and so many were so very equally funny to talk to offstage. It was a dynamic, creative, and supportive spot; a clubhouse of people creatively hitting their stride. It’s easy for me to get wistfully nostalgic about Rififi and that time period.

David Cross (Arrested Development)
It was Eugene and Bobby Tisdale, what’s not to love? And it was seven blocks from my apartment. Nothing special, just another fun room to play in with all my friends. [My favorite memory was] when the toilet stopped up.

Liam McEneaney (IFC’s Comedy Drop)
What drew me to Rififi was that, plain and simple, the comedians I liked best were always performing there. It is very, very once-in-a-lifetime rare that a diverse group of same-minded people, who are also quite good at what they do, find a home in the same place. And 100 percent of the credit for that goes to Eugene, Holly [Schlesinger], and Bobby. They built a hell of a scene. To be honest, I was drinking pretty heavily in them days. The bartender invited me to her wedding, and I got so drunk that night I forgot to go. She even made the invitation a refrigerator magnet so her friends wouldn’t forget! The first night I saw Reggie Watts was closing out Invite Them Up, and I was instantly hooked. I thought, “Someone should make a concert movie with that dude.” Then I went to one of his early shows at the Studio at Webster Hall, and I thought, “I’m going to make a concert movie with that dude.” And then I did. Also, I went home with a woman after a show there, and she made me get naked and do stand-up for her. By the way, that really was Eugene and Bobby’s place. Invite Them Up took a couple weeks off, and the booker invited my friends Carol and Sean to put on a show during the hiatus, I think under the assumption that somebody would show up wanting comedy. Absolutely nobody did, it was nuts. I’ve literally never seen an audience that loyal for a couple dudes who were, at that point, not that famous.

I avoided going there for a long time, because for me, I don’t like “scenes.” It’s entirely a “me” thing. I feel very, very self-conscious around the quote-unquote beautiful people. But a friend talked me into coming by because it was a place, where, as I say, all the comedians I liked were hanging out. It was a hot summer day, and the air-conditioning was broken. I said no thanks to that and didn’t come back for a couple more years, even to perform. Rififi happened around the tail end of the East Village being a happening place to be. You had actual first-generation hipsters. The guy who booked the space was very much into burlesque, so on nights when Invite Them Up wasn’t happening, it was usually “early show, standup comedy, late show burlesque.” So you’d leave the bar and there’d be these uptight free spirits waiting for the showroom to empty so they could get in and set up. I don’t like to romanticize the past too much, but it was probably as close as modern comedy ever got to a Max’s Kansas City.

Kevin Allison (The State)
In the mid-’90s, Luna Lounge on Ludlow Street was the center of the alternative comedy scene. Absolutely everyone who was anyone performed there and it was magical. Then it shut down and all the energy seemed to be reborn at Rififi. I once did a monologue as a character called Boon Balloon at Rififi. Joe Mande said it was one of the funniest things he’d ever seen, and I was touched to hear something like that from someone who was of a younger generation than mine, but clearly going places. I think the first time I went I saw Nick Kroll and John Mulaney host the show as Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland, who never cease to be hilarious to me, so it’s awesome to see them doing it on TV now.

Andrés du Bouchet (Conan)
I wanted to do my show where the “cool kids” were doing their shows. I thought it would help me get more exposure. With the closing of the Luna Lounge, Rififi was now the focal point of the NYC alternative-comedy scene. It was a pretty calculated move, because I actually very much enjoyed doing my show at the Under St. Marks Theater just a few blocks away. In hindsight, the Under St. Marks space was better suited to the stuff me and my friends were doing, but my desire to be associated with  the “scene” is what brought my show to Rififi. So for most of 2005 and 2006, I hosted a weekly show called “Giant Tuesday Night of Amazing Inventions and Also There is a Game” at Rififi with some of my best comedy pals. It was a variety/sketch/standup show with lots of bad accents and bad inventions, like this one. We were the nerdy Tuesday night show, Wednesday was the hip Invite Them Up show, which I would consider the centerpiece of the alt-scene back then, and Thursday was a show that Nick Kroll did with Jessi Klein at first, and then with John Mulaney. It was a pretty amazing array of talented people who were performing there in the mid-2000s. Rififi is the first place I saw Zach Galifianakis perform, the first place I saw Patton Oswalt perform, and probably the third or fourth place I had sex with my wife. One great night in particular was in November 2005 when we performed a truncated and completely drunk version of Hamlet. The whole evening is on YouTube.

The very first time I was there was some time in maybe 2002 or so. Eugene Mirman had just started Invite Them Up, and it was still in its early stages, not yet a big deal. In fact, I remember him hosting the show with a children’s toy keyboard, for maybe 10 to 12 audience members. I told some awkward story awkwardly, felt bad about myself, and probably left early instead of hanging out. I’m still surprised I made any headway in comedy considering how terrible I was at hanging out and just having fun. I was always angry and insecure. The owner seemed like a real prick.

Kurt Braunohler (The Kroll Show)
Invite Them Up was the show. It was the one everyone wanted to be on. Kristen Schaal and I debuted a bit there in like 2006 or so where we had polio and were raising awareness for it. But it turns out polio just makes you glow in the dark. So we end up blacking out the theater, and Kristen and I strip to these unitards with all these glow sticks in them. And do a choreographed dance to “She’s a Little Runaway” by Bon Jovi, but it’s been poorly altered to “She’s a Little Iron Lung.” It’s really dumb, and I just remember sweatily hanging out with everyone after the show while everyone was wearing our glow sticks. I loved the scene there. It was before anyone was really too stressed over careers. It was just all about the creativity and making something weird and cool. And weird got points at Rififi. It was like there was this opposite universe from the rest of the comedy world — audiences wanted to be challenged, they were so willing to go on a ride with you.

Jon Glaser (Delocated)
Good friends were doing a show there, so I ended up doing Invite Them Up a lot. And it just turned into this really great alternative comedy night that had excellent crowds. This was when I was living in Manhattan and didn’t have kids yet, so it was a place to hang out even if you weren’t performing. Bin Laden showed up and did some word jazz. Not that funny, but was interesting.  That was the cool thing about the show. Someone like bin Laden could just show up and try some random bit. I don’t do traditional stand-up, I’m guessing that’s what it’s like, doing clubs constantly, seeing friends all the time, hanging out. Very fun times.

John Gemberling (Broad City)
I don’t know that I really appreciated how special Rififi was, at the time. I took it for granted a little bit, because I had UCB and I had Rififi, and I didn’t realize that there weren’t tons of other places that would be so supportive and let you do whatever you wanted … and get a good audience. I did a run of sketch shows there with Jon Daly, Brett Gelman, Curtis Gwinn, Neil Casey, and the guys from The Whitest Kids U’Know. It was an amalgam of the improv group Death By Roo Roo, the rap duo Cracked Out, and the Whitest Kids. It was called “Death By Crack Kids.” We wrote a new sketch show every week, scrambled to get props and costumes, and barely had our lines memorized. It was a total mess. But it was super fun, and it was amazing that Rififi let us do it. In one show, we did a Double Dare sketch where Marc Summers has become a pedophile and has thusly replaced the “Physical Challenge” with the “Fuckicle Challenge.” The contestants are disconcerted, to say the least.

Before it was called Rififi, it was called Cinema Classics (I’m not sure what else was different about it, except there wasn’t a stage). They let improv groups perform there sometimes. So my first time there was probably performing a strange, sparsely attended improv show with my old group Monkeydick. In the beginning, I was intimidated to perform there because it was this alternative scene that was outside my UCB comfort-zone bubble. But, in the end, it was the place where I met and performed with comedians who were making their own way without the UCB system. For me, that was integral to step out into the wider world without that safety net of UCB. There was a standing paper Japanese room divider screen off to the side of the stage that served as the backstage area. It was the only place to do a costume change or be even partially hidden from the audience (unless you went into the bathroom that was right next to the stage and frequently used by the audience). Every time I saw Todd Barry perform there, he did a joke that was essentially, if anyone wanted to change into their kimono, they could feel free to do it behind the screen. And I mean, he did this joke every time he went up at Rififi. It was a truly honed and tested bit. But, of course, he could perform it nowhere else.

Gabe Liedman (The Kroll Show)
Rififi was already kicking by the time Jenny (Slate) and I discovered it.  What drew us to there was that literally everyone else was already there! It was the one place where weird comedy was going on almost every night of the week. I have really lasting friendships that I forged at Rififi. Me, Jenny, Joe Mande, Max Silvestri, and Noah Garfinkel were kind of the babies of Rififi — we were all the same age, and all started out together, and we are all still super tight. Starting out there, and being the kids of the scene really bonded us. Joe and Noah always drank Greyhounds (vodka-grapefruit), and then eventually Super Greyhounds (grapefruit-flavored vodka with grapefruit juice), and anytime I see someone drink a Greyhound now I think about those two idiots. The scene made perfect sense to me, and it’s crazy to me that there’s never been another place like it. UCB and Largo and the Creek and the Cave all have cool scenes of their own, but they’re almost too nice.

Rififi was literally disgusting — it stank, it was hideous, everything about the stage was wrong, and the management was laugh-out-loud. But, also: the shows were free, every comic had a radically different style, and everyone was always hanging out. It was like a coke-y community center for the intense, needy, and hilarious. It was at one point a cruising spot for DL Hasidic Jews, maybe because of the Friday night dance party Trash, so every once in a while you’d see a Hassid in the back, in the shadows, clearly trying to make sense of the situation. That was always my favorite.

Greg Johnson (Myrtle Comedy)
Three special aspects of Rififi were its location, the timing of its run, and the openness of the bar. Because a lot of amazing comedians lived in the East Village or in Manhattan at the time nearby and would come every week. I don’t think you really see that at venues in the outer-boroughs in such abundance. And the East Village was just a special area in a lot of ways. The era, because … there was a lack of social media. This began before people were inundated 24/7 with the web, or Twitter and Facebook and people pumping their events/shows/concerts/open-mics/podcasts at you all day long, every day. So there was less clutter, I feel, and if people didn’t hear about anything else going on one night, there was a time where they might just end up in Manhattan at Rififi for a show or a drink. And I say openness because a lot of comics move to NY and have stories starting out about “barking” at clubs in midtown to try to get up, or paying to perform for like four people, or having to bring 10 people just to get stage time. Rififi was kinda the flip side of that coin where a comic could discover not everything was that club scene. There was less rigidity. All of a sudden you’re at a bar, often times around great comics, and you could hang and just be around the comedy scene. Being pretty new to New York when I started hosting Fridays there, I’ll never forget all the people I got to meet and perform with. I found a lineup from a show with Demetri Martin, Aziz Ansari, Hannibal Burress, Kristen Schaal, and The Whitest Kids U’Know. We’ll probably never see that again unless a billionaire commissions them. But no, scratch that. You won’t see that show again.

Bobby Tisdale (Bob’s Burgers)
Eugene Mirman and I had a friend at the time that used to live above Rififi and she told us it was the perfect place to have a comedy show. There really wasn’t much going on at the time except for a couple of dance nights and a movie screening here and there. It was the perfect location for our comedy show because the back room was separate from the bar. We never had the sound of a margarita being pulverized in a blender filling the silence of a bad joke. Every Wednesday night from 2002 to 2008: Honestly the best time for comedy I’ve ever been around in my life. Eugene started a show there for a month or so back in 2002. I did his show a couple of times and we partnered up and decided to co-host/produce it together as a weekly thing, then calling it Invite Them Up.  It was the first comedy show at Rififi and we put that place on the map in that regard.

I loved the space immediately and I loved Eugene always, and we had a great partnership with that show. It was the place, and time, that I grew the most as a comedian and performer. Invite Them Up at Rififi was a place that I was able to perform and do something new and experimental every Wednesday night for six years. The scene was magical, fresh, silly, raw, and very, very funny. It was that lost time in comedy history right before things went viral. It was a comedy time capsule, and I’m sounding very cliche here, but you really had to be there. I loved those days so much and Eugene and I are planning on doing Invite Them Up again, so stay tuned and you read it here first. I made out with some of the finest women there, met my wife at our last Invite Them Up, and I am forever moved and grateful to have dangled my comedy chops with some of the most talented comedians to set foot on this earth at the crusty black hole that was once called Rififi on 11th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues in the East Village.

Chris Gethard (Broad City)
Rififi was a place where the lunatics ran the asylum. I performed there dozens of times and I still have absolutely no idea who was in charge. The comics who ran the shows really carried the responsibility for those shows. When you leave comics in charge of something it tends to be a poorly organized disaster, but for some reason with Rififi everyone just kept raising the bar for each other and all the shows got better and better over time. Artists always grumble about how they want total freedom, but lots of times when they get it the bottom falls out because artists are not organized people. Rififi managed to somehow land in the sweet spot where it actually worked. People tried stuff from all corners of the comedy world — stand-up and songs and characters and weird PowerPoint presentations, all organized by lazy comedians, and it clicked. It was a clubhouse and it was rad.

The first time I did stand up was at Rififi. (If Joe Mande is reading this, he is already mad I am telling this story again just based off that first line, by the way.) I’d done tons of improv at UCB and then was doing a lot of storytelling. I started a show called Nights of Our Lives and a lot of the Rififi comics were coming up to UCB to do it and they all started inviting me to do their shows. I did some characters on Kroll and Mulaney’s show, told some stories on different shows, and Joe Mande and I had buddied up. He was like, “Come do actual stand-up on my show.” This was after I sent him a nervous email asking, “How do you do stand-up?” So it was nice of him to give me a slot and I went and did it for the first time. And obviously, I was nervous. And for some reason my nervous tic that night was that I kept putting my hand in my back pocket. And I was real fidgety back there. And Joe and Noah Garfinkel got onstage afterwards and were like, “I don’t know what Gethard was looking for in his asshole, but I hope he finds it soon.” And they had a lot of fun with it. And to be fair it was absolutely necessary to call out, I looked like a lunatic putting his finger up his asshole through his pants. That being said I was so mortified that I didn’t try stand-up again for about six full months.

I remember a few things striking me immediately. One, the bartender was one of the prettiest ladies I’d ever seen. This feeling never left me any time I returned. She was adorable and I was scared to talk to her. I literally never spoke to her, not even to order a drink. Two, I came from the UCB world where everything starts on time and I was flabbergasted that shows were starting so late. It stressed me out. Three, I remember thinking, “Those flimsy glass doors can’t possibly keep the sound from the bar out of the room.” Which they didn’t. But then the show started and I remember it didn’t matter, because people really laughed in that room. The laughter bothered the people in the bar more than the bar noise bothered the people in the comedy show. That’s a victory. I loved it. I remember it being so inclusive. UCB has always been real clannish and historically improv/sketch people and stand-ups can be sort of on opposite sides of the same comedy fence. Rififi built a bridge between them in a huge way. I think Seth Morris was the first UCB guy who I heard was performing characters down there and thinking it was so crazy to go do characters at a stand-up night and that it was cool the stand-ups would let him do it. That lead me to go check out what was happening there. Weirdly, Rififi had a ton to do with the success of people at the UCB at the time because it pushed so many of us to stop doing just improv and start trying solo performance. In that sense, many people who have come along since Rififi closed owe the scene at Rififi in a big way, because it kind of reshaped a lot of priorities for people from the alt world. Basically, the scene was inclusive and full of dumb stuff, and it often failed but it was always ballsy and interesting. It was always so fascinating to me that they were allowed to do what they were doing — it felt like the sort of thing someone would try to regulate or make money off of or something, but it just existed as this very pure feeling place.

Jon Daly (The Kroll Show)
Rififi was definitely a special place. I have so many memories of being there and seeing both great stuff and super shitty stuff. It was like the crest of the wave of the alt New York comedy scene and everyone was there, man. Bobby and Eugene really put that place on the map when it comes to comedy. I saw tons of great bits at Rififi. I saw Slovin and Allen, Glaser and Benjamin, Greg Johnson, Faceboy, Michael Ian Black … mind you, along with an endless roster of shitheads that were kidding themselves. We were grinding it out every night, man. Almost every night? I remember one particular night I was doing a late night sketch show with Brett Gelman, John Gemberling, Curtis Gwinn, and the Whitest Kids U’Know. A show at that tiny space with way too many people. Sketch comedy never worked there. Our show was pretty ragtag and none of us wanted to even do it half the time, and we were drunk throughout the whole process (I was anyway) so we were shitting out some pretty hilarious, very tight sketches, as you can imagine. So one time we do this show and unbeknownst to us, my then-girlfriend convinces Sam Shepard, who is at the bar, to come to the show. As in great American playwright, fantastic movie-actor-cowboy Sam Shepard. So he comes to see this crazy, dumbass late night show, and we do the show to like 10 people. After we realize who just came to see this bullshit and we’re all blown away. Sam Shepard is super cool and sticks around. Pretty tipsy, he tells us he loved the show. He goes on about it and it actually seems like he kind of liked it. I remember us being rather pleased with ourselves that he liked it. Well, well, well, we thought. Aren’t we something? Say, maybe this show isn’t a waste of time? Anyways, I was like, “Cool man, I like, duh, True West? Durrrrrr it’s a great play cause like, you’re Sam Shepard, bro what’s up.” He was cool as hell, mostly because he was trying to have sexual intercourse with my then-girlfriend, which I would’ve had to have been cool with in the end. It’s like fucking Beethoven. Alright, you can fuck Beethoven. Hall pass. So yes, Rififi was one of the great places.

Joe Mande (The Kroll Show)
I moved to New York in 2005 shortly after college. I wanted to do stand-up but had no idea where to go. I started performing at shitty open mikes all over town and often got heckled by other comics. It was miserable. Then at some point that fall, my friend Elisha booked me on a college show at UMass Amherst to open for Eugene Mirman, Bobby Tisdale, AD Miles, and Leo Allen. After the show they all started asking me what my deal was, why they had never seen me before. I told them all the places I was performing in the city and they all agreed I was doing it wrong. Eugene and Bobby told me to come to Rififi the next week and they’d let me do something called “30 Seconds of Stand-up” at their show Invite Them Up. I got to Invite Them Up that next week and fell in love with Rififi. It was filthy and smelled like mold, but it was packed and all the comics on the bill were amazing. To this day, I’ve never been more nervous than when Bobby introduced me those do “30 Seconds of Stand-up.” I started going to Rififi pretty much every night after work. Eventually I got asked to host the Monday night show there along with my friend Noah Garfinkel. My show used to precede a burlesque show, so I was routinely yelled at by buxom women in nipple pasties angrily letting me know we had gone over our allotted time. I remember seeing Reggie Watts for the first time and being convinced he was an alien being. I used to steal ugly old sunglasses from my job to give to Nick Kroll for his character Fabrice Fabrice. To me, it really felt like Rififi was the center of the comedy universe. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but it really did seem like it at the time.

Aziz Ansari (Parks & Rec)
“The alternative rooms [gave] you an outlet to explore something other than straight stand-up,” Ansari told the New York Times in 2006. “You [could] do characters. I [could] bring a girl on stage that I got rejected by and interview her, or do a PowerPoint presentation or show a short film. The nature of the venues [allowed] you to experiment.”

Brett Gelman (Married)
I wanted to start doing things outside of UCB and I thought it would be a good idea to take some sort of actor-based-conceptual stuff and start doing that at stand-up venues. Really for the most part, I started out being pretty character-based, even though it was also just very far-out and conceptual. I missed the boat on Eating It at Luna Lounge, which was that generation of the UCB, Sarah Silverman, Louis C.K., Patton Oswalt, and Marc Maron. I came in and I started to feel comfortable enough to do those types of venues after that show had come and gone. I kind of knew Eugene and Bobby, and I knew that they were starting Invite Them Up. I did it very infrequently in the beginning, and there were very few people in the audience a lot of the time.

I would do really far-out shit, and people would be like, What the fuck is this? But then later on in the show, after the album came out, I became really good friends with Eugene and Bobby. Rififi started to become a major hang-spot for me, I started to go there a lot — whether I was going to perform or not. I really admired all these guys; they inspired me. Everybody just went for it. I remember Chelsea Peretti going up sick as a dog, with a surgical mask on and rubber gloves. She was so ill with the flu. The greatest bit I ever saw on a New York stand-up stage was Jon Glaser and H. Jon Benjamin. They’re introduced as Dan Franz and Dan Farina — the sons of actors Dennis Franz and Dennis Farina — and they came onstage and they were both playing like awkwardness on stage, not having been onstage many times before like their very famous fathers, with thick, cartoonish Chicago accents. Both their characters were very insecure. Glaser was insecure in a way of fronting and being really confident and talking about whatever mundane thing came to his head. And Benjamin was more eager to please the audience. They do like 10 minutes of back-and-forth banter about a lot of purposefully hacky jokes about Chicago: deep dish, Second City, the Windy City. Glaser was wearing cargo pants, and Benjamin pointed them out like that was funny for some reason, and Glaser said, “Yeah, I like these. This is where I keep all the doo-doo bags, when I walk my dog. It makes it real easy. My dog takes a crap, I just put my shit in one of the pockets, and boom I’m covered.” Then Jon Benjamin takes out a ukelele, and he proceeds to tune the ukelele for what feels like 10 minutes. And he’s like, “I almost got it, I almost got it.” Glaser’s getting very stressed out because the ukelele is not being tuned. He’s just like, “Hey, take as much time as you need, Dan. Take as much time as you need, alright? We’ll do it when you’re ready, and not a moment before, my friend.” They finally start playing this song, and Glaser reveals that the two of them, the reason they’re there performing, is to raise awareness to vote for Mike Huckabee. So the whole thing becomes a pro-life, pro-Huckabee PSA onstage. I could’ve watched that for the rest of my life. It blew my mind.

Invite Them Up and Comedy Death Ray are two of the most important things that have happened to comedy in the last 20 years. I remember going out to a bar with Eugene and Todd Barry, I had just started to become friends with them. We’re in the bar, and there are all these guys hitting on girls, and Interpol was really big. This guy was talking to this girl and Eugene was standing on the side of the girl, chewing on her hair, without either of them noticing. We were all pretty crazy.

Additional reporting by Kara Warner.

25 Comedians Reminisce About Rififi