In partnership with Humber College’s Comedy Writing and Performance program.
For the last four decades, live standup has defined itself in relation to comedy clubs, those altars of joke-telling that began building their congregations during the 1980s comedy boom.
Alternative comedy got its name by rebelling against these two-drink-minimum venues, which continue to provide the mainstream home for everyday standup – neither as lofty as a theater show nor as potentially intimidating (and random) as an open-mic in the back of a bar.
Comics rank in them descending alphabetical importance, with A Rooms acting a market’s best stage, B Rooms its second-best, etc. Despite the sharp uptick in DIY venues, comedy festivals, and online humor in recent years, the club remains ground zero for most people’s live experience with comedy, even if the stereotype of disruptive bachelorette parties and drunken hecklers is as justified as ever.
For the purposes of this list a comedy club is defined as a mid-sized (roughly 200 to 500-seat) venue focused primarily on standup – as opposed to improv or sketch – that hosts touring performers on a weekly basis.
Arizona’s biggest city gets a bad rap for its lack of culture (sometimes rightfully so), but sun-scorched comedy nerds know well the pleasures of Stand Up Live. The 600-person-capacity club, the size of which strikes fear in the hearts of all but the biggest names, can be made cozier with a simple curtain pull, and its reputation for appreciative audiences keeps touring acts coming back year after year.
Like The Improv in the United States, the 41-year-old Yuk Yuk’s chain more or less owns Canada’s syndicated standup scene with a dozen-plus locations spread across the Great White North. Its Toronto homebase, run by co-founder Joel Axler and business partner Jeff Silverman, features both touring and local comics in a downtown club that doubles as a warehouse for Yuk Yuk’s contract talent.
It would be bizarre if one of America’s quintessential college towns and the birthplace of The Onion didn’t have a solid hometown club. Fortunately, the Capitol-adjacent Comedy Club on State has developed a reputation for friendly, lounge-like atmosphere and consistently solid booking, which includes headliners and rising names, while co-booking bigger shows with the nearby Orpheum Theater.
Portland’s thriving standup scene and festival culture requires a club of commensurate scope and quality, and 2010 newcomer Helium (a Philadelphia-based mini-chain with locations in Philly, St. Louis, and elsewhere) has stepped into that role. Its open mics and comedy classes offer baseline programming for locals alongside headlining shows from beloved natives who decamped to L.A., like Ron Funches and Ian Karmel. Another bonus: the 275-capacity space features remarkably good sightlines for each seat.
In this cosmopolitan bilingual city, world-renowned for its Just For Laughs festival, there’s a bevy of year-round, English-language standup options, including this decades-old JFL venue. The Comedy Nest’s intimate layout, situated on the third floor of downtown’s Forum, features 160 seats in a cabaret-style theater and an 18-and-up admission policy. Plenty of standup nerds (including this one) have had some of the most bracingly intimate experiences of their life there.
As Atlanta’s oldest comedy brand (no relation to the San Francisco Punch Line), the Punchline’s past boasts Southern luminaries who got their start on its stage, like Jeff Foxworthy and Reno Collier, and Georgia natives such as David Cross. Despite a recent move that downsized capacity a bit, comics still speak highly of its role in the region’s standup ecosystem, which supports the Laughing Skull Lounge (and its attendant festival) and several others.
Austin’s muscular comedy scene relies on Cap City (formerly the Laff Stop) as its beating heart, with a history of regionally touring patron saints like Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison, and Ron White, who frequently dropped in from Houston. Co-owner Colleen McGarr, a former Just for Laughs booker and manager/girlfriend to Hicks, prides herself on the club’s careful curation and cooperation with other biggie events in town, such as the Austin’s five-year-old, nonprofit Moontower Comedy Festival (which McGarr also books).
A relative newcomer that quickly caught up to the country’s more established players, this 25-year-old Warehouse District favorite is a frequent recording stop for the (also Minneapolis-based) Stand Up! Records label. The city’s punk/indie past is often reflected in Acme’s cultivation of grassroots talent, to the benefit of both the club and its loyal audience, making it the Twin Cities’ undisputed standup champ and a favorite of regional heroes Maria Bamford and Jackie Kashian.
With outposts in Chicago and elsewhere, the main location of this Nashville institution recalls the madcap, giddy days of the ’80s boom – which makes sense since the club was founded in 1983, the sweet spot of the national club explosion. Comics who typically pack theaters schedule discrete residencies and weekend runs there, while the agnostic booking ignores categories for general quality and appeal, giving the club as strong a reputation among touring acts (and Nashville natives like Nate Bargatze) as civic boosters.
Times Square can be a scary place for all but the most clueless tourists, but Caroline’s on Broadway has improbably bucked that trend since it moved to the area in 1992 – which might be due to its founding in Chelsea during the opening salvo of the first standup boom. Sitcom, film, and TV legends have climbed onto its stage, which also hosted the last runs of Bill Hicks, Mitch Hedberg, and Patrice O’Neal. Its familiar multi-colored, diamond-patterned background is nearly as iconic as the Improv’s brick wall, and like the Improv, it’s the definition of a crowd-pleaser.
No respectable comic from the 1970s and on has skipped a spot on Mitzi Shore’s iconic stage, which provides a current homebase for Marc Maron, Jerrod Carmichael, Ari Shaffir, Pauly Shore, and others. That’s partially due to a rich history of instantly recognizable names who came up there, including Kinison, Dice, Letterman, Leno, Roseanne, and Arsenio. Its historical reputation has also been burnished lately with shows like Roast Battle, Kill Tony, and Stand Up on the Spot (weeknight shows in the Original Room) and famous pop-ins.
Wende Curtis worked her way up from cocktail waitress to owner at this downtown Denver spot, becoming one of the most respected names in the club world along the way. Dozens of modern-classic albums from Dave Attell, Greg Giraldo, Nick Thune, Natasha Leggero, and others were recorded here, and touring comics prize a headlining set on its tiny subterranean stage as much as newcomers do on its New Talent night. The ascendant Mile High City comedy scene can trace much of its professionalism to Curtis’ ethos, and biggies like Dave Chappelle have lately made it a home away from home.
Dozens of headliners cut their teeth in the Bay Area’s oldest comedy club, including native and adopted San Franciscans Robin Williams, Paula Poundstone, Margaret Cho, and wide swath of influential alt-comics. Along with promoter Bill Graham’s other clubs (including Cobb’s) the 18-and-up venue is now owned by mega-promoter Live Nation but continues to program with an eye toward political humor and up-and-comers. Canny booker Molly Schminke, in particular, has recently tested ideas such as a solid month of all-female headliners.
Before it was immortalized in the intro to Louis C.K.’s FX series, this unassuming, 34-year-old Greenwich Village club had already hosted some of the most intimidatingly skilled, freewheeling sets in the history of standup, including a rotating cast of tough-guy regulars who still reflect the grit and urgency of the city’s (somewhat) bygone culture. Saturday Night Live cast members, Seinfeld, and a constellation of film stars have grabbed a pre-set bite at the upstairs Olive Tree Cafe. Its exclusive Comic’s Table is the stuff of standup legend, and the physical layout at its original location (as opposed to its newer, larger Village Underground room) offers a perfect mix of elements for enjoying live standup – think low ceilings and elbow-to-elbow seating that encourages contagious, boozy, unadulterated laughter.
As arguably the best-known comedy club in the world, the West Coast flagship of this New York-bred chain benefits from its strategic perch on Melrose Avenue. An average week’s programming features celebrity drop-ins, house comics, touring names, podcast recordings, greenhorns eager to network and learn, and a healthy mix of industry, comedy geeks, and regular folks absorbing it all. Along with its next-door Lab space, which features workshops and experimental shows, The Improv continues to provide a focal point for the world’s best standup scene. But instead of resting on its historic laurels, it’s looking forward with shrewd booking from Jamie Flam and a smart remodel that freshens up the familiar showroom.
Comedy Writing and Performance is a two-year diploma program taught in Toronto, Canada, by Saturday Night Live, SCTV and Yuk Yuk’s veterans. Find out how funny people become funnier: humbercomedy.ca.