The Comedy Cellar Part I
By Brandon Futernick & Harry Parker
ANDY HAYNES: I was at MacDougal and I was doing a set, and it went pretty well. And I got offstage and like, you know, you walk out of that little doorway and take a left to go up the stairs, but on the stairs was Chappelle. And I was like “Whoah!”
LIZ MIELE: My now ex-boyfriend’s Dad and Stepmother were in town and they were coming to see me do stand-up, which was very nerve wracking. And it was Aziz Ansari, me, Chris Rock, Kevin Hart
LENNY MARCUS: And the Saturday night show was like Jeff Ross, Dave Attell, Louie, Chappelle, Dane Cook!
ANDY HAYNES: I sit down at the back table and like, minutes later, Chappelle sat down, Mos Def sat down, Common came in, Tiffany Haddish came in, and I was in the corner, so I couldn’t even leave if I wanted to.
HOST V/O: Hey folks, how are ya?
I know this is a podcast and you can’t respond to that, but nevertheless, welcome.
My name’s Brandon Futernick I wanted to talk to you guys about stand up comedy
I don’t want to sound like the most boring Tinder profile you’ve seen, but to put it simply, I love to laugh.
I’ve been obsessed with stand-up since I was a little kid and when I moved to New York City about 6 years ago, going to see stand-up became a regular thing for me.
I’ve been to more clubs, bars, and hole-in-the-wall basements around the city than I can count and I’m fascinated by the whole process.
So I wanted to try and tell the stories of the places where comedy thrives. I wanted to learn their history, how they run, and what makes them special.
And that’s what this show is all about. Welcome to Comedy Meccas.
At the top of this episode you heard a few comedians talking about some of the most surreal experiences they’ve had at New York City’s Comedy Cellar. And that’s where we’re gonna hang out for the next two episodes.
You may have seen it in Louis CK’s FX show, Louie, HBO’s Crashing, or Jerry Seinfeld’s ‘Comedian’ documentary.
It’s a legendary spot that some of the industries biggest and funniest names call home. The first time I went there, I saw a show hosted by Amy Schumer where Judd Apatow, Aidy Bryant, Chris Rock, and Jennifer Lawrence all ended up on stage.
And that sort of star-studded lineup is kind of the norm at The Cellar. Which is wild, because it’s really just a nondescript basement in the middle of a busy West Village block.
If you walked by it and didn’t know it was there, you could totally miss it.
And in fact, the guy who founded the Cellar actually DID miss it at first.
BILL GRUNDFEST: I walked past it a couple of times because the staircases to what is now the comedy cellar, they had little chains up in front and it was dark, there was like a little pool of fluid down at the bottom that I didn’t know what it was, but I went to university of Pennsylvania, I certainly am not going to go down those stairs!
VO: Bill Grundfest was a young comic looking to open up a club in downtown New York City in the early 80s. His curiosity overcame his Ivy League education…
BILL GRUNDFEST: I said, “I got to go and see what this is.”
So I go down the stairs and I enter what is now the comedy cellar, and I’m telling you, it was like the angels blasting their trumpets and the curtains parted. I saw the whole future in that moment.
Low ceilings, brick walls, you knew the laughs we’re going to bounce. Oh my God, I fell in love with this, just this physical place.
VO: Bill’s passion for comedy just oozes out of him. And In fact, a lot of the club’s DNA comes from his own personal background.
His parents were Austrian refugees, so the mood in his home was solemn. They were a tough crowd, but he tried to elevate the mood by telling jokes.
He was a class clown in elementary school and eventually started pursuing stand-up for real in college. Soon, he decided he wanted to create a space for young comics like himself to hone their craft.
He’d rent any back room or basement he could get his hands on, bring his own microphone and speaker, and try to make it work.
The Cellar was actually his 3rd real attempt at starting a club. He had one up in Boston that didn’t take off, and another on the Upper West Side that gained some traction, but didn’t last. And that’s when he tried New York’s downtown.
BG: Greenwich village in 1981, there was still music clubs, like the blue note jazz club, the village gate. Lots of restaurants, used record stores, and also Washington square park was there. So you had a lot of people who are tourists, who came to see Greenwich village and where the hippies and the folk and the marijuana and all that stuff was.
I went down to the village and I saw a ton of humans with money in their pocket, looking for something to do. And I also noticed that there was an ant trail of pedestrians and it went from sixth avenue and it went down third street or fourth street, and then it made a right turn down MacDougal till it hit Bleecker and then made a left turn on Bleecker and it stopped at LaGuardia place.
VO: So knowing that he found a promising spot in the right neighborhood, Bill found the owner of that basement on MacDougal Street, the late Manny Dworman, and pitched his idea for a comedy club.
BG: I said, what are you doing downstairs in the downstairs room? And he said, well, we’re doing a Brazilian piano bar, as one does, So I said, well, what time does that get busy? He said, well, it kind of starts 10 o’clock.
I said, okay, how about this? I’ll do a comedy club at eight o’clock and we’ll be done by 10 and we’ll have a cover charge and a minimum. I’ll pay the comics and I’ll pay to get the audience and you serve food and beverage. there’s no way for you to lose because it’s not going to cost you anything.
And he pretended that he knew what I was talking about and I pretended that I knew what I was talking about and we shook hands and here we are. You and me talking 40 years later.
VO: The location, combined with an ad Bill took out in the Village Voice newspaper, helped them start out strong.
BG: So we started on a Thursday. That Saturday, we had repeat business from the Thursday. That’s when Manny and I looked at each other and said, ‘you know something, this might work’. Because New Yorkers, as you know, are very, uh, exacting customers. if they like something or if they don’t like something you’re going to know about it and people don’t come back to a place unless they had a good time
VO: Even though it was going well, the Cellar was still a little fish in a big pond.
Thanks to TV shows like Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show, stand-up comedy became huge in the early 80s. In New York, clubs like The Improv, Catch A Rising Star, and The Comic Strip were THE places to go.
So to stand out, Bill knew that the Cellar had to put comedy, and specifically the comedians, first.
BG: The secret of the Cellar’s success, the DNA, was kindness. I know that in New York, that is an odd concept.
VO: Kindness. Kindness? That IS an odd concept, not only in New York, but in comedy clubs in general. A lot of comics will tell you that at most clubs they perform at, they make it feel like they’re doing you a favor to let you get on stage.
At the cellar, it’s different.
Bill wanted it not to just be a stage, but a community. A place where like-minded people could feel at home and would actually want to work again and again. And oddly enough, it worked.
LENNY MARCUS: First and foremost, they care about comedy.
VO: This is Lenny Marcus, who has been a regular at the Cellar since 1999.
LENNY MARCUS: They care about the show and they care about the comics.
They give them a green room to sit in, they ask, do they need anything?
They realize the comics value, they pay them the most
VO: Though it’s a fun night out for the audience, for the comics, it’s a job. So the money really matters.
LIZ MIELE: if you don’t pay me, I will bomb on your show.
I will do whatever new stuff I need to do. I will take a dump on your stage.
If you pay me, you get more of an effort, but if you don’t, I don’t feel like I need to give you my best.
VO: That’s Liz Miele, another regular.
LIZ MIELE: It’s not great money all around, but The Cellar, because they do so well, because they have so many shows, um, because they’re usually sold out. Um, they are, they have consistently given us pay raises and holiday pay and, um, all that stuff adds up.
VO: But while they may get paid better at the Cellar than at other clubs, there is a trade-off.
I don’t want to make it seem like it’s a scary place either, but there is a[n] unspoken culture that you should be killing.
VO: there’s an expectation that for all this kindness, for actually getting paid, you have to bring your A-game.
LIZ MIELE: \ the Cellar does have this, “you should be killing every time”, as opposed to most clubs are like “do your best, this is subjective”
I think because there’s more prestige, that feels a little less true there
LENNY MARCUS: you do not fool around at the cellar because that was always the toughest the audience for sure. To this day, there’s no pressure on me anywhere else to perform..
VO: Not only does each comic want their own set to go well, but it’s also important that they work together to make sure the show flows overall. Andy Haynes, who has worked at the cellar since 2018, talked about the importance of keeping up the energy
ANDY HAYNES: a lot of times I go earlier in the show and I don’t want to fuck up the show for anybody after me, you know. Like you’re kind of, you’re kind of responsible for the next comic, you know, if you eat a Dick or if you alienate the audience, you’re kind of being an asshole.
VO: “Eating a dick” is Andy’s colorful way of describing bombing on stage. And what he means is that, in spite of the community spirit of the club, the pressure to kill can keep some of the lesser known comedians from experimenting with new material
ANDY HAYNES: I think to be able to try out new things, especially if you are not confident in them. That’s something that is reserved for the older guys, the more established kind of people.
VO: And those ‘established kind of people’ Andy refers to have that freedom because they cut their teeth in the club. Many of the more famous names you may see drop in at the Cellar have been there since the beginning of their own career. And their loyalty to the club is what owner Noam Dworman considers the Cellar’s biggest asset.
NOAM DWORMAN: Ray Romano and Jon Stewart, Chappelle. These guys worked here every single night before anybody ever heard of them. And they feel very bonded and very loyal to the club as a key to their life
VO: And celebrities like the names Noam just mentioned still drop-in and do sets at The Cellar pretty regularly.
It’s the most exciting part of going to a show because they really mean it when they say that ‘you never know who is going to be there.’
BUT if you’re as big of a nerd about the place as I am, you actually might have some clues.
So here’s a quick story:
I used to work around the corner from the Cellar, and I’d pop in for a laugh after I’d have a shitty day at the office. There were a lot of those, so I ended up going pretty often.
I started noticing that on some lineups, there would be a name on their site that I didn’t recognize. And instead of a headshot next to the comics name, there would be a photo of an animal or a cartoon character.
Then I’d go to the show, and in the slot of the name I didn’t recognize would be Judd Apatow or Ray Romano or Aziz Ansari.
So I noticed that when you see a fake name on the lineups on their site, you may have a special guest at your show. And I started to put together what names are stand-ins for what comics.
I don’t want to give away all of their secrets, and I guess I’m not totally sure about this, but if my predictions are correct, Nick Corda is actually Mike Birbiglia and Leo Russo is Ray Romano.
Again, the club hasn’t confirmed that my theory is true, but it is a pattern I noticed. If you’re curious, go to their website and if you see a name you don’t know, check out the show. See what happens.
And it’s not just on stage that the Cellar attracts a famous crowd. Andy Haynes told me about an unexpected compliment he got after a set one night.
AH: I’m going up and I walk out the front stairs. And like, as soon as I walk up the front stairs, Russell Crowe like runs up to me and he’s like, “Hey, great set!”And I was like “What the fuck? Gladiator? Gladiator likes my set?” Jesus Christ.
I mean, there’s been nights where I walked in and like Ann Coulter was at one table and John Mayer was at another, you know, it’s bizarre.
VO: I don’t know how psyched I’d be to run into Ann Coulter there, but if Gladiator came up to me and complimented my set, I don’t think I’d ever need to go onstage again.
But though the big names that the club brings in are a lot of fun for the crowds, it can be intimidating for the lesser known comics.
LM: I remember right as I passed, I remember this show vividly,
Here’s Lenny Marcus again
LENNY MARCUS: It was Saturday night and the show was like Jeff Ross, Dave Attell, Louie, Chappelle, Dane Cook! I mean they all killed, it was like the best show I’ve ever seen. It was like a murderers row of stand-up. And I was like ”I am never getting on the Saturday night lineup…It is going to take a lot of work” It was depressing.
LIZ MIELE: People don’t like to say it, sometimes it’s annoying to have celebrities on the show because if they blow the light, you get bumped or you’re late to your next spot, or there’s all these other issues because the rules don’t really apply to them.
So it’s not actually always exciting to have celebrities on your show. Sometimes they’re like, oh Chris Rock’s on the show. And you’re like, “fuck!” The celebritiness has worn off on us because it actually affects our bottom line.
VO: There’s a lot of things that can be really intimidating in a club like the Cellar. Attracting the big names alone means that audiences come with high expectations. So if you flounder, they’ll let you know.
Lenny Marcus had a story about how audiences used to react when they could still smoke in the club…
LM: I used to bomb so bad, I could HEAR the smoke coming at me. And I mean, people would blow, so they would sit in the front row and if you bombed, they would like blow the smoke in your face.
VO: Since the stakes are high and they want to please their crowds, the Cellar relies on a loyal community of comics that they know can handle even the most discerning audiences.
Noam Dworman has been running the Cellar since his father Manny passed away in 2003. I asked him what he looks for in the comics that make up their tight-knit community.
NOAM DWORMAN: charisma is the most important thing. I mean, the humor is important obviously, but the humor is not enough. And the truth is, a lot of people offstage, they’re as funny as the standup comedians, with a very few exceptions. I mean, there are some comedians you can see that these guys are out of the ordinary funny. But most of the comedians, you would not realize that they were much funnier than the funny people that you know, but they have charisma
VO: And that combination of charisma and a great sense of humor isn’t always easy to come by. So when the Cellar finds comics that they like, they stand by them no matter what. Even if their acts might be a little racy.
ND: they don’t want to hear from me, you know, what they should be doing with their act, but they know even if they don’t seem to know, they know when they’re going over and when they’re not. They know, and they all make mistakes.
VO: On the next episode of Comedy Meccas, we’re gonna get into what happens at the Cellar when comics get embroiled in some controversy.
DINA HASHEM: Like there was a time where, you know, I was getting in trouble for a joke that went viral.
DINA HASHEM (JOKE CLIP): Is anybody still mourning XXXTentacion? He was shot, he was on his way to buy a car with $50,000 in cash and somebody shot him and took the money.
Which is very tragic, but I think also would be a very good Venmo commercial.
VO: And what happens when a comic gets in trouble for their off-stage behavior?
ND: the Louis thing was pretty, uh, traumatic. Because we were getting threats and physical threats and threats on my kids and all kinds of weird stuff. And I didn’t want to get pushed around by the mob. So like PTSD about that.
VO: And how the club has reacted to becoming a bit of a lightning rod for online controversy
ND:I’m worried about it sometimes. I feel like we’re a target and it’s just a dangerous time. Things can spread like that, sometimes fairly but sometimes unfairly. But, on the other hand, I think the internet and Twitter are kind of like a wizard of Oz and it was just like a big, scary guy screaming, but there’s actually nothing behind the curtain, or almost nothing, and it doesn’t really have that much effect in real life.
VO: To hear more, tune in to the next episode of Comedy Meccas
This episode was written and produced by Harry Parker and me, Brandon Futernick
Our editors are Curtis Fox and Alana Casanova-Burgess
Special thanks to our guests Bill Grundfest, Noam Dworman, Lenny Marcus, Liz Miele, Andy Haynes, and Dina Hashem
Thanks for listening and don’t forget to tip your waitstaff
DINA: they were like super behind me the entire time. And that was really special to me.
They’re supportive of comedians’ rights to joke about whatever they want. I feel like they’re particularly good about that. I mean, you know, most clubs are, but I just happen to have a particular experience where that was put to the test and they definitely went out of their way to make sure that I was, I was good
VO: And though the club’s loyalty to their comics is largely a good thing,
The comic Louis CK has long been a fixture at The Cellar. His popular FX show featured the club prominently.
HARRY: I think that’s how I originally learned about the Cellar.
BRANDON: Right, so their relationship with top talent like that is important. And that relationship with Louis became strained in 2017.
Louis was accused in a New York Times article of sexual misconduct. Five women came forward with allegations and Louie admitted the stories were true soon after.
It seemed to put a total halt to his career. A film he was set to release was cancelled and several networks severed ties with him. it was unclear if Louis would be welcomed onstage at comedy clubs again.
9 months later, Louis dropped in at the Cellar and did a surprise 15 minute set, his first since the New York Times article came out (in what month?).
Though most of the audience in the club welcomed him, Louie’s appearance was the subject of a ton of media scrutiny and outcry online. Many people thought his appearance was too soon and undeserved without any contrition on his part.
Regardless, Louis performed at the club several more times soon after. Noam insisted that even though his past actions were wrong, he should still be allowed to work.
Eventually, small groups of protesters started to appear outside and some people on Twitter started to target the Cellar for giving Louis a stage. It got intense.
ND: we were getting threats and physical threats and threats on my kids and all kinds of weird stuff. And I didn’t want to get pushed around by the mob. And I, and I thought, I, I thought it was wrong that people expected them not to work anymore. So I pushed back on that. I think I won that battle, but I think time has kind of worn me out.
VO: Noam said the experience of dealing with social media backlash was traumatic, and the club has been a bit of a lightning rod for trouble ever since.
Just a few months ago, The Cellar was called out for allegedly holding guests hostage to pay their bills when flash floods from Hurricane Ida creeped into the club. There was a video posted to TikTok and a critical Daily Beast article that followed. Noam says the story was not exactly what it seemed.
ND: Things can spread like that sometimes fairly, but sometimes unfairly, and I worry about that. We had a little thing, like when we had that flood and you could see it on TikTok, and it was all untrue. And then the daily beast wrote a story and he said, the Comedy Cellar could not be reached for comment. They actually never tried to reach us. And I emailed them. I said, how did you try to reach me?
And they never answered me. They ghosted me. And the truth was we let, we never, we didn’t tell anybody they had to say, we let everybody go. it was a flood surge. We’d never experienced that before. But anyway, people try to capitalize because its The Comedy Cellar to somehow go viral.
But on the other hand, I think the internet and Twitter are kind of like a wizard of Oz and it was just like a big, scary guy behind the screen. There’s actually nothing behind the curtain. They’re almost nothing.
VO: But regardless of the controversy that they sometimes attract, audiences are still drawn to The Cellar. Even after the pandemic, there are lines down the block every night of the week of people waiting to get in.
A good laugh goes a long way, and for the comics who work there, THIS is the place to get the good laughs.
LizM: I always say like working here, working at the Cellar is like training with Usain bolt, you might never be as fast as them, but by training with them and chasing after them, you’re always going to get better. And I feel like the Cellar makes you a better comic.
VO: On the next episode of Comedy Meccas, we’ll have part 2 of our coverage of the Comedy Cellar. We’re going to shadow some comics to get an inside look at what it’s like to work a night in the legendary club. We’ll see you then. Thanks for listening.