"This is where comedy works — where people are the most miserable," Doug Stanhope lamented as he walked the streets of New York City at the beginning of his special, No Refunds. Maybe it is the misery, dirt and exhaustion that comes with life in NYC that fosters great comedic voices; an optimist would say its the city's vibrancy, diversity, and bustling energy. Either way, it's impossible to deny that no place does comedy like New York. Though in the past, we've looked at the stellar comedy scenes of both Los Angeles and Austin, I'll faithfully defend New York as the greatest comedy city in the world.
There's more comedy to see in New York City than any human could possibly manage. Standup is still the bread-and-butter of the scene, though nowadays it's also home to just about every time of comedic endeavor imaginable. This is a nowhere-near-comprehensive look at the city's comedy for both fans and aspiring comedians.
Best Weekly Shows
Arranged in chronological order, Mon.-Sun.
Night Train – Holding up the Monday night Brooklyn comedy scene after the departure of Hot Tub, producer Marianne Ways and former Daily Show correspondent Wyatt Cenac have put together a top-notch night of New York standup. Expect to see local favorites like Eugene Mirman and Dave Hill alongside TV types such as W. Kamau Bell and Al Madrigal, and if you’re lucky, music from the likes of Mike Doughty and Ted Leo.
Monday, 8pm • $5 in advance, $8 day of • Littlefield
Whiplash – If you’re only gong to see one standup show while in New York, you’re doing it wrong. Nonetheless, Whiplash is the clear winner, one of the crown jewels of the alt scene. The free late night show is a mix of up-and-comers doing their best material and established comics trying out new stuff. It’s also a favorite for really big names, with recent drop-ins including Chris Rock, Aziz Ansari, and David Cross. With regular host Leo Allen splitting time between coasts, you’re as likely to get a guest host these days, chosen from the best of NY’s rising comics.
Monday, 11pm • Free, but reservations recommended • Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre
Sweet – Seth Herzog’s long-running standup show has recently returned to the beautifully renovated Slipper Room on the Lower East Side, and the two-level room with its red velvet curtains and rod-iron balcony gives the show a classy feeling that alt comedy shows rarely possess. Sweet features excellent local and national comics doing longish sets, alongside interactive audience segments, music, and thoughts from Seth’s mom. At two hours, the show feels like an old-fashioned night out.
Tuesday, 9pm • $5 in advance, $7 day of • The Slipper Room
Big Terrific – Despite the departure of former co-hosts Jenny Slate and Gabe Liedman, this Williamsburg standup show remains a must-see in the New York standup scene. Hosted by Max Silvestri in an airless black box behind the Lovin' Cup Cafe, the show is a hipster haven and favorite spot for local and visiting comics alike. New Yorkers like John Mulaney and Jessi Klein can be seen regularly, while visitors like Sarah Silverman make a point of swinging by when in town.
Wednesday, 8:30pm • Free • Cameo
Comedy as a Second Language – Tucked into an always crowded room at the back of this East Village bar, Comedy as a Second Language has a loyal following of both crowds and comics. Host Chesley Calloway and producer Rebecca Trent have cultivated a comedy friendly crowd, giving lesser-known comics a chance to shine in an enthusiastic environment. Nationally known visiting comics are also likely to including CSL on their itinerary while visiting New York.
Thursday, 9pm • Free • Kabin
The Stepfathers – One of the biggest headlining improv shows at UCB, The Stepfathers is described as a "supergroup of improv veterans," including Chris Gethard, Zach Woods, and Will Hines. It's earned this coveted Friday night spot by being one of the most consistently funny improv shows in the city.
Friday, 9pm • $10 • Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre
The Weave – “The only rule is there are no rules,” the description of this Magnet Theater Saturday night improv show, says it all. Six improvisers, in teams of three, blend two parts together in impressive and unpredictable show. Playing to a packed house of comedy fans, the formless improv features the best of Magnet's current crew.
Saturday, 7:30pm • $10 • Magnet Theater
Trike – Two-man improv, when done well, is a spectacular feat. Nick Kanellis & Peter McNerney's fantastic late night show is upbeat and impressively layered improv that is always worth checking out.
Saturday, 10:30pm • $10 • Magnet Theater
ASSSSCAT 3000 – One of the first shows put on by the original UCB 4, this institution of an improv show remains unchallenged for best improv show in the city. Featuring the greatest of UCB’s improvisers, each show also includes an interesting guest monologist and a devoted, excited audience that brings a great atmosphere to the little space.
Sunday • 7:30pm – $10 • 9:30pm – Free, tickets distributed at 8:15pm • Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre
Best Monthly and Irregular Shows
Breakout Artist Series – Carolines' breakout artist series gives rising New York comics the opportunity to headline in their hometown (a difficult thing in a city with few headlining clubs). It’s a full, traditional standup show – emcee, opener, middle, and headliner, but more reasonably priced and with a lineup of soon-to-be famous comics.
Many Tuesdays, 7:30pm • $16.50 ($5.50 with the discount code “breakout”) + 2 drink minimum • Carolines on Broadway
Adam Wade from NH Show – 18-time winner of The Moth Story SLAM, storyteller Adam Wade hosts his own monthly show focused on his adolescent years. Each show opens with a different local storyteller doing a 15-minute story, followed by a 45-minute set of anecdotes, videos and music from Wade, one of the country's top storytellers.
Second Monday of every month, 7pm • $5 • Theater Under St. Marks
Murderfist – Sketch group Murderfist's shows exist right on the border of insane and hilarious. The group describes themselves as both "an extreme journey to the center of your mind ocean" and "like the Marx Brothers covered in blood on acid." They occasionally pop up on variety shows around town, but they're sure to be found at their own monthly show at The PIT.
Second Saturday of every month, 10:30pm • $8 • The PIT
Gravid Water – Gravid Water’s premise is deceptively simple-sounding. One actor is given the script from an established scene and memorizes his or her lines, then placed on stage with an improviser who has no idea what scene he or she is in, playing only off of the actor’s lines. The result is a hilarious collection of unrelated semi-improvised scenes spawned from some of the most famous stage plays ever.
Last Monday of the month, 9pm • $5 • Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre
Tell Your Friends! – Liam McEneaney’s once-weekly bar show has transformed to into a monthly extravaganza at Brooklyn’s Bell House. With big headliners like Gilbert Gottfried, Hannibal Buress, and Todd Barry as well as music and other entertainers, it’s a carefully cultivated variety show in a big fancy room.
Most months, 8pm • $15 • The Bell House
Get It Out There – Network-sponsored showcases can be a great way to see burgeoning talent doing their best stuff for industry execs. One of the biggest and most unique is IFC's recent team up with BAM, a standup show which promises to let comics "experiment recklessly with humor while causing only minimal harm to themselves and others." Held in the cavernous but beautiful BAMcafé and curated by producer extraordinaire Caroline Creaghead, it's featured big names like Sarah Silverman and Wyatt Cenac.
Monthly, 9pm • Free • Brooklyn Academy of Music
TJ & Dave – While it’s cheating a bit to include these Chicago improvisers, their more-or-less monthly show in the West Village is too good not to claim for New York. As seen in Trust Us, This is All Made Up, TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi's two-man improv is truly incredible to watch.
Varies • $20 • Barrow St. Theatre
MTV Free Comedy Showcase – The crew behind MTV's Nikki & Sara Live hosts this free showcase of local and headlining talent in the upstairs studio of historic Webster Hall. It's a great place to see promising up-and-comers try out their best material in hopes of impressing the network.
Every other month • Free • The Studio at Webster Hall
*Splitsider and Tumblr’s Dog & Pony Show – Ahem, we couldn’t go through all this trouble and not mention our own little monthly shindig at UCB East. With some help from our friends at Tumblr (who make our kickass posters), Splitsider-ette Halle Kiefer hosts a standup show with some of our favorite NY comics. The only New York show where you’re guaranteed to hang out with Splitsider writers!
Varies • $5-10 • UCB East
Comedy Cellar – The undisputed king of New York comedy clubs at the moment, The Comedy Cellar has been made famous from Louie, Comedian, and the myriad of stories told about this legendary room. The comics who perform at the Cellar have been carefully vetted by much-feared booker Estee Adoram, and shows regularly include drop-ins from Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and Louis CK, as well as an assortment of New York’s best comics. Shows are not for the sensitive, and it's not exactly a budget night out, but its one of the most classic New York comedy experiences.
Gotham Comedy Club – Tucked away in a Chelsea, Gotham hosts some of the country’s best headliners when they visit the city, as well as local comics. It also hosts local shows like Comedy Juice, Homo Comicus, Gotham Comedy Live, and a new talent showcase. Prices vary, and the club includes a full menu with a two drink minimum.
Carolines on Broadway – This basement room in Times Square is one of the longest running clubs in New York, and abides by the traditional two-drink minimum policy, as well as serving full meals. Weekend tickets can be quite pricey, but weekday shows tend to be more affordable. It continues to encourage young talent, hosting the NY’s Funniest Standup competition and its Breakout Artist Series.
The Stand – The new kid on the block, The Strand was opened in 2012 by management company CringeHumor, and has quickly established itself as a favorite spot for local comics and shows. Upstairs features a top notch restaurant with no drink minimums, and the downstairs showroom hosts network showcases and podcast tapings alongside traditional standup shows.
Stand Up NY – A classic comedy club on the Upper West Side, Stand Up NY is a popular tourist destination that gives time to many local comics. It features a mix of styles as well as drop-ins from locals like Judah Friedlander and Jim Gaffigan, making it a safe bet in a part of the city without much comedy.
Comic Strip – One of the longest running comedy clubs in New York City, Comic Strip Live still offers nightly showcase-style shows on the Upper East Side. The club deserves some credit for launching the careers of Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Eddie Murphy, and continues to feature promising young standups.
Eastville – There's nothing particularly appealing about this basement East Village club from the outside, but hidden underneath is a surprisingly big, bright showroom. With the standard two-drink minimum and just a teeny front bar, the only real draw of the club is the comedy itself, and luckily it hosts excellent standups like Janeane Garofalo, Christian Finnegan, and Gary Gulman alongside younger comics.
Broadway Comedy Club – Located in the most tourist-heavy part of midtown, Broadway Comedy Club is exactly what you imagine a New York City comedy club to be. Its dark basement room is crowded with tea-lit tables, the small stage is backed by a brick wall, and paintings of great comics like Richard Pryor adorn the walls. But despite the cliches and two-drink minimums, it's worth visiting to see some of the best working comics in the city; regulars include Christian Finnegan, Marina Franklin, and and Myq Kaplan. Broadway's owners also run New York Comedy Club and Greenwich Village Comedy Club.
The Creek & The Cave – This Long Island City, Queens club is a favorite of alternative comics in New York, with a black box theatre at street level and a downstairs stage used for open mics and smaller shows. With a full bar and an adjacent restaurant, it offers many of the perks of comedy clubs but hosts almost exclusively free shows. It's been a home base for Colin Quinn has he preps his next one-man show, and running shows include Wednesday night's The Regulars, which each week draws from the talented pool of Creek favorites.
Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre – In the last decade, UCB has become the go-to name in alternative comedy and the springboard for many of today’s most popular comedians. But despite the new chairs in the Chelsea home (many of the old ones were held together with duct tape), there’s still nothing glamorous about this basement theater. It hasn’t lost its energetic, studenty vibe, nor its ability to draw great comics and exciting new talent. Explaining what it will be like to go to UCB (long lines, mediocre bar, poor sight lines, excess of hipsters) may make it sound unappealing, but it’s always worth the trip.
UCB East – The country's third UCB theater opened in the East Village two years ago, a converted movie-theater with a bar (The Hot Chicks Room) that's stocked with local beers on tap. In the past few years, it's developed its own identity separate from its west-side big brother, with a focus more on standup and variety shows, as well as open mics, improv jams, and other oddities.
The Peoples Improv Theater – Founded by Second City alum Ali Farahnakian, the PIT features mostly sketch and improv shows in its two-stage theater in the Flatiron District. It boasts some impressive alums, including Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler, and also plays host to podcast tapings and outside shows, like the recent NYC PodFest. And on top of all that, it has its own full bar with food, cocktails, and televisions.
Magnet Theater – The youngest of NY’s improv theaters, Magnet features only one small black box theater and a tiny lobby. Though it doesn’t yet have the cult following UCB, it boasts a great lineup of mostly improv shows and a full rosters of classes. It's weekend shows are unique and hilarious, and Saturday night's fantastic poetry-infused Kiss*Punch*Poem is a unlike any other improv show you're likely to find.
Other places that occasionally host comedy shows
Littlefield – A converted warehouse that normally hosts music, Littlefield is the home of Wyatt Cenac's Night Train alongside monthly comedy-esque shows like Punderdome 3000 and other specials like the annual Halloween Shtick or Treat show (where comics dress up and perform as other comics).
Union Hall – This small downstairs theatre below a bar has become a go-to spot for independently produced comedy shows. Sunday night's Creaghead & Co features some of the best comics in the city, while Mike Birbiglia has been working out his new show there on weeknights.
The Bell House – One of the biggest and best rooms in Brooklyn, The Bell House can fit several hundreds of people (though only some will snag seats). The home of many popular monthly shows, it's also become a favorite for podcast tapings and CD recordings.
Ace Hotel – Tucked in the basement of this uber-trendy Gramercy hotel, the Liberty Hall at Ace Hotel irregularly plays host to comedy shows, including several shows during the New York Comedy Festival.
92Y Tribeca – The younger sibling of the legendary Upper East Side 92nd St Y, 92YTribeca devotes a sizable amount of time to comedy, featuring everything from interviews and films to standup, sketch, and storytelling.
Training and Classes
The three main sketch writing and improv schools in New York belong to UCB, The PIT, and Magnet. UCB's very popular improv and sketch programs sell out quickly, and an 8-week course costs about $400. The PIT offers a wide range of improv, sketch, TV writing, and other comedy-related electives. Prices vary, but an 8-week Level One improv class goes for $375. Magnet's mostly improv-based school offers 8-week programs for $350-$375, as well as free Intro to Improv courses. All three also offer unpaid internship programs which allow interns to take classes at reduced rates.
Plenty of clubs around town offer standup classes (Comic Strip, Gotham, Stand Up NY, Comedy Cellar), generally courses with six to eight week runs. Storytelling classes are also catching on – Risk!'s Kevin Allison and others teach courses at The Story Studio, and there are also storytelling electives at The PIT and Magnet.
Open Mic Nights
Open mics are everywhere in New York, from well known clubs to bars and cafes in every borough. NY Comedy List has a great list of open mics around the city, including costs, stage time, and sign-up info, and Badslava makes it easy to sort mics by boroughs. Best New York Comedy also includes open mics, with a little info about the venue and hosts. Some mics are broader, like Bar4's Tuesday show that mixes music and comedy; some are more specific, like the Gorgeous Ladies of Comedy's GLOC the MIC, which is open to anyone but tends to feature mostly women.
All the major improv theaters also host improv jams, normally off-hour shows where anyone can go up on stage and practice. The PIT and UCB East also have jams for sketch writers and teams. Storytelling open mics are also growing, with the most famous being Moth's StorySLAM, held monthly in New York. They can also be found at the main theaters (UCB East, The PIT), and the folks at And I Am Not Lying have some great advice about starting out in storytelling.
The Del Close Marathon – Now entering its 15th year, the Del Close Marathon has grown into a truly epic event. With more than 50 straight hours of improv at UCB's main Chelsea stage, it's now expanded to six stages, mostly within walking distance of each other. Only $30 for a regular pass (special shows held at the School of Visual Arts are $15 each), the best improvisers in the country converge to play; alongside the original UCB 4, the festival brings back UCB alum like Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas, Ben Schwartz and Adam Pally for a ridiculously amazing improv-nerd weekend.
New York Comedy Festival – Each November, New York comedy belongs to NYCF. Everything from megastar shows at Madison Square Garden and Beacon Theatre to regular weekly shows around town fall under the NYCF banner. Treats including headlining sets from visiting comics like Kyle Kinane, Chelsea Peretti, and Rory Scovel, as well as coups like 2012's The Ben Stiller Show reunion at the Paley Center.
The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival – It's easy to imagine exactly how EMCF came into existence – "Wouldn't it be funny if I had my own comedy festival?" sounds exactly like something Eugene Mirman would say. The real surprise is that, five years running, it's become an amazing and diverse festival, drawing big names like Jim Gaffigan, Sarah Silverman, and comedic genius Daniel Kitson all the way from the UK. Every element is Mirmanesque, from the ludicrous after-parties featuring party buses and water balloons, to the festival program that Mirman writes entirely himself (and includes his personal restaurant recommendations in the area).
NYC PodFest – Though New York lags behind LA in the podcasting world, it's certainly finding its footing. This year's first NYC PodFest featured performances of local and visiting podcasts on both stages of The PIT. The two-day festival hosted more than 25 podcasts in 2013.
There's plenty of great TV comedy to find in New York, and they're all free. Tickets can be reserved (or stood in line) for The Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and The Colbert Report. A random lottery for Saturday Night Live tickets can be entered in August, and standby tickets are also available for the live show and the dress rehearsal. For easily the oddest TV-taping you're ever likely to attend, tickets are also available for The Chris Gethard Show. Several tapings can be found through The Black List NYC including Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show, and many recordings for standup specials. For a more historical approach, some great old comedies can be found in the archives of the Paley Center for Media.
Obviously, web videos can be shot, edited, and YouTubed by anyone with a camera and a dream. But for for some structure, LA favorite Channel 101 has branched out to New York, where anyone can submit a five-minute pilot that might be shown at a Channel 101 screening. If the audience likes it, more episodes will be "commissioned" and added to the prime time lineup. UCB East also hosts Test Screening on the third Friday of the month, where any new web videos can be shown. UCB's newest type of house teams are Beta Teams, video production groups whose content appears on UCBComedy.com.
Podcasting in New York is growing, but only a few are available to view. Splitsider's own Left Handed Radio perform their Sequel Machine shows monthly at UCB East, as does the Wrestling Team's Beginnings podcast. Storytelling favorite Risk! tapes monthly at The PIT, and Neil deGrasse Tyson and Eugene Mirman's space/comedy show StarTalk Radio can often be found at The Bell House. The Bell House is also a favorite for out-of-town podcasts, with recent visitors including The Smartest Man in the World, How Did This Get Made?, and Harmontown.
Things to Bookmark
Hy Bender’s Best New York Comedy provides an exhaustive list of comedy shows around the city every day, including descriptions, prices, and recommendations on what's worth seeing. The old standby Time Out New York maintains a top-notch comedy section online and in print, with listings for all sorts of shows, including its coveted critics picks. The New York Times has recently added a select group of comedy shows to its Arts & Entertainment Guide. Even NYC's Official Website has a surprisingly current comedy calendar of upcoming shows and general city-wide comedy info. On Twitter, the mysterious comedy lovers behind @ThatsFunny tweet links everyday to standup shows around the city, including participants, times, and venues.
This is, obviously, only a tiny fraction of the awesome comedy available in New York. Feel free to add your suggestions and thoughts in the comments.
Photo by JoeyBLS Photography.
Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City who occasionally tweets. She sees a lot of live comedy.