Last January, I almost lost my sense of humor. If you had locked me in a room and played a marathon of funny films, I would have left drowning in tears. It was a daunting period: I went through a numbingly brutal breakup and watched as several publications I had been writing for regularly folded; I struggled with insomnia, sought out an analyst, and started chain smoking. After the subject of an article I wrote for Penthouse, long-time Howard Stern sidekick and stand-up comic Artie Lang, attempted suicide – stabbing himself nine times in the abdomen with a kitchen knife – I spun into a full-fledged breakdown. I had become close to Lange after nearly a year of interviews, and the news was almost too much to bear.
Strangely, after it became clear that Lange would survive, I found myself inspired by the comic’s ability to make people laugh even as he was suffering himself. As the days trickled by outside, I turned to writing comedy sketches of my own in my increasingly disorganized downtown apartment. In early autumn, after four months of hoarding my joke ideas in piles of post-it notes and surveying my friends and colleagues for approval, I arrived at Comedy Cellar for the first time.
The famed comedians’ clubhouse on West Third Street and MacDougal is nestled in the heart of a neighborhood I had always written off as New York University freshman territory, with its hookah bars and hole-in-the-wall falafel joints. Sure enough, when I arrived outside, an eager crowd stretched from the front entrance all the way around the block: older couples who looked a touch too excited to be standing on a line, a bridge and tunnel baccalaureate posse, a few die-hard comedy groupies. I felt out of place, a lost soul seeking alternative therapy for my depression, cloaking my intentions behind a journalistic endeavor. It wasn’t the ideal support group, but I had spent enough time alone in my East Village fortress twisting and turning punch lines, and now I wanted to learn from the best. I also wanted to laugh again.
For decades, Comedy Cellar has served as a sounding board both for aspiring comics and established talents sharpening new material. Its many distinguished alumni include Chris Rock, Ray Romano, Jon Stewart, Gilbert Gottfried, and Dave Chappelle. I watched John Mayer slip by, incognito in a hooded sweatshirt and a backpack suitable for a camping trip. I later learned that he, too, was flirting with the idea of pursuing stand-up.
After waiting for 20 minutes, I made my way past the club’s gatekeeper and descended the steps into the aptly-named basement space. Comedy Cellar holds only 150 seats and isn’t much bigger than a railroad apartment. There’s a classic stand-up club brick wall behind the floor-level stage, putting the comics at an intimate, almost uncomfortable proximity to their audience. Most of the patrons look as though they’ve already exceeded the two-drink minimum. That night, veteran funnymen Dave Attell and Louis C.K. were in the lineup along with several up-and-comers, but at the Cellar, all comedians receive the same amount of time and pay: $25 for an eight-minute set.
“Welcome to the late show!” boomed William Stephenson, the on-again-off-again host at Comedy Cellar for the last 20 years. “Here’s what is going to happen. In a few minutes I will say the name of a very funny comedian who will come to the stage to a thunderous round of applause. They will say words to you. You will laugh at them. They will leave. I will come back and we will do the same shit until it’s time to go.”
My first night at the club I kept a low profile save for when a loudmouth comic, Jessica Kirson, caught a glimpse of my morose expression and announced to the audience, “This girl need to get fucked!” It was humiliating, but at the same time I couldn’t help but feel exhilarated by the interaction. The very next night I returned to the Cellar.
Dave Attell performing at Comedy Cellar
After the show, I wandered up to the Olive Tree, the restaurant and favored comic hangout that directly connects to the Cellar through a backstage door and a steep stairway. While it’s open to the public, the back two tables, in the darkest corner of the restaurant, are permanently reserved for comedians. Small colored lamps hang above each table, creating a spotlight effect. The tables themselves are made of slate and come equipped with bowls of chalk—meant for comics to scribble material. Cellar regular and character actor of 30 Rock fame Judah Friedlander—bearded, bespectacled, wearing his trademark trucker hat and “World Champion”-emblazoned jacket—leaned against a jukebox. Dave Attell paced by the bar, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam Dunkin’ Donuts cup, a soon to be smoked cigarette between his tense lips. Saturday Night Live alum and popcorn-flick mainstay Tracy Morgan was being Tracy Morgan. “BITCHEEEZ BE CRAAAAZY!” he announced to nobody in particular. Colin Quinn, former SNL Weekend Update Anchor-turned-Broadway star, swaggered into the room alongside Jerry Seinfeld, who was directing Quinn’s play. They all had a startling cartoonish look about them—too painfully recognizable.
Surrounded by career comedians, I considered the possibility of a future at the Olive Tree’s back tables. I wanted to be funny. I was funny, wasn’t I? My friends thought so, at least. If only I could reduce my problems to one-liners, I thought, maybe everything would instantly feel right again.
“Quite the star-studded night,” Noam Dworman, the owner of the Cellar, said to me as he passed by the table where I sat alone nursing a glass of white wine and doodling on the slate tables. Dworman is a bookish man in his mid-forties with a full head of cherubic salt-and-pepper ringlets, who, despite his success running the club, is seldom seen laughing — a disposition not far out of step with the perpetually sleepy feel that hangs over the club in spite of the incredible comic talent gathered there and the endless variety of caffeinated beverages they consume. Noam’s father, the late Manny Dworman, opened the Cellar in 1960 as Cafe Feenjon, a Middle Eastern nightclub featuring “cross-cultural” music. In the early 1980s, comics started showing up after hours. The impromptu stand-up thrived, and the club was soon re-christened as Comedy Cellar.
“We were the new kids on the block. Catch a Rising Star and the Improv were the leading comedy clubs,” Noam told me later that night about the club’s first days. “My father had a great rapport with the comedians.” At that time, Jerry Seinfeld—then known as Jerome—could be seen doing “food spots.” Dworman explained, “We couldn’t pay them, but we would feed them.” I knew it was hard for a comic to kill right out of the gate, but as I watched a throng of established comedians humbly paying their respect to Jerome across the room, it was surreal to picture the Seinfeld literally working for scraps.
Hoping for some words of encouragement or wisdom that I could apply to my own evolving act, I asked Dworman if he believed a person could learn to be funny. He told me, “If you have it, you can only get better at it, but if you don’t, there’s not much you can do.”
* * * *
The Cellar became my haunt. “You again?” was a phrase I’d grow accustomed to hearing from staffers and comics alike. And while at first they kept me at bay with playful jabs and, on occasion, outright cold shoulders, my determination — my obsession — to infiltrate the comedy world held strong. I was now convinced that comedy was the perfect means to escape my own demons, even to reconstruct some kind of social life. One night in early August, my efforts paid off when I was begrudgingly offered a chair at the comics’ table.
Judah Friedlander performing at Comedy Cellar
Soon I was spending most of my nights at the Olive Tree until last call listening to the comedians vent about the state of their worlds (offstage and on), cursing each other and themselves as they went over bits from their evening’s performances. “Three times is the rule,” explained Julian McCullough, an amiable comic with the face of a homecoming king after the late show one evening. “If I don’t get anything after three times, it’s just my threshold for pain…I never ask people if something is funny. Your friends don’t know better than three audiences.”
Most comics will boil down an hour’s worth of material into a polished routine good enough to take on the road or on a late-night television spot. Almost no one, I was beginning to realize, is privy to the excruciating self-editing process that precedes a show. Furthermore, a comedian doesn’t know which jokes will work—and which will fail miserably—until they’re performing live. “A perfect joke for me is when 40% of the audience likes it. That way I know it is a specific point of a view and I’m not being a crowd pleaser,” said Nick DiPaolo, a quarter-century-toughened stand-up with a bullish demeanor, and one of the few politically conservative comics to have made the Cellar his second home. When I ask about his take on Last Comic Standing, a reality show that aired on NBC from 2003 to 2010, and which paved the way for a spate of greener comics, DiPaolo huffily answered, “It totally misrepresents what stand up is. A guy comes out and does a mediocre spot and gets a standing ovation. Would I let some network jerk-off tell me what’s funny in a room with no audience? The crowd [on Last Comic Standing] never sucks. It’s so false.” He paused, and then lit up, “Even to this day, the Cellar will keep you honest. It separates the men from the boys. If you ask me how clubs have changed, there are a lot of women running them. And they’re pretty good.”
Tellingly, females – the girls and the women – are absent are absent from DiPaolo’s estimation of the Cellar. Women remain pitifully underrepresented in the comic sphere. There are just under a dozen females who regularly perform, but never will you see two comediennes booked in a row. Female comics who do choose to enter this boy’s club must be comfortable with having their membership constantly challenged—and their sexuality used against them. Joan Rivers, a pioneer for female comics, used to tell a joke so true that it rang bittersweet: “My name is Joan Rivers, and I put out.” Susie Essman, made famous as the loud-mouthed wife of Larry David’s agent on Curb Your Enthusiasm, was among the first women to perform at the Cellar, and while she recalls her time there fondly, she still gets heated when asked about the dearth of female performers at the club. “They wouldn’t book more than one woman a night,” she told me of her days performing at the Cellar. “It’s like they think we are going to go on stage and talk about our periods. Who the fuck would do that?”
Among the new generation of women to successfully infiltrate the comedy sphere is Rachel Feinstein. After she performed one night, I sat down with the doe-eyed brunette for drinks. When I expressed interest in her performance, she responded with modesty and humility. We were soon gossiping about men, the abundance of “dick jokes,” and her path to Comedy Cellar. “I guess that I always wanted to be one of those people that could have been a doctor or a scientist and I made this noble decision to leave it all for the arts but I had no other apparent talents,” she said.
Comedy Cellar’s Famous Stage
For me, however, the challenge of getting a foot in the door at the Cellar was daunting enough. I also realized that comedy wasn’t necessarily an entirely male-based cabal conspiring to keep women out of the business – and that the person conferring entry to the club (and the Club) was, in fact, a woman herself. Known as “The Most Feared Woman in Stand-Up Comedy,” Estee Adoran is the Israeli-born matriarch of Comedy Cellar, and she’s held court there since the days of Manny Dworman. Slightly zaftig, she has the pleasant face of an elementary school teacher offset by the razor-sharp tongue of a drill sergeant. Adoram books comics, auditions newer talents, and has little patience for the undeserving (including myself). No one gets to grace the Cellar stage without going through Estee. She booked the first tier of notable comics to graduate from the club: Chris Rock, Dave Attell, Louis C.K. They’ve earned her respect—and she theirs. Even Los Angeles has its own comic matriarch. The world-famous Comedy Store was founded by Mitzi Shore, who ran it with her husband Sammy Shore until 1973, when she took over operations herself.
* * * *
I had spent nearly every night at the Cellar for a month when I finally felt ready to try out a few of my own jokes. On a Wednesday night during the brief interval between the 9 and 11pm shows, I sat down with one of the club’s managers, Steve Fabricant, to test out some of my material. True to life, you can see Fabricant in the opening credits of Louie, Louie CK’s TV show on FX, greeting the comedian as he steps into the Cellar. Just before my audition, I asked Fabricant what he’d learned about aspiring comics over the years, and he told me, “The biggest misconception is that all comedians are a bunch of clowns. Talent plays such a crucial role in what can’t be taught.” Then he adjusted his posture and looked directly at me – this was it. “Okay, let’s hear it.”
I don’t exactly remember the first joke I told. All I recall is monologuing—okay, blathering—about the acid-induced time I lost my virginity and something to do with my Catholic grandmother calling me mid-coitus. Fabricant interrupted me before I could even deliver the punch line: “Who the fuck do you think you are? Sarah Silverman?”
I felt as if the Apollo Theater’s legendary “executioner” would appear at any moment, broom in hand, to whisk me out of the Cellar and back to my dismal reality. Though I was only performing for Fabricant, the weight he carried as a gatekeeper of the club’s stage made his critique devastating. In the glum, awkward silence that followed I tried to drum up a good comeback, but instead found myself dopily telling him about the comics who’d encouraged me as I tore up a cocktail napkin and nervously applied a disturbing amount of lip-gloss. Had I been unfairly interrupted or was that just the nature of the business? I excused myself and walked around the block, my head swimming with frantic thoughts. I glared at a crop of comics and groupies hanging outside the club, laughing. I couldn’t stand it.
“There’s nothing worse than a person who wants to be funny but isn’t. It’s fucking painful.” I heard the voice of Jim Norton, veteran comic and third mic on the Opie and Anthony Show, playing in my head from a conversation we’d had the previous week at his swanky uptown apartment. “But how do you tell them?” I asked. “They should know. It’s humiliating for everyone,” he said.
The jagged-pill truth is, while a few of the Cellar’s comics had initially encouraged me – some even going so far as to tell me I was funny – not one, in crystal-clear hindsight, had ever actually said I’d make a great stand-up. No one had said, “You, Jessica, have the makings of a great comedian!” There was a difference between having a good sense of humor and possessing the ability to be funny in front of a crowd, to know timing, tone, and body language. I was painfully awkward, and not in a way that I could use to my advantage. Was I giving up too easily? Maybe so, but I was coming to terms with the fact that comedy is both a trait and a skill to be honed. And I was beginning to realize my naiveté in thinking that I could waltz into the Cellar and become an overnight sensation. I had too much respect for the comics to make a fool of myself. There was no room for us amateurs, at least not at Comedy Cellar.
Chris Rock Performing at Comedy Cellar
Not all comedians share the perspective that one or even many embarrassing attempts translates to a day-job keeper. The pleasantly levelheaded Colin Quinn offered a different take on failure, one I prefer to subscribe to. Stretching back in a wooden chair by the entrance to the Olive Tree one night after my calamitous audition with Fabricant, smiling while acknowledging a fawning passerby, Quinn recalled his early memories of the Cellar. “The first time I went on stage, I knew it was what I was supposed to be doing, but the MC said to me, ‘You’re a natural! Come back in a year!’ I was the biggest bomber in the business. Only comedians kept me in the business.” Quinn’s long time “BFF,” Nick Di Paolo, compared his own first attempt at stand-up to “childhood rape.”
Comedy is as difficult to master as any other craft, something aptly demonstrated by the botched attempts of Charlie Sheen during his Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat is Not an Option tour, which I had the displeasure of attending (it’s worth noting that, much as I had, Sheen turned to comedy mid-psychological meltdown), and Mike ‘The Situation” Sorrentino during his slot on the Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump. “This is my first time doing comedy,” Sorrentino whined as the crowed booed and eye-rolled. “And your last!” the roast master yelled back.
* * * *
The tortured comic is an old cliché, but it’s hard to deny the truth in it when looking at some of the most legendary comics of the past six decades: Lenny Bruce was found dead, naked on his bathroom floor, a syringe still in his vein; Sam Kinison was killed in a car accident, the autopsy revealing that his body was flooded with narcotics; John Belushi passed away in a suite at the Château Marmont after shooting a “speed ball,” a combination of cocaine and heroin; Mitch Hedburg died when his pre-existing heart condition was exasperated by a drug overdose; Chris Farley was discovered by his brother, dead from an overdose in his apartment. Photos of Farley’s corpse, saliva running from his mouth and rosary beads clutched between his fingers, were leaked by the sex-worker who had been with him at the time of his death.
Comedy is a balancing act between a relentless compulsion to confess everything, harsh self-loathing, and narcissism. Me, Me, Me, says the stand-up, I am absurd and pitiable but not nearly as pathetic as you are! You, who need me to make you laugh–and pay for the privilege. “I don’t think that the depression makes you funny, but I think that being funny comes out of bad places more than good,” Jim Norton once told me. “As a comedian, you feel like if you become content then you are not going to be funny anymore. When you are in love with someone you don’t want to go on stage and talk about it — when you get dumped, then you want to go out and talk about it. Cars don’t slow down to help, you slow down to see a car accident.”
On September 27th of last year, about a month after I first became a regular fixture at the Cellar, I received word that the stand-up world had been dealt another blow. Comedy Cellar staple Greg Giraldo had been admitted to the emergency room in New Brunswick, New Jersey after overdosing on prescription drugs. He would remain comatose for the next four days until his family decided to remove life support. “RIP Greg Giraldo. Belly-laugh hilarious, prolific, good & kind. A thousand oys can’t express,” Sarah Silverman tweeted, a sentiment that echoed widely as many comics voiced their condolences. Parrot-voiced comedian Gilbert Gottfried, a frequent dais companion of Giraldo’s at celebrity roasts, took to Twitter hours after the death: “If Greg Giraldo is cremated, will that be the ‘Greg Giraldo Roast’?” Gottfried was later fired from his gig as the voice of the Aflac duck for tweeting jokes about the earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan. Initially, I was stunned by this harsh-feeling form mourning, but I came to accept it as the comic’s own way of paying respect. They were afraid, so they told jokes.
Just a few months ago, on March 6th, yet another Cellar regular passed away: Mike DeStefano, a burly 43-year-old tattooed comic who used comedy as a way to recover from his heroin addiction. “Don’t do drugs, because if you do, you’ll end up with a ‘Comedy Central Presents’ special,” he advised a crowd not long after getting his own half-hour special on the network this past year. DeStefano died suddenly from a heart attack, just a day before I had planned on seeing his latest bit at the club. A Bronx-born native, his life hadn’t been easy: depression, heroin addiction, the death of his wife, living with HIV. DeStefano was never ”on,” off or on-stage — he was just a natural storyteller. I enjoyed the conversations we had during my nocturnal visits to Comedy Cellar. “I didn’t see you laugh tonight,” he once commented after he gave a sedate performance. “You know–I appreciate that, I like honesty.” Another night, he shared with me his philosophy of humor: “Great art comes from great suffering. I know it sounds fucking cliche, but it’s true for me. Comedy for me is a process of expressing–and really healing myself.” Artie Lange Performing at the Comedy Cellar
Laughter was starting to feel overwhelmingly perverse. I was no longer enjoying live comedy. I had anecdotes and bits memorized. If a certain joke worked, it would invariably be repeated in some form at the next show. After my own experience bombing, I had put my own standup on hold, having no desire to revisit those feeling of rejection. Or perhaps I was just sour grapes. I had made friends with some of the comics, infiltrated their table, but I knew I wasn’t one of them.
I tried to drift away, and I did — for 48 hours.
On a bitterly cool and gray Thursday evening in early March, I ventured back to Comedy Cellar. I was restless in my apartment and needed the distraction, or so I told myself. A group of made-up women was hovering around the entrance, rattling off their names to the comics, who were signing cardboard coasters. Dave Attell was smoking outside. He looked fatigued, and I wanted to give him a hug, so I did. “I don’t know why I am here,” I said by way of a greeting, before realizing this might sound offensive to someone who’s spent the better part of the past two decades building their career in the club just downstairs. Attell lowered his tired eyes. “I don’t blame you,” he muttered, his voice trailing off. He then ballooned his cheeks with air and waved goodbye, his exhalation white in the frozen air, as I once again descended into the Cellar. “See you next week,” I shouted over my shoulder.
* * * *
The show begins and I become lost in the comics’ hypnotic patter, the now familiar sights and sounds and several glasses of dry white wine. “Let’s talk about rape,” says Godfrey, a Nigerian comedian whose warm toothy smile oddly juxtaposes his subject matter. “What if you raped a group of people? What if you were that bad a motherfucker, you raped everybody, men and women, and you didn’t give a fuck? You deserve to be raped if you’re in a group and he succeeds.” When I first arrived at the Cellar, material like this would have bothered me, but I found myself repeating the joke to a prospective employer who ran charity for Darfur refugees several days later.
“If people don’t like it, we tell them we’re sorry, we don’t have editorial control–it’s a comedy club,” says Dworman. I ask him what his hopes are for the club’s future, and his answer is gratifyingly warm and reassuring. “I’d really like there to be a whole new crop of all-star comics who in ten years from now can say they made their name here. But we don’t pick them. They pick us.”