Illustration by Priscilla Frank
Value typically parallels price. High-quality food tends to be expensive. Ditto for clothes, airline seats -- even medical treatment.
The rule does not hold for live comedy. In New York City, global mecca for stand-up, discerning comedy nerds know the best stuff costs between $8 and free. Not that there aren’t alternatives. Caroline’s on Broadway is a comedic Cheesecake Factory, churning out jokes designed to satisfy if not edify, at a market-high price (hovering at the high end around $100 a ticket, plus a two-drink minimum). Around the country, comedy clubs have franchised the venerable Manhattan institution’s model, attracting audiences so trained to expect reliable fare that “you could just have a chair on stage with a mic next to it and that chair will sell the 9:30 show,” the comic Hannibal Buress told me recently, recalling a large club he frequented during his early stand-up years in Chicago.
Buress is one of a new class of comics making Brooklyn the anti-Caroline’s. The experimental scene that colonized subterranean East Village bars in the 1990s has shifted as ballooning Manhattan rents have shut down major comedy hubs. Today, rising stars hone their bits in low-priced sets across the water, either in various pockets of Williamsburg or along a strip of venues stretching in the southern part of the borough, from Park Slope to Gowanus.
Hari Kondabolu dissects the charm of the Brooklyn comedy show "Night Train."
Call it artisanal comedy, unique from the genre known as alternative or alt-comedy due to new realities of time and place. At Brooklyn shows, the borough shapes the product, just as soil and sunlight flavor a wine. The craftspeople -- in this case, comics -- are as fêted as the work they create. Free from the tyranny of the big club's joke churn, they act out. Individuation is the new normal; any comic with big dreams must know herself. Where making it once foreordained an ensemble cast (see: "The Cosby Show," "Seinfeld"), TV hits now orbit tightly around the universe of a single person ("Inside Amy Schumer"), a like-minded duo ("Key & Peele"), or even the phenomenon of Brooklyn itself ("Girls").
Like a top-notch MFA program, Brooklyn is enabling this industry shift. Take the happenings at "Night Train," a weekly comedy show held at a multiuse venue in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Gowanus. Not even a decade ago, the strip that houses the show's venue, Littlefield, held mostly mechanic shops and small manufacturers of items you might see at Home Depot.
That past is a faint shadow today. Fans of the Comedy Central show “Broad City” know Gowanus as the Oz that Abbi Abrams stumbles upon in an early episode this past season, dazzled. Granted, her character was compromised at the time, tripping on an accidental cocktail of painkillers and super-strong weed. But that narrative twist only amps up the high even a sober keeper of the past might feel in the neighborhood these days, what with all the kids licking small-batch ice cream scoops, and passersby carrying bows and arrows, heading to or from the archery range down the block. In this setting, the Gowanus Canal, the epically filthy regional waterway Jonathan Lethem once called “Brooklyn’s armpit,” is almost a comfort: incapable of putting on airs.
Abbi indulges her high at the already trippy Whole Foods in Gowanus.
Imagine a cross between a college campus and a cruise ship, with the intellectual sensibility of the former and the manic entertainment value of the latter. Within less than a mile radius of Littlefield lies the archery place, a shuffleboard club, several print shops, a fencing center (swords, not gates), Ample Hills Creamery (where summer weekends mean kid traffic from multiple birthday parties), and a rollicking new Whole Foods, the latter of which prompted one of Abbi’s hallucinations -- a talking tooth -- to intone bleakly about “a whole new Gowanus.”
"Night Train" slots in as yet another luxury tailor-made for the clientele: premiere live comedy, priced at a rate acceptable to the kind of person who knows what’s available for free on YouTube. The stereotype of Brooklyn transplants that has conquered popular opinion holds here. "Night Train" audiences tend to look like a bunch of extras on "Girls": mostly white, all young, skinny jeans galore.
That description hardly fits the comics on tap. On a typical night, the lineup at "Night Train" might hit a dozen boxes on a census survey: black, queer, Asian, immigrant, first-generation, native New Yorker or West Coast visitor. Up-and-comers on the comedy circuit intermingle with the occasional drop-in star or grizzled veteran. The mix reflects a sea change in comedy itself, an industry Joan Rivers once called “an angry white man’s game.” At Littlefield, on stage at least, that demographic is the minority.
Wyatt Cenac, the "Daily Show" alum who started "Night Train" in 2012 and acted as its first host, says the show’s outward face was a conscious choice from the beginning. When approached by Marianne Ways -- a veteran East Village booker now decamped to Gowanus -- "one of the things that we had talked about was trying to have the lineup be as diverse as possible," Cenac said.
A recent "SNL" sketch skewered -- and kinda loved on -- Brooklyn gentrification.
Despite this, new Brooklyn looms large. This writer heard more stroller jokes during a year of "Night Train" attendance than actual strollers she could recall seeing in the neighborhood. For that matter, any domestic comedy has its place. A recent set by a trio of former roommates -- Kenny DeForest, Clark Jones and Will Miles -- redefined the borough’s neighborhoods by way of the movements that lead to stroller-ing: a move to Gowanus from East Williamsburg being the first step toward marriage.
Critique of and affiliation to Brooklyn -- a balance underlying this year's standout niche "Saturday Night Live" sketch, in which three black Bushwick "corner boys" wax poetic on artisanal mayonnaise -- reflects the borough’s status as comedy’s new epicenter. Buress partly credits his years hosting a weekly show at the Knitting Factory in Williamsburg for the momentum that ushered him through the pivotal threshold from stage to screen: he’s now a "Broad City" regular. (He’s since abdicated his Knitting Factory duties to DeForest, Jones and Miles, the "Night Train" drop-ins who mapped Brooklyn neighborhoods according to relationship stages).
Beyond the hosting gig’s intellectual demands -- “X amount of stage time each week, no matter what,” Buress said -- the initial appeal was as simple as the reason a person might choose a laundromat: location, location, location. The Knitting Factory sits two blocks from his Williamsburg apartment. “I could be in the shower at 8:45 and out the door and on stage by 9,” he said. Given that the virtue of hosting is the regulated draw on a comic’s generative abilities, the stability of proximity helps.
As the scene has formalized, farther-flung comics have joined. Aparna Nancherla, a D.C. transplant now living in Astoria, Queens, uses the stage at Littlefield as a workshop space, refining jokes meant to eventually enter the world in what she calls a “crystallized” form, rendered for posterity on an album or major tour.
She contrasts the “cozy” feel of Brooklyn shows with the atmosphere at "The Meltdown," an influential comedy show run out of a comic book store in West Hollywood. Brooklyn venues offer the same double-edged intimacy as New York City apartments. They're “cramped, with not a lot of room to move,” Nancherla said, hypothesizing that city density and spontaneous walk-in traffic make that so. The result, Nancherla finds, is an atmosphere conducive to experimentation.
Contrast that traffic flow with the movements of a driving populace more inclined to plan out an evening ahead of time. “It’s not necessarily about which famous people are on the bill, which sometimes feels more like the thing in LA,” she said.
Because of the skewed economics that come from living where the comics do, Brooklyn showgoers pay less and subsequently demand less than their counterparts across the country. This is a counterintuitive boon to comics. Setups can be long and experimental. Wandery not-quite-jokes are often rehashed over many months. Nancherla unveiled a bit she’d polished in front of several "Night Train" audiences last fall, while opening for the eastern leg of Tig Notaro’s highly publicized “Boyish Girl Interrupted” tour. In it, Nancherla compares living in New York to a hypothetical reality show that tests a contestant’s breaking point. One flourish came to her while on stage at Littlefield. “Is it gonna be the pigeon with the lazy eye?” The audience’s laughter convinced Nancherla to "crystallize" the line. “It’s become a part of the joke,” she said.
Hosts exercise new muscles too, says Hari Kondabolu, a comic who occasionally subs in for Cenac at "Night Train."
Along with his brother and co-host, former Das Racist rapper Ashok Kondabolu, Hari sees his job as an order of magnitude beyond what Dave Chappelle once quipped as the opener’s sole duty, that is, getting “the audience used to looking at the stage.” At shows where hosts carry selling power, “the point is to set the tone, that we’re going to be playing around here,” Kondabolu said. “You don’t know what we’re going to do, and you don’t know what everyone else is going to do. They’re going to be trying some stuff and also -- you paid five dollars. What are you complaining about? You’re in New York; there’s nothing to complain about. And maybe Aziz Ansari will show up, who knows?”
If Brooklyn shows are essentially MFA workshops for comics, feedback comes from the audience. Playing Littlefield can’t compare to performing on a late show in terms of compensation or visibility. “It’s not the place that you’re expecting scouts to go to,” Kondabolu said. “But I am expecting that I’m going to have a smart audience and that they’re going to be nice and not heckle.”
Like Nancherla, Kondabolu is Indian American. His highest profile work often tackles nuanced concerns of the Indian community, shattering the standby comedy model of catering to one's own ethnic group. Performing on the "Late Show with David Letterman," he spoke of a woman who slid into the backseat of his father's car, presuming it was a cab. (The punch line: "Apparently she's so racist, she looks at the color of the driver before looking at the color of the car.") On "Conan," he started as a schoolteacher might, defining the theme of his set as "colonialism." Creative freedom starts in venues like Littlefield, where audiences -- like good schoolkids -- expect to be challenged. (Comic Desiree Burch described a "Night Train" audience to me as full of "obedient comedy children.")
That desire is driven in part by economics, Kondabolu pointed out. A “20-something with five to eight dollars” is spared the typical clubgoer’s calculation: “'I just had to get a babysitter for my kids, I made this my night out. I just had to get a ton of drinks. I’m exhausted from the week and this person is up here talking about police brutality.'” "Night Train" operates on self-selection. “When you’re talking about a gentrifying class going to a show in Brooklyn, and who watch 'The Daily Show,' and who might know Wyatt from that,” Kondabolu said, “it’s going to reflect what you can say.”
Arbitration by young, white liberals has precedent in comedy lore. In the early 1970s, Richard Pryor defected to Berkeley after a string of high-profile but unfulfilling coups in Los Angeles: national appearances on Johnny Carson's and Ed Sullivan's shows in which Pryor delivered jokes “like placards” to the nation, as the writer Hilton Als would describe them nearly three decades later. It was as if each bit arrived with a heading, wrote Als, in a 1999 New Yorker profile tracking the comedian’s evolution, “that read ‘Joke’:"
When I was young, I used to think my people didn’t like me. Because they used to send me to the store for bread and then they’d move. Badam cha.
Als writes of “show-business luminaries” advising Pryor to follow the model of Bill Cosby. He quotes Pryor’s recollection of a conversation with a white writer called Murray Roman. “Don’t mention the fact that you’re a n----r. Don’t go into such bad taste,” Pryor said in a Rolling Stone interview. “They were gonna try to help me be nothin’ as best they could.”
One of the earliest beneficiaries of an alternative comedy scene, Richard Pryor fled the racism of 1970s Hollywood for the freedom of the college town up north.
In Berkeley, Pryor found a voice rooted in his past. In a new memoir titled Pryor Lives!, Cecil Brown, a journalist who began a 30-year friendship with Pryor after seeing the comedian perform in Berkeley, writes of the “white youth who lined up to see Richard” perform his strange new acts, in which he might pronounce a single word in different ways, or impersonate the winos of his childhood memories.
These were hippies and students eager for brutal honesty -- "the core of the counterculture," Brown called them -- "lied to by the leaders of the nation, by the leaders of their local towns, by the Oakland Police, and by the Berkeley Police.” Swap out the geographical terms and his description of Pryorheads could apply to Brooklyn-based activists arrested during Occupy Wall Street, or the thousands who demonstrated near the borough’s largest train hub this winter, protesting police action in Ferguson, Missouri.
That power dynamic lingers today. Byron Bowers, a wiry LA-based comic, says he regulates his comedy based on setting. During a "Night Train" set last fall, he riffed at length about his love of hallucinatory mushrooms, a typically “white-kid” obsession that he predicts might throw a club audience if he were to make the same claim there (Bowers is black).
He likens the comedy world to his high-school experience as an athlete who took honors classes. The clubs correlate to the people he hung out with after school: rowdy “athletes and cheerleaders” looking for an unambiguous good time. Audiences at indie shows -- like the kids he took classes with -- let him explore nuance. “The subject matter I can talk about [with them] is much more deep.”
The unusual economics of the comedy world help make this liberation possible. In the tradition of the East Village bar circuit, the choicest Brooklyn comedy happens in venues that aren’t devoted to it. Littlefield is an event space, the Knitting Factory a concert hall. Union Hall -- a Park Slope institution whose lived-in basement served as the setting for the stand-up scenes in comic Mike Birbiglia’s hit indie movie “Sleepwalk with Me” -- is a bar.
As opposed to venues with other sources of income, comedy clubs are tasked with luring in audiences every night of the week. That desperation results in a necessary evil of the comedy world, Cenac said. “Themed nights, whether it’s the Black Night or the Latino Night.” He recalls a club in Los Angeles with “Refried Fridays” and “Chopstick Comedy.”
“People still do whatever to get butts in the seats," he said. "The challenge of live comedy is that we live in an age where, if someone wants a laugh, they can just go onto their laptop and pull up a YouTube video.”
In Gowanus, you may as well just walk down the street.