The house that laughs built - The Comedy Cellar

It is comedy's Holy Grail. The most coveted and intimidating spot on the planet. Please put your hands together for New York City’s Mecca of mirth. 

Sam Rowe July 26, 2015

They say you should never meet your heroes. It seems Noam Dworman never got that memo.

As owner of New York’s iconic Comedy Cellar, Dworman not merely encounters the cream of stand-up comedy on a nightly basis, he proceeds to spend the rest of the evening in their company; chewing the fat on topics ranging from global terror to toilet humour. For Dworman, his job represents that sweet spot where business meets pleasure.

“Once you get used to hanging out with comedians, you really can’t hang out with anybody else,” he says, with a smile. “Seriously, when I go to family functions with my in-laws, I’m miserable. It’s all small talk, and if I ever speak my mind on something, they look at me like I’m crazy.

“But here, it’s a group of people that abhor a boring conversation, can be totally honest about anything a human being might feel, and every subject under the sun comes up. “And, of course,” he adds, “they’re the funniest people in the world.”

If anyone should know, it’s Dworman. Opened by his father Manny in 1982 – and run under Noam’s stewardship since he passed in 2004 – the Comedy Cellar blossomed during the comedy scene’s boom in the 1980s, survived the resulting ’90s crash, and is now regarded as the de facto hive of stand-up; mixing an unmatched blend of A-list comics and ambitious up-and-comers. It does so seven days a week, up to five shows a night, with more than 1,000 people turned away every Saturday – unable to secure one of the 150 hallowed seats inside. The Comedy Cellar is, quite simply, ground zero for all things funny. 

By rights, the Comedy Cellar probably shouldn’t be famous at all. A tiny club in the middle of Greenwich Village, Downtown Manhattan, it features décor of a bygone era – largely unchanged in its 33-years open – which you’re unlikely to even catch sight of, given the lights are seldom switched on. It has never advertised, is a place where the doormen are surly, you can expect to be ejected for merely checking your phone and, with 150-seats squeezed into the sardine can-sized basement, to paraphrase a classic New York-ism: ‘Legroom? Forgetaboutit’.

And yet, against all odds, it works. The first time this writer visited two years ago, I paid just $14 (AED 50) and was treated to riotous sets by a variety of acts in a show that spanned two hours. Performers included a host of Comedy Central and Saturday Night Live writers, along with a surprise appearance by Parks and Recreation star Aziz Ansari – who performed 15-minutes of in-progress jokes that would later be told in front of a 18,000-strong crowd at a sold out Madison Square Gardens the following year. And he was only the second best act I saw that night. The first, Trevor Noah, was then a largely anonymous comic from South Africa, now primed to take over The Daily Show in September, from much–loved satirist and Comedy Cellar stalwart, Jon Stewart.

You could have a billion dollars in the bank, but you’re still going to take the money because you remember the time you needed that $15 cab fare.

In recent years, the pop culture cachet of the Cellar has skyrocketed – thanks in no small part due to the sitcom of a man trumpeted by many as the ‘best stand up on Earth’, Louis CK (appropriately titled Louie), whereby the club’s iconic brickwork and dappled stained glass forms a key part of each episode; while the Cellar also features in recent Chris Rock movie, Top Five. New Yorkers both, CK and Rock regularly stop by to dazzle stunned patrons, while Dave Chappelle, Sarah Silverman, Jerry Seinfeld and the late Robin Williams are all among the Comedy Cellar’s starry alumni. 

“They just walk in,” says Dworman, of the A-list talent that regularly adorns the Cellar’s stage. “We had one night not long ago where Aziz [Ansari], Chris Rock and Louis CK all walked in at the same show – they bumped everybody off the bill, it was amazing.” These stars, many of whom earned their stand-up stripes upon this very stage in the early years, treat their fellow acts as they would their own relatives. The so-called ‘round-table’, upstairs in the Olive Tree, is a place for all acts featured to kick back before, during and after the show. It’s here that Comedy Cellar founder Manny Dworman would chair heated political debate – supplying comedians with thick, leather-bound books on international conflict, on the condition they’d argue about it later.

“It’s like sitting around a kitchen table with your family,” Crom enthuses, on the spirit among acts. “The comedians go up there, they eat well, they’ve got great camaraderie and companionship – where else do they get that? Usually in a comedy club you’re standing in the bar, there’s no place to just hang out and be part of the group.”

Maybe it is this strong sense of brotherhood that keeps the established performers coming back – sometimes several times a week. Considering some boast their own TV shows, leading movie roles and can sell out the Cellar’s capacity 200 times over, it’s certainly not because they’re short on cash. 

“The big names don’t do it for the money,” confirms Crom. “I mean, they take the money – you could have a billion dollars in the bank, but you’re still going to take that money, because you remember the time you needed that $15 cab fare. 

“They’re there because it’s a pure comedy workshop for them, they’re getting real feedback,” Crom continues. “When it’s tough at the cellar, it’s tough. They’re not giving it up for free, there’s nowhere to hide, and after they scream and yell because it’s a famous guy on stage, it then comes back to: ‘OK, what have you got?’”

With the Cellar offering a flat appearance fee across the board – to acts both big and small – believed to be no more than $85, even at weekends, Noam Dworman believes his dimly lit basement simply holds magic to some comedians. On any given night, customers hail from all corners of the globe – from Australia to Great Britain, South America to our very own Middle East – with no shortage of characteristically sardonic New Yorkers, too. It is this rare hotchpotch of patrons that serves as the ideal sounding board for new material.

In this business it's all about the laugh. 

“They absolutely love it,” Dworman says of his revered associates. “I think they love the big rooms too – like 5,000 seat theatres – but there is just something about the Cellar. As opposed to music, which you can practice in many ways, the only way to practice comedy is in front of an audience.” Dworman chuckles. “Thank God, because that keeps us in business forever. No matter how much money Jerry Seinfeld has, he still needs a small room to workout in when he’s testing new material. That’s why we exist.”

As for Noam Dworman, the born and bred New Yorker has spent his entire life surrounded by the great and the good of comedy. Seeing “bizarre things” unfold on the stage for which he holds the deeds, the question remains, has he ever got up there himself?

“No, no,” he admits, quickly. “I’m pretty funny, but I don’t ever make the mistake of thinking I’m a comedian – sometimes I’ll joke to them, ‘I’m a civilian! I’m a civilian!’ 

“These guys,” Dworman continues, “they have a psychology. They are born with this urge to go on stage and do this. Maybe it’s a psychological issue, I don’t know – it’s a different breed. This is a genre where the response of the audience really defines whether you’re an asshole or not.”

Noam Dworman stops, glancing to the illustrious Comedy Cellar round table just off his right shoulder that just erupted in amusement.

“In this business,” he says, grinning, “It’s all about the laugh.”