“Hey, do you guys like comedy?”
If you’ve ever walked through (or near) Times Square in the evening, you’ve undoubtedly heard this phrase. Every night, countless young adults aspiring to be the next big thing in comedy come out in droves trying to sucker tourists into coming to a comedy club. Every time I see a group wandering from shop to shop get suckered into talking to one of these poor souls, my heart aches for them. I want to walk up and shake them free of the poor comedian who will get an extra thirty seconds of stage time if he manages to sell them tickets. But my personal experience has always been limited; I have never in fact been to one of the comedy tourist traps that grace our fair city.
Last night changed this; last night, the shape of the NYC comedy scene finally became perfectly clear in my eyes. Take the post that follows as a warning, as a guide, and maybe even as light entertainment. And please, do not take it as an indictment against particular clubs, or acts, or even the poor folks who hawk tickets on Times Square; this is more a rant against what mainstream comedy apparently entails these days.
Yesterday, Katie and I were pulling together plans and discovered, after looking at the Village Voice, that one of her favorite actors was going to be doing standup that night at a big-name comedy club in Times Square. For the sake of not pointing fingers, I will leave the name of the venue out of this story, but my understanding is that this is a terribly popular club that brings a lot of acts in. It could be considered, for all intents and purposes, the archetype of NYC comedy clubs.
While I had read up on the FAQ prior to entering and had an understanding of how things worked, I was not quite prepared for what I would have to deal with. Here’s why:
First, there’s a per-person cover. This is, well, understandable.
On top of that, there’s a two drink minimum per person. This would be fine instead of the cover, but no, we have both. Also consider that this is in Times Square, where drinks cost twice as much as they should. On the upside, non-alcoholic drinks count towards the minimum, but these were undoubtedly going to be just as overpriced.
We arrive a little over an hour before doors, as we were told that was a good time to show up if you wanted decent seats. As they hand me the slip for my seating number, I find out that the cover is $30 per person. Already, $60 down the tubes, and we have to have at least four drinks between us. Four Times Square drinks. I can hear my wallet groaning at this point.
We managed to secure the only two seats that weren’t at a bar or in the “supper club” area and wait it out. I watch as the tourists promptly sit at the bar and start knocking back drinks – but this, too, is just an opportunity for the club to get you. Drinks ordered at the bar don’t apply to the minimum. I don’t know how loaded you like to be before you go see a comedian, but I generally like to be laughing because it’s genuinely funny, not because I find the word “dick” extra funny because I’m toasted. (Disclaimer: I don’t drink much as it is anyhow.)
While we’re waiting, Katie sees the comedian she had came to see, and goes over and asks for a picture, which I promptly take when he obliges. She then indicates we could leave, but I figure we might as well stick around for the show proper. Oh, what an idiot I am.
We finally get seated, and the seats are not great, thus making me wonder what the point was of showing up early. Our waiter comes by, and we order two Cokes and (got help us, we hadn’t eaten dinner yet) a basket of “herbed fries”. The colas were tiny at best, and the fries tasted like they had taken McDonald’s fries and re-fried them.
The comedy begins, and I can summarize it like this: the “host” went for the very sophisticated “Make Fun Of The Audience” style of comedy, and called himself a dick a lot. The opener made a lot of jokes about being married. The main act did a larger variety of material, and to be fair, was funny – but when most of your routine involves wild movements and funny noises, I tend to merely smile a lot but not laugh.
Right in between acts, the waiter came by again; we opted for refilling our drinks to hit our minimum. What came back was at least brown, but tasted like soda water. Truly impressive. At the end of the night, he brought the check by – total damage, $89.96 plus tip. Given the general lack of service, the poor quality of the food, and the general feeling that I’m being ripped off, I would’ve been tempted to tip low. But this is not an option at said club, because your waiter has to give you an exit ticket to leave. Without a magic red ticket, you are not allowed to leave. In most areas of the world, this might be called extortion. In Times Square, it’s called comedy. We left just over $100 lighter.
The night, however, was not over. We then scrambled for real dinner – what was open in the area, of reasonable quality? Somehow, we ended up at Olive Garden, where we sat at the bar, had excellent service and reasonably tasty food, and the bill came to less than half of what was spent at the comedy club. When I can go to a chain restaurant in the price-inflated section of Manhattan and pay less than half of what I did on “entertainment” for a meal, something is wrong. Dead wrong.
Finally, we made the trek to Chelsea for the last half of our evening: the one-night-only spectacle of Showgirls: The Best Movie Ever Made, Ever at UCB Theatre (link is NSFW). The event consisted of live readings from the script (including unedited hilarious stage instructions), as well as an interview with a fake Joe Esztheras. To quote the website:
Experience the power and sanctity of Esztheras’ words live onstage. It’s half staged reading, half “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” and half female empowerment, Eszterhas style.
Keep in mind, neither I, nor Katie, nor our accompaniment John Scanlan had seen Showgirls in its entirety prior to this show. Even with that said, we collectively laughed non-stop the whole time.
The price? $8 a ticket. No drinks required, although Katie decided to have a Red Bull ($2) anyhow.
So, to recap:
Big Name City Comedy Club: $100+ for two people, mild amusement. Small Comedy Theatre: $18 for two people, death via laughter.
While there are probably exceptions to this rule, this is the easiest personal example I can give of how the mainstream comedy scene is fucked and the “underground comedy scene” is far more worth your time. I put quotes around “underground comedy scene” because if you’re trying to see people on TV in the flesh, it’s just as easy to find people that have been on TV lately at UCB Theatre or Invite Them Up as you would at Times Square clubs.
Look: if you’re coming to NYC for a visit, and have an overwhelming desire to see comedy, learn where the good theaters are. Figure out what the good running shows are – Crash Test, Chicks And Giggles, Channel 102 – all of these are free and/or cheap. Get on some mailing lists, as practically every comedian has one by now. Make plans, and don’t be afraid to take a risk on a cheap show.
And if you have to walk through Times Square and someone asks if you like comedy, look them straight in the eye and tell them you hate it. (Trust me, you’ll laugh.)