New York is arguably the greatest live comedy city in the world (with apologies to L.A. and Chicago). From Lenny Bruce to Chris Rock to Jon Stewart, countless of America’s greatest comedians have made their name on the well-worn stages of its comedy clubs. Today the city continues to feed rising young stars such as Hannibal Buress, John Mulaney, Nikki Glaser and other up-and-comers who work out their material at clubs around the city. But where to go if you have limited time and want the guaranteed hottest acts on the circuit? We’ve narrowed the pack to the six best comedy clubs in New York. Just be sure to arrive on time for your show—comics love to pick on latecomers. Oh, and, generally speaking, the later the show, the dirtier the material and drunker the audience.
It’s not uncommon for famous comics such as Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle to drop in for a surprise set at this dark, low-ceilinged East Village institution tucked below MacDougal Street. Even if it’s a night when none of the comedians on the bill are famous yet, every one of them has been vetted by the club’s strict booker—getting “passed” at the Cellar is a big deal for a young performer. Though comedy clubs tend to be nondescript by design, the brick wall behind the stage and iconic stained glass sign pass as decor. The upstairs Olive Tree Café is a destination in itself with slate tables and silent Charlie Chaplin films playing on screens, and it’s also where the club’s talent is likely to be hanging out, munching on falafel, borscht or burgers. It’s been around since 1982, which means its usually stellar lineups are no secret, so it’s better to book in advance than take your chances at the door. Cover prices range from $14 to $24, with a two-drink minimum at every show. The club is in the process of launching a larger spin-off the Comedy Cellar at the Village Underground around the corner at 130 W 3rd St., although there’s no official website for tickets yet. 117 MacDougal St., 212-254-3480, comedycellar.com
Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre
Founded in 1999 by Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh of the Upright Citizens Brigade, who also had a late 1990s Comedy Central sketch show of the same name, the UCB is the favored spot for young, rising comedians in sketch, improv and stand-up. This unglamorous Chelsea basement theater has bred some of today’s most popular comedic actors such as Donald Glover and Rob Riggle, and it regularly produces Saturday Night Live cast members and writers. Unlike most clubs, there is no drink minimum, and tickets never top $10. Regular shows include improv performances from Scott Adsit and John Lutz (both of 30 Rock) and the writers for The Colbert Report. Popular shows, such as Sunday night’s improv show Asssscat 3000 and Monday’s late night stand-up show Whiplash, often sell out far in advance. The club also runs another smaller theater, UCB East in the East Village, as well as one in L.A. 307 W 26th St., 212-366-9176, newyork.ucbtheatre.com
Gotham Comedy Club
If there is a looker among the bunch, it’s Chelsea’s Gotham Comedy Club—a large, bright room opened in 1996 with television in mind, and indeed it’s hosted shows such as Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham and AXS TV’s live stand-up show. Its comedians are first-rate, too, with well-known comics such as Jay Mohr and Amy Schumer headlining every weekend. During the week, the club features talent showcases and charity shows, in addition to the late-night Tuesday gig, Comedy Juice, which brings together rising and established comedians and can see drop-ins from big names such as Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C.K. While the showroom itself is filled with four-person tables like in a traditional comedy club, the long entrance hallway is more reminiscent of a theater, with portraits of great comedians à la Robin Williams adorning the walls. The club posts its headliners months in advance, and tickets normally go for about $25, with a two-drink minimum at each table. If you’re a high-roller, consider the VIP packages, typically $115 to $125, which impress with an open bar, private table, food and a jump to the front of the line. 208 W 23rd St., 212-367-9000, gothamcomedyclub.com
Carolines on Broadway
One of the most famous and longest-running comedy clubs in New York, Carolines in Times Square does not disappoint, especially on weekends when it pulls in A-list entertainers of the likes of Tracy Morgan, D.L. Hughley and Adam Carolla. Those headliners perform long shows in front of a distinct checkered backdrop to a packed 300-seat house. During the week, the club supports rookies by hosting new talent nights, stand-up competitions and the breakout artist comedy series, which gives younger comics a chance to do extended sets in this iconic club, which was started in Chelsea by Caroline Hirsch in 1982 as a cabaret. Its current basement showroom is kept dark, with the front-most tables tucked right next to the stage, well in the comedian’s sightlines. Ticket prices for weekend shows typically range from $30 to $55, and there’s a two-drink minimum. If you make dinner reservations for a pre-show meal at the Supper Lounge, you’ll get VIP show seating, although there’s also the opportunity to order from the full dinner menu (nachos, burgers, pizza, roasted chicken) during the main event. 1626 Broadway, 212-757-4100, carolines.com
Founded in 2012 by production and management company Cringe Humor, the Stand is a rising star in New York’s comedy scene, and though its wood-paneled showroom is on the smaller, darker side, it’s lit up by the club’s bright logo backing the stage. The Gramercy club books some typical “showcase” shows, with several comics performing shorter sets, but it also hosts podcast tapings and other independently produced comedy shows. In its first year, Jim Gaffigan and other heavy hitters dropped by, and local favorites such as Christian Finnegan and Nikki Glaser appear regularly. Tickets are usually between $15 and $20, but there’s no drink minimum. Perhaps that’s because it’s not painful to spend money in its small but excellent upstairs restaurant of the same name, which dishes out fancy takes on staples, such as cheeseburger dumplings and truffle mac and cheese. And for once the drink list is as inspiring as the comic lineup: Try the New Raj ($13), a smooth mix of pepper- and lemongrass-infused Bombay Sapphire East gin, fresh-squeezed lime juice, agave syrup, cucumber and basil. Beer hounds will get dizzy at the sight of the suds menu, which includes two large format brews from Brooklyn Brewery at $18 a piece. 239 3rd Ave., 212-677-2600, standnyc.com
Stand Up NY
A dive since its opening in 1986, Stand Up NY has spiffed up its act with a red and gold interior courtesy of legendary nightlife maven Steve Lewis (Butter, Marquee) and two VIP sections. Visitors and locals pack the intimate Upper West Side space nightly for area favorites such as Nick DiPaolo and Marina Franklin, with occasional drop-ins from notable names like Aziz Ansari—you can check out the lineup in advance online. If you want to be in spitting distance of the comedians, the handful of seats that wrap around the small stage give an up-close-and-personal view of the evening’s performers. Ticket prices are generally $15 to $20, and each show has the requisite two-drink minimum. Know that this is a popular spot for out-of-towners, and it’s not unusual for them to get incorporated into a show. 236 W 78th St. 212-595-0850, standupny.com
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