Comedy club owners are laughing, if not to the bank

By Nick A. Zaino III
Globe Correspondent / December 24, 2009

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In the summer of 2008, Boston’s comedy scene faced a dim future. The Comedy Connection, the city’s biggest room, was going dark as it prepared to make a risky leap to the Wilbur Theatre, and the city’s two other clubs were struggling for relevance.

A little more than a year later, five downtown clubs are competing for audiences - more than the city has boasted since a generation of comic talent burst on the scene in the 1980s. And the Comedy Connection, newly armed with a liquor license, is booking national acts at the 1,112-seat Wilbur. The boom is breathing life into the local comedy scene, but can all these clubs survive?

Boston has nurtured many of America’s comic stars, from “Tonight Show’’ touchstones Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien to Steven Wright, Denis Leary, Bobcat Goldthwait, Janeane Garofalo, Paula Poundstone, Jimmy Tingle, Barry Crimmins, and Lenny Clarke. Leno, who started doing stand-up while he was at Emer son College, learned to get laughs scraping together gigs anywhere he could here in the early ’70s - at Combat Zone strip clubs, opening for music acts, even playing retirement homes and prisons - before moving to Los Angeles. O’Brien, a Harvard Lampoon star, never did stand-up.

The rest honed their craft here in the ’80s, when it seemed any pub could hang a light and buy a mike and call itself a comedy club. Dedicated comics like Clarke would do eight or nine sets throughout the city in one night. The stage time helped comics polish their acts so they were ready when the TV network scouts came to put them in front of a national audience. But as comedy’s rock ’n’ roll vibe faded and big-name comedians migrated to cable TV, the number of clubs dwindled in the late ’80s and in the ’90s until there were only a handful left. Local comics vied for the few remaining headlining spots or moved to New York and other cities.

Last year, the Comedy Connection took more than two months to navigate from Faneuil Hall to the Wilbur before it started hosting comedy again. The Vault, a quirky basement space on Boylston Street, moved quickly to fill the perceived vacuum, scooping up some of the Connection’s veteran comics and audience and extending its lineup to become the city’s only seven-day-a-week comedy spot.

“We market to an older crowd, and I use a lot of the dinosaurs,’’ says Dick Doherty, owner of the Vault. “Guys like Don Gavin, Mike Donovan, and Frank Santorelli - when they’re in a room like my room, they just are magic to the older crowd.’’

In September 2008, Mottley’s Comedy Club opened in a brick-walled basement near Faneuil Hall. Owned by local comics Jon Lincoln and Tim McIntire and investor Jeff Fairbanks, the place mixes rising local comics with out-of-town acts like Elon James White and Emily Epstein.

“We wanted to have a younger vibe,’’ says Lincoln.

At Mottley’s, you might catch a comic on the verge like Joe Wong, who was born in China and recently joked on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show’’ that he wasn’t afraid of the bad economy (“I grew up poor, and if I become poor again, I’ll just feel young’’). You might also check out a specialty show like “Mortified,’’ featuring confessional storytelling as people share humiliating youthful diary entries, love letters, poems, and more.

In May, Tommy’s Comedy Lounge launched in the Charles Playhouse, booking such veteran Boston headliners as Steve Sweeney and showcase acts. Older comedians love the place, notes co-owner John Tobin, a Boston city councilor, because it housed the Comedy Connection in the ’80s: “There’s a lot of nostalgia to it.’’

Tobin and his associates also took over the booking for Nick’s Comedy Stop this summer, showcasing younger headliners such as Harrison Stebbins and Chris Tabb while sprucing up the place, an old-school lounge that feels like a set from “The Sopranos.’’ Tobin plans to use both clubs together to host bigger events.

Last month, Jim McCue, Boston Comedy Festival organizer, opened the Comedy Club at Cheers in Faneuil Hall. McCue plans to book out-of-town comedians he knows through the festival (like Ryan Hamilton from “Last Comic Standing’’) and local veterans like Tony V.

Meanwhile the Comedy Studio remains a Harvard Square staple, a place for audiences to catch the unexpected and for comics to find their voice.

But are there enough good comedians - and audiences interested in seeing them - to sustain these venues?

Bill Blumenreich, Comedy Connection owner, says the club scene is over and the only way to make a profit now is with big names, which is his specialty. With the revenue from his new liquor license, he lined up an impressive roster of national acts at the theater, including Rob Schneider, Sinbad, Richard Lewis, Eddie Griffin, Pauly Shore, and Damon Wayans.

“They’re going to all fail,’’ Blumenreich says of the clubs. “The day of Boston comedians selling tickets have come and gone. These guys are very funny guys, and they have absolutely no ticket-selling ability.’’

On a Friday earlier this month, crowds varied considerably. The Connection hosted two sold-out shows with Bob Saget (“America’s Funniest Home Videos,’’ “Full House’’). It was standing-room-only at Mottley’s for a double bill of New York comics returning to Boston. At Nick’s, local powerhouse Lamont Price killed in front of an audience of about 80, riffing on the idea that Ben Franklin must have loved smoking marijuana. (“This dude had to be high, ’cause you can’t think of electricity sober,’’ he said. “You know he was just like - miming a puff - ‘Oh man . . . I’m ’a fly my kite in a thunderstorm.’ ’’) The Vault had a half-full audience of 30, and about 40 turned out at Cheers. The lowest turnout was at Tommy’s, with about 10 people.

Gary Gulman, a national act who recently sold out four shows at Mottley’s and played the Wilbur earlier this year, wishes he’d had today’s opportunities for stage time when he was coming up in Boston a decade ago. More clubs means more chances to improve, even if that entails flopping in front of a tiny crowd some of the time.

“I think I would have been better sooner and have a different style now,’’ he says. “I think most comedians’ tendency is towards doing something unique and different. Its just it’s hard to get the encouragement for that when you’re playing clubs that are more unforgiving.’’

As for the club owners, they say there isn’t much money in running a comedy club, but they’re happy to be doing something they love. “It’s a fun business to be in,’’ says McCue. “We’re not pounding out widgets.’’

Doherty says he lives frugally, driving a 10-year-old truck and living in a fixer-upper house, and vows to keep the Vault open as long as he’s alive.

“All I want is to make a living,’’ he says. “I’m 67 years old. I’m just thrilled that I can still be doing this.’’