Boston’s Seaport District is about to get a sense of humor. The up-and-coming neighborhood boasts an array of corporate offices, restaurants, and residential options. But when John Tobin, booker of Nick’s Comedy Stop, and Chet Harding and Norm Laviolette, cofounders of Improv Asylum, took a walk around the area a year ago, they found one amenity lacking: entertainment. They intend to rectify that by the spring, when they expect to open a stand-alone comedy club, Laugh Boston, at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel.
In the cavernous raw space that is to become the club, the floors and steel beams are unfinished. Windows look out on the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center’s LED sign and on a landscape dotted with cranes and construction sites. Laugh Boston is part of the explosive growth in the district.
Beth Stehley, vice president of sales and convention services at the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the club would “complement what we already have” to offer residents and out-of-towners. “We love to see development down there because it helps us sell the destination and bring more visitors, both domestically and internationally,” she said. “It allows them something to do right there.”
Through a press representative, Mayor Thomas M. Menino talked up the activity in the district and said, “The latest addition adds to the great diversity on the burgeoning South Boston waterfront.”
In a 6,000-square-foot space, Laugh Boston will have 297 seats and a stage meant mainly for stand-up comedy. The venue’s size is part of what the owners are banking on to make it distinctive. There are smaller clubs in town; Dick’s Beantown Comedy Vault seats 74, and Nick’s Comedy Stop seats 140. Most other places where comedians play, like Great Scott and the Paradise Rock Club, double as music venues. But there has not been a dedicated, midsize comedy club in town since the nearly 500-seat Comedy Connection departed Faneuil Hall for the 1,100-seat Wilbur Theatre in 2008. That left certain local and national acts with no place to play in Boston.
“There was kind of a comedy void that was created by that,” said Harding. “And we felt there were a lot of comedians out there who were great who could fill those rooms, but they might not be an eleven hundred-seat national presence. So we just felt there was an opportunity to do something.”
The trio behind Laugh Boston, a partnership called Wicked Comedy, are not the only ones thinking along those lines. In October, the Wilbur jumped back into the club arena at the 300-seat Johnny D’s in Somerville, launching what is meant to be a new monthly series showcasing comics who might not be big enough to fill the theater. It started with a packed house for Wyatt Cenac of “The Daily Show.” For November, the series booked John Mulaney, who quickly sold enough tickets to move to the Wilbur.
Tobin, a former city councilor who got his start in the local comedy scene as a doorman 20 years ago, was reluctant to reveal national names on his radar, but pointed to comedians like Don Gavin, Jimmy Dunn, Jim Colliton, and Joe Yannetty as possible regulars from the local scene. “We fit a niche in a new and developing neighborhood,” Tobin said, “but also a niche and a need that’s out there for a lot of comedians. Including not just national headliners, but Boston comedians.”
Even well-attended comedy clubs are risky ventures. They often operate in restaurants or bars, leaving them at the mercy of the host venues. Mottley’s Comedy Club closed in February when the bar it used went up for sale, and the Comedy Club at Cheers closed when part of that facility was sold off. Nick’s Comedy Stop’s Cambridge outpost opened in May in a Central Square restaurant, Moska, and lasted only a few months.
Veteran Boston comic Tony V, who has seen countless venues come and go since the 1980s comedy boom, sounded hopeful about Laugh Boston, but cautiously so. “My attitude with these clubs is, get in early because there might not be a late,” he said.
Tobin and company say their situation is different, in part because Laugh Boston will be a stand-alone venture, holding its own lease. And while they have acquired a liquor license and plan to offer snacks, the focus will remain on comedy, not selling food or drink. That, they say, will appeal to comedians and allow Laugh Boston to build a reputation with an audience.
“I’ve been in the business 20 years and I’ve run clubs and I’ve managed them,” Tobin said. “This is the first club where we control everything. We have the bar. We have the food. This is ours. Norm and Chet, they have a place already down on Hanover Street. They know how to do this.”
Harding and Laviolette will handle business matters and staffing. They have made Improv Asylum a popular North End destination, which has fueled their faith in Boston as a comedy town. At Improv Asylum, Laviolette said, “We’re doing a four o’clock matinee, an eight o’clock show, a ten o’clock show, and a midnight show on Saturday nights. We’re always sold out at eight and ten on Saturday night. We turn, typically, between 100 and 200 people away. There are consumers out there who want to buy comedy.”
Harding and Laviolette have also made corporate shows and corporate training programs a big part of their business model. They plan to take advantage of Laugh Boston’s location, adjacent to the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, by using the space during the day for corporate work.
Being at the hotel will also give Laugh Boston a presence on Summer Street, next to the convention center’s giant LED sign. That will make the comedy venue’s own signs highly visible, an advantage Tobin does not take for granted. He has worked with plenty of clubs based in restaurants and bars, where the advertising did not necessarily leap out at passersby. “It was a sandwich board if you were lucky,” he said. “And it was under the menu for the night.”