Working the Cellar: What Makes New York’s Comedy Cellar So Iconic According to the People Who Know It BestComedy Features
On this particular wintry Sunday night, the Comedy Cellar feels more like the cozy scene of a Christmas card than a club. The heat is cranked-up, and Frank Sinatra tracks blanket the room as people trickle in from the chill outside, peeling off their sweaters and coats. The volume of chatter doesn’t come close to Friday or Saturday night levels, but it’s still loud—couples chat as they set their shopping bags next to their feet and a group of friends argue about the merits of R.E.M and Led Zeppelin. A single bright light shines over the skinny, carpeted stage and onto the sign above it, bouncing off pieces of blue, orange, green and red stained glass that form the words “The Comedy Cellar.”
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Comedy Cellar, the best damn comedy room in New York City,” spouts a recorded voice with bravado. Host Ardie Fuqua jumps onstage to welcome the tourists and locals to the Cellar’s first show of the evening, and servers in black descend on the crowd to take the first round of drink orders. A night like this is a night off for the people tending bar and slinging cocktails and hummus appetizers in the Cellar’s cramped quarters.
Once the Cellar pulls in a comic, a customer, a booker or a bartender, it’s hard for any one to say goodbye for long. Little about the legendary stand-up comedy club and New York entertainment staple has changed since its opening 31 years ago. Same food, same painted green hallways, same black and white sign out front framed by glowing yellow light bulbs. Yet the lines outside are more packed, spots on the lineup are more competitive, and former regulars turned big-timers like Louis C.K. and Chris Rock make drop-in appearances more than ever. To understand what makes the Cellar legendary yet gimmick-free, you have to go to the source. This is its life story according to the people who know it best.
Halfway through the two-hour show, 32-year-old comedian Amy Schumer steps onto the stage. She’s in a loose striped shirt, her hair pulled back into a pony tail, and with a sunny smile on her face, Schumer opens her set by musing out loud about penises. She’s testing out new material, glancing over at a notebook she brought with her and running a finger along its open page as she feels her way into each new bit. When Schumer wants to practice, she comes home.
Schumer can’t remember when she first heard about the Cellar. It’s one of those places she feels as if she’s always known about, a young comic’s Disneyland, Narnia and Hogwarts all wrapped up into one small, dusty basement. “It was just like this holy grail,” she says. All of the Cellar’s comics have tales of their first encounters with the place. Up-and-comer Michael Che remembers seeing the place as a teenager, when the Cellar was featured in Comedian, Jerry Seinfeld’s 2002 documentary about coming back to stand-up comedy. “It would be him, Chris Rock and Colin Quinn at the Cellar table, talking shop and working on bits,” Che says. “And I was like, wow. I wanna work there.” For Che, getting a spot on the Cellar’s lineup was more nerve-wracking than landing an SNL writing position and a late night TV show gig.
Schumer remembers the audition with precise detail. “It was June 1st, 2007,” she says. “I auditioned, and I thought [booker] Estee [Adoram] would be like, no, maybe in a couple of years. I went up and had a really good set but still thought, at least I got to perform at the Comedy Cellar.” When Adoram gave her the number to call with her availability, Schumer went out and “got blackout drunk for how excited I was. I knew it was gonna be a life changer.”
Beyond its role as an inimitable, timeless comedic institution, the Cellar’s multi-generational talent love it mostly because it’s a comfortable place to be—or become—a comic, both on and off the stage. Older comics can teach younger comics, younger comics can teach older comics and half-baked jokes can evolve into riotous ones over time. Stand-ups can slump upstairs after bombing on any given night, walk into the Olive Tree Cafe toward a back corner booth that belongs to comedians only and slap on a face-palm as five other comics poke at that awful last joke over fries and beer. “You go onstage and you come back, you get to hang out, shootin’ shit, eat some food,” says veteran comic Robert Kelly. “They take care of you. It’s your home. It’s your club.”
If the Cellar is the cozy king of New York comedy clubs, the “comics’ table” is its throne, the most clever of tricks that founder Manny Dworman invented to lure comics from all over to the Cellar and keep them there. It’s a tiny booth in a section of the upstairs restaurant that the average diner would find undesirable, stuffed next to the loud, busy bar, bustling kitchen area and a narrow set of stairs leading into the Cellar. At the table, comics form friendships and often, inadvertently or purposefully, gather bits of inspiration for their most famous projects.
Jon Stewart and Dworman had “knock-down, drag-out fights” about politics there when Stewart was years away from The Daily Show, remembers Dworman’s son, Noam, who airs a Cellar podcast called Live From The Table that discusses various topics of comedy and life from the booth. The premise for Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn came in part from years of discussing serious topics with funny perspectives at the table. Louis C.K. still occasionally pops into the booth for a couple of hours some nights to edit his show on his laptop. “The funniest shit said, ever, is not on the stage, it’s upstairs at that table,” says Kelly. “It’s interesting, serious, the whole gamut. You can’t really fuck with that. There’s something about it.”
Manny Dworman created the table not long after he founded the Cellar in 1982 with writer Bill Grundfest, who came up with the idea to turn the space into a comedy room. Before the Cellar, he dealt mainly with music as a successful club owner downtown, where rich uptown folk trickled to continue their late nights eating, drinking, smoking and taking part in general revelry. When Dworman opened the Olive Tree Cafe in 1969, he found himself in possession of an empty basement space and another business opportunity. The basement took on several incarnations, the only partially successful one being a piano bar for which Dworman bought the now famous stained glass that lines the Cellar’s brick walls.
Dworman ran the Cellar using a mixture of two parts family, one part business. For the former, he created a dimly lit, warm and welcoming interior, hand-picked employees like waitress-turned-general manager Linda Turley and carved out a spot for comics to come and hang out before and after their sets. Noam Dworman, who inherited the Cellar in 2007 after his father’s death, grew up watching his father take care to make the Cellar as comfortable as his own home. “My grandmother was a fantastic host, in her house,” says Noam. “It sounds stupid but it’s really true. That passed down to my father, and hopefully down to me. I have to believe that’s the reason the comedians are comfortable here.”
Dworman became a friend to the comics himself, sitting down at the comics’ table alongside them. “He was such a personality, a businessman but also very warm,” says Turley. “He knew the bottom line, but had a kind of fun side. Loved the comics, which was one of his staples.”
As for the business element, Dworman knew that in order for the Cellar to sustain itself as a comedy fixture, he had to find the right talent. His partner and first booker, Grundfest, left two years after the Cellar opened to write for Mad About You, and Dworman made a leap of faith in picking his replacement. He chose Estee Adoram, the wife of the accordion player in Dworman’s band and a hostess at the restaurant.
Over the next few decades, Adoram would create her own tough and exclusive booking process, becoming one of the most feared figures in the New York stand-up comedy scene. “Estee and Manny built a comedy community around comics that they liked,” says Robert Kelly. “You know when you’re walking into the Cellar that you’re around a certain breed of comic, whether they’re brand new, or they’ve been there for a while.”
Sitting upstairs at the Olive Tree Cafe on a Friday afternoon, Noam Dworman and Estee Adoram could talk forever about what it means to be a Cellar comic, and what it takes to find one. The pair bicker back and forth on the subject and tease one another like brassy sitcom characters. Dworman is slight in frame, with some silver in his hair and light eyes. He’s bright and articulate, delving into the difficulties of the comedian lifestyle. Adoram has a warm, pretty face that wrinkles only when she smiles, and a curvy frame. She’s strongly opinionated about the comedy industry, making firm and sweeping critiques of the business in a thick Israeli accent. Dworman reads every email complaint from Cellar customers and Adoram watches every YouTube clip sent to her by hopeful comics, and together they run the Cellar. “We get an email with a complaint in it, the whole organization gets turned upside down,” says Dworman. “You’ve got to pay attention,” chimes in Adoram. “This is a baby very well taken care of.”
Dworman and Adoram rely on a few key principles for filtering out the best new acts, the first being the following: a good comic doesn’t need much time to make people laugh. Most of the time, Adoram can size up a comic in five minutes or less, having watched comics like Bill Burr and Louis C.K. deliver solid performances in short spots. “Even if they were not experienced enough to be the powerhouses they are now, you could see that they captured the audience,” she says, shaking her fist with fervor. “They had something in them.”
Adoram and Dworman also continue to rely on a tradition of throwing a comic onto the stage and in front of a live audience to gauge how he or she will do when faced with the real thing. Adoram believes the audience will always be the best gauge of a comic’s ability to think on their feet. “You don’t know who’s in the audience,” she says. “They could be a doctor, they could be a construction worker. You need to make sure that they all get you. That’s what makes you a good comedian, when you can reach everybody in that audience.”
Both believe that the Cellar’s lineup is at its best today, with its combo of talented comics young and old. Dworman attributes their “golden crop” to a kind of renaissance that’s currently taking place in comedy on the whole, in which new faces can rise quickly and take over pop culture. He bats away notions that it’s about viewers’ increased exposure to comics via TV or the Internet, comparing the phenomenon to the Beatles and Stones era of music. “You look back at it now, and it actually was an unusual period when a lot of groundbreaking acts really did just come at the same time,” says Dworman. “That kind of seems to be what’s happening now.”
For Adoram, it’s also a matter of sheer luck. “Right now, we are in a position that we are blessed,” gushes Adoram. “We have an incredible pool of talent. Incredible.”
To the left of the Cellar stage, there’s an image of Colin Quinn’s face with the orange, white and green colors of the Irish flag layered over it. It’s a poster from his one-man Broadway show, An Irish Wake, that’s been mounted on the brick wall since 1998. Out in the narrow halls, more portraits cover the green walls, dozens of signed pictures of Dave Attell, Louis C.K., Bill Burr, Jim Norton, Dave Chappelle, Ray Romano, Greg Giraldo, Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld and many more.
They’re the Cellar’s great comics, not so much by measure of their successful TV shows or films, but by the respect garnered by years of regular routines there. And it might be the greats who elevate the Cellar in their minds the most. “Every time I’m on the train, when we pass West 4th St, I think of getting off and going to the Cellar,” says Quinn. “The first time I saw those lights. For some reason, it was like a halo almost, to me. It’s really sick, how I feel about the Cellar.”
For the 54-year-old Quinn, summarizing his relationship to the Cellar feels impossible after almost 30 years of walking down the steps and onto the stage from night to night. His love for the Cellar is unconditional, in part because it retains the bohemian vibe that reminds him of the way Greenwich Village used to be, and in part because performing at the Cellar gave him his first real chance to connect with the audience, its low stage forcing him to face his viewers eye to eye.
But it’s more than that. “It wasn’t about the stage or the stand for me, it’s just not about the stand-up,” says Quinn, chuckling. “The reason I’m laughing right now is because I’ve never thought about that, until right now. Even if I don’t feel like going onstage, I wanna go there. In many ways, it’s a family. It’s definitely as much of a second family as I’ve ever had. That’s for sure.”
Fellow longtime regular Robert Kelly’s affinity for the place is a little easier to explain: coziness gives way to conversation, conversation gives way to creativity and friendship, and suddenly, you find yourself a very fulfilled comic in ways both personal and professional. He used to run around the city working other spots at clubs like Gotham or Caroline’s, but eventually he stuck mostly with the Cellar. “I was like, ehh, fuck it. I’m just gonna sit here, do four shows and kick ass, with all my friends,” says Kelly. “We’re viciously mean to each other, but we care about each other a lot. We’re really—underneath everything is a deep rooted-love and affection for each other.”
Younger comics like Amy Schumer share the same familial feelings for the place, however long or short their careers as Cellar comics are. Initially, Schumer was skittish around comics like Quinn and Kelly. “There’s a reason we’re comics, we’re all so guarded,” says Schumer. “The Cellar is such a sacred place, and you just want to respect everyone’s boundaries there.” Over the next few years, Schumer began to sit at the comics’ table, where she now feels completely comfortable prodding at Keith Robinson or Robert Kelly when they try a new joke and “it just eats it.” At the table, comics can count on real talk. “I know if I go up there and I’m wearing a stupid shirt or I say something that bombs, they won’t let me get away with that.” says Schumer. “We are all drawn to that. That kind of truth.”
At first glance, general manager Linda Turley looks like a 19-year-old waitress on her first day, with an almost uncannily youthful face, glowing, milk chocolate-brown skin, big lips, big eyes and big, sassy hair. She’s clothed in black pants, sneakers and a black shirt or sweatshirt. But Turley has two decades of memories of the Cellar. She remembers learning how to prevent her hand from shaking too hard as she set vodka tonics and beers down onto tables and laughed at jokes from the stage simultaneously. Also, sitting on the steps out front and at the diner around the corner with Dave Chappelle, just talking about “nothing in general.” She remembers the day the Manny Dworman found her as a young waitress at another comedy club, Catch a Rising Star, and offered her a job. When Catch closed its doors not long after, Turley found herself at 117 MacDougal Street, where she’s been since.
Turley still takes a moment now and then in the flurry of kitchen and bar activity to lean against the Cellar’s wood-paneled back walls and watch her friends up onstage. After 20 years of working there as a waitress, it’s bittersweet to watch a joke’s life cycle play out as it peaks and fades from a comic’s set. She went giddy when 31-year-old comedian John Mulaney found his stride with a joke he still uses, involving his girlfriend, popping the question and the line, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” Getting a laugh from Turley or any of the Cellar’s staff is a gift in its own way. “If they’re still making us laugh then there’s something there,” she says. “We’ve heard it over and over again. We really mean it when we like something or we think that they’re funny, and I think they appreciate that.”
The only more bittersweet moments Turley has experienced in her years of working the Cellar are the times when a comic parts ways the club, or as Robert Kelly describes it, “moves out, and moves on.” When a Louis C.K. or a Dave Chappelle leaves the Cellar, she gets a little sad knowing she won’t hear their voices every other night anymore. The twinge of sadness evaporates when she knows they’re becoming icons, and that they’ll be back.
When an entire generation of comics moves on, more than anything, Turley is excited for the new talent that will replace them. “When you see the new people come in, in your head, you’re always rooting for them,” she says of anticipating the moment a comic becomes destined to be one of the Cellar’s greats. “It could happen in the next day, it could happen in a week, it could happen twelve years from now, and you don’t know, but you feel almost kind of privileged to be behind the curtain at Oz.”