When I posted a pro-tip about where to move and when as a comic, the questions came flooding about what scenes I recommend. The problem is that every comedian is unique both in life situation and career development. So I thought it might be more helpful to post a massive piece detailing various scenes. These are sorted by metro area population (according to Wikipedia), not by strength of scene.
I’m writing this based on the knowledge I have gleaned from touring, producing shows, and friends. Please don’t criticize me for missing something in your scene – instead, give the information you have out in a non-dickish way, intended to help people. (i.e. please post anything I may have missed in the comments!)
Honorable mentions with smaller populations but great scenes: Madison WI, Bloomington IN, and Grand Rapids MI.
50. Salt Lake City (Metro Population: 1124197)
SLC is split into two main scenes, much like the population of the city itself. There are the Wise Guys clubs (with two locations in Ogden and West Valley City). They cater to a cleaner, older audience. And then there are the indie shows, that cater to a younger, hipper crowd. It’s remote, with not much paid work within driving distance – and much of the corporate work in the region requires you to be squeaky clean. But there are some great young voices coming out of SLC (like Jackson Banks and Abi Harrison).
49. Birmingham (Metro Population: 1128047)
There was, there is, and there forever will be one club in Birmingham, Alabama, and that is the Stardome. Arguably the powerhouse club of the entire southeast, the Stardome is a 450-seater with a freaking skybox. It also means that to play there as a headliner, you need to DRAW. There’s a big urban population (and thus scene) there, so there is a decent amount of work for young black comics.
Stardome owner Bruce Ayers is a super nice guy who loves to see young talent develop, and the city is centrally located to several other scenes. And Roy Wood Jr. started there, so they’re doing something right.
48. Raleigh (Metro Population: 1130490)
Another city with one historic club, Raleigh is the home of Charlie Goodnight’s. The difference is the owner of Goodnight’s (Marc Grossman) also owns Helium in Buffalo, Philly, and Portland – so if you come up strong in Raleigh, you’ve got a good chance of other road work. There are also lots of clubs within driving distance (including a Comedy Zone in Clayton, less than an hour away). Raleigh isn’t the strongest scene, but it’s geographically wonderful.
47. Buffalo (Metro Population: 1165109)
Speaking of Helium, they own Buffalo’s scene. Which finally is a scene. Many clubs have opened and closed in the last twenty years but Helium is a powerhouse and only getting stronger. The city is a bit remote (though driving distance of clubs in Erie and Cleveland), the economy isn’t great, and it’s extremely cold. But at least that produces residents with a sense of humor.
46. New Orleans (Metro Population: 1167764)
The amazing music scene in New Orleans prevents the city from maintaining a club. I’d bet someone with deep pockets and a great business plan could come in – but when you’re competing with Bourbon Street for the entertainment dollar, you’re going to lose. There’s a fledgling indie scene the will bring in headliners for special engagements, but it’s a tough place to start.
45. Hartford (Metro Population: 1212381)
Just two hours from New York City, most of the headliners that come through Hartford (to the Funny Bone or to Brew Ha Ha) are New York’s elite comedians (who bring their own features). So while it is a hard place to headline, it is an excellent place to MC as you’ll learn quickly and get all sorts of contacts. Add in the Tree House Comedy gigs all over the state and Hartford’s proximity to Boston, NYC, New Haven, Providence, and a few casinos and you have a surprisingly good place to develop as a comic. And it doesn’t hurt that Ethan and Lou on 95 Rock LOVE having comedians on.
44. Oklahoma City (Metro Population: 1252987)
The biggest city to be home of one of the four Loony Bins (along with Tulsa, Wichita, and Little Rock), Oklahoma City is predominantly a cowboy town. It’s got a small alt scene, but unless you can appeal to an Okie crowd, you’re not going to fare well at the Bin. That said, if you can, you’ve got four clubs all in the same region, all owned and booked by the same guy. The Loony Bin’s schedule is predominantly road dogs mixed with occasional special events. So if you’re looking to open for Brian Posehn and Pete Holmes, you won’t get many of those chances in OKC.
43. Richmond (Metro Population: 1258251)
Home of one of the Funny Bones, Richmond’s best asset might be that it’s close to DC and Raleigh. The Funny Bones are good clubs, though the chain is fragmented and confusing. Many of them are booked by Dave Stroupe out of Columbus (more on him when we get to that city). Some are independent and related in name only, but most of them are good clubs with solid acts. Richmond is a nice town and extremely affordable – but I don’t recommend any town with only one club as a place you should move to in order to develop.
42. Louisville (Metro Population: 1307647)
Anyone who knows me knows I’m partial to Louisville, as it was the home of the Comedy Caravan (the first club I headlined). I’m now one of the owners of it (now called the Laughing Derby) – and while I love the hell out of the club (and the city), Louisville can sometimes be golden handcuffs to a comic. Life in Louisville is pretty pleasant – lots of great restaurants and super affordable housing. It’s also VERY centrally located for road work, and Tom Sobel’s TSM (which books a ton of road work) is based there. Because of that, I’ve seen a lot of great comics who could have killed it in NYC or LA decide to stay put in Louisville. That said, there’s a metric ton of open mics and the idea of shows roasting fictional characters started there (to my knowledge, anyway). Fun, quirky town.
41. Memphis (Metro Population: 1316100)
Memphis is the largest metro area without a comedy club. They keep coming and going, but like New Orleans, the music scene is just too damned good. Hopefully one will come to stay eventually. But the average lifespan of a club in Memphis is under five years.
40. Jacksonville (Metro Population: 1345596)
If you’ve never been to Florida, you might not know that the northern part of the state is more like rural Georgia. There are three clubs in Jacksonville, including one of the two flagship locations of the Comedy Zone (which books work all over the southeast). The Zone books BIG headliners there. The other two are smaller and cater to a more rural crowd – Jacksonville Comedy Club (which usually only books clean acts), and Bonkerz (which has rooms all over the country, but pays below average). While the crowds are not as progressive as the average comedy crowd, there’s also solid stage time in Jacksonville.
39. Milwaukee (Metro Population: 1555908)
Last I heard, Milwaukee was down to two clubs – Comedy Café and Jokerz. The Comedy Café mainly relies on Midwest touring acts. Jokerz does the same, but they’re in the basement of a strip club (so I don’t know if that makes it better or worse). The good news about Milwaukee is there seems to be room to rise here, and it’s got proximity to many other cities with clubs (including great ones like Madison and Chicago). And Milwaukee’s Johnny Beehner was just on Letterman.
38. Nashville (Metro Population: 1589934)
For a city this big and with this much tourism, it is surprising to only have one mainstream club (Zanies). Again, probably due to the music scene. That said, Zanies is a great club that’s been around forever, and they bring in HUGE headliners. Nashville’s indie scene has been strong for the last decade, partially due to the efforts of NashvilleStandup.com and Chad Riden. Not a bad place to start.
37. Providence (Metro Population: 1600852)
Providence is in the shadow of Boston’s comedy scene much like Philly is to New York and Riverside is to LA (more on those later). Comedy Connection is a solid club, but Catch a Rising Star reduced itself to just one night a week. Providence is close to a ton of other scenes (especially Boston), and there are a lot of comedians who make a fine living staying in New England. If you’re from Providence, start there, get some experience, and then go to Boston.
36. Norfolk-Virginia Beach (Metro Population: 1671683)
There’s a Funny Bone in Virginia Beach and Cozzy’s (a weekend room) in Newport News. That’s a nice balance, as it’s easier to get time at Cozzy’s, but there are bigger headliners to learn from and interact with at the Bone. It’s a pretty pleasant place to live, and close enough to other work – but there’s not a ton going on outside those two clubs.
35. Austin (Metro Population: 1716289)
For a city this big and this cool, there should really be more full-time comedy here. The average demo in Austin screams comedy fan – young, hip, rejecting of authority. Yet the only full-time club is Cap City, and there’s one weekend room (The Velveeta Room). But there is so much indie stand-up here it’s insane. There’s a huge alt scene (as there should be in a city like this), and tons of bar shows and open mics. The city can be a bit remote (you can drive to Dallas, Houston, or San Antonio – and that’s pretty much it). But I have fantasized about moving here on more than one occasion. If you’re on the alt side of things, or more writer than performer, this could be a great scene for you.
34. Indianapolis (Metro Population: 1756241)
It is hard not to be biased here, as I’ve owned Morty’s for the last 5 years (and the owner of Crackers is a believer in “if you work for them, you don’t work for us”). But here are the facts – Indianapolis is cheap to live in, it’s within a days drive of more than 2/3 of the comedy clubs in America, and there are four clubs. (One of which is owned by my group – and we also own clubs in Louisville and Dayton, produce many festivals, and EP a stand-up TV show). More importantly, Indianapolis is the home of Bob & Tom – a radio show big that the comedians who are regulars sell out theaters in any of the show’s markets (which are a lot of freaking markets). Comics who have recently moved from Indy to other scenes include Michael Malone, DJ Dangler, and Tim McLaughlin. I’m biased, but I believe Indianapolis is a great city for any comic to get started.
33. Columbus (Metro Population: 1836536)
Another small city with big power, Columbus is the home to the crown jewel of the Funny Bone collection, and to Funny Bone booker Dave Stroupe. Stroupe’s feature showcases (effectively a 25 minute audition) can land a comic a few months worth of work in one shot. So to come up here is a wonderful thing. The problem is that the Bone is the only club in town – and because so many people want in, it’s a tougher climb.
32. San Jose (Metro Population: 1836911)
San Jose is not just an affordable way to live in the Bay Area – it’s a fast growing city with two A-rooms: the Improv and Rooster. T Feathers. Any Improv is a tough nut to crack, as they generally rely on touring acts over locals, but Rooster’s is a wonderful club run by comic and all around sweetheart Heather Barbieri that actively tries to cultivate a local scene. If you’re considering San Francisco, take a look at San Jose as an option.
31. Las Vegas (Metro Population: 1951269)
Probably the most comedy clubs per capita, Vegas has a Laugh Factory, Brad Garrett’s Comedy Club, the Riviera, an Improv, LA Comedy Club, and Las Vegas Live. Add resident headliner shows and special engagements from the casinos and whatever happens in the indie scene and there’s a LOT of comedy in this town. Is that good for locals? Maybe – but they tend to get lost among the superstars, the Los Angeles imports coming in for the week, and the tourists who don’t ever come back and see them because they’re leaving tomorrow. If you’re a good local comic in Vegas, you get to open for some amazing names. But if you’re just starting out, all you’ll get is dizzy.
30. Kansas City (Metro Population: 2035334)
It surprises me to learn that Kansas City has more people in its metro area than Vegas. But with two very solid clubs (The Improv and Stanford and Sons), it makes sense that acts with unique voices like Mike Baldwin and AJ Finney emerged from this scene. I have only played KC once so I don’t know a ton about it – but it seems to be a great off-the-radar city to develop before a move.
29. Cleveland (Metro Population: 2077240)
Cleveland has had two phenomenal clubs (Hilarities and The Improv) for as long as I’ve been a comic. Both bring very high quality acts into town, and it is harder to find a more gracious host than Hilarities owner Nick Kostis (I did a guest set there once and he insisted on buying me and my friend steaks). Hilarities spends more time than the Improv cultivating local talent, but they’re both top clubs – and a third recently opened (a Comedy Zone inside the Hard Rock). Comedian and radio host Bill Squire calls Cleveland home, as does Mike Polk, who became a local legend for his Cleveland tourism spoofs. And housing there is beyond affordable. Recommended as a great place to start.
28. Cincinnati (Metro Population: 2130151)
Aside from one of the better clubs in the country (Go Bananas) and the always solid Funny Bone, Cincinnati’s best comedy asset is its geography. Less than an hour from Dayton (Home of another Funny Bone and Wiley’s), Cinci is also within two hours of Lexington, Louisville, Indianapolis, and Columbus and within a few more hours of most of the Midwest. Josh Sneed still calls Cincinnati home, and it’s a great place to live if your plan is to be a Midwest touring comic. Even if that’s not your end game, it’s a good base if it’s what you want to do while you learn to grow.
27. Orlando (Metro Population: 2134411)
Cities that thrive on tourism are always tough for comedy. On one hand, there are new crowds at the Improv and Bonkerz every night. On the other, it’s very hard to build a following. Clubs in Florida also tend not to pay very well, as the owners believe that most comedians take the gigs as a vacation. They’re not wrong – but it still makes the economics of being a Florida comedian very difficult. And being in any corner of the country is limiting when it comes to travel – even if flights out are fairly cheap.
26. San Antonio (Metro Population: 2142508)
San Antonio has two clubs: The upstart Laugh Out Loud and the stalwart Rivercenter Comedy Club. Rivercenter isn’t known for bringing in particularly big headliners, which means there is room for the locals to work their way up. Laugh Out Loud’s calendar is more impressive, but both clubs are either owned or booked by the same company (maybe both) so if you work your way up in one, you may be welcomed in the other. There’s also a quickly growing Latino scene in the city, with pop-up shows at various venues. And it’s only 90 minutes from Austin.
25. Sacramento (Metro Population: 2149127)
I was pleasantly surprised the first time I learned about the Sacramento scene. Tons of independent shows mixed with established clubs like the Punchline (the big fancy one), Laughs Unlimited (the workhorse club), and Comedy Spot (the improv venue that is very stand-up friendly). There’s also Tommy T’s in Rancho Cordova, which alternates between an urban room, a hypnotist room, and a whatever-sells-tickets room. My point is there is a ton of stage time here, and it’s also right near the Bay Area, one of the best scenes in the country. Up and comers like John Ross and established headliners like Ngaio Bealum call the Big Tomato home – seems like a pretty great place to start.
24. Charlotte (Metro Population: 2217012)
While there’s only one comedy club in Charlotte, it’s the Comedy Zone and it’s packed every night. Coming up there is a great thing to do – because if you work for the Zone, you work a LOT. The Zone owner (zowner?) Brian Heffron is brutally honest with his talent, which is something you need when you’re coming up. Also, I’m a fan of the city itself – it’s geographically small, but has the metropolitan options for food and culture you’d expect from a much bigger city, and nice housing is very affordable. Another great place to start.
23. Portland (Metro Population: 2226009)
Everything you know about Portland is true, and that’s why it’s such a naturally fun comedy scene. If you’re a “blue collar” comic, you might want to steer clear – but if you’re a hipster or a progressive act, you will fit in perfectly. Aside from being host to a great festival (Bridgetown), Portland also has Harvey’s and Helium. Harvey’s papers a good deal of the room – but they’re full most nights and they encourage the locals. And I’ve already talked about how great of a chain Helium is. Add in a ton of indie rooms and an enormous alt scene and it’s the third city in a row I’d recommend to get started.
22. Pittsburgh (Metro Population: 2356285)
And the streak is broken. While the Pittsburgh comedy scene has some great stuff going for it (like the indie shows being produced by the Race to the Coffin folks), it’s a pretty big population for only having one full-time club. Which is an Improv, and those are hard to get into. It’s not a bad scene – just not a big one.
21. Denver (Metro Population: 2543482)
Home to two of the best comedy clubs in the country (Comedy Works and the other Comedy Works), what does it say about how great your scene is when the Improv is the 3rd best club in town? That’s not a knock on the Denver Improv (it’s a great club) – just a compliment to how Wende Curtis runs the Comedy Works. There is a TON of stage time for locals, because that’s who she relies on to host and feature – for some of the biggest names in comedy. There’s a reason three Denver comics just got their own scripted show on TruTV – because the best Denver comics are damn good. Two of my favorite people in comedy (Scott Sharp and Rob Gleeson) came from that scene, and I expect more to emerge. The only draw back is that it is super isolated – but it’s a great place to learn.
20. Baltimore (Metro Population: 2710489)
It’s hard to see Baltimore and DC’s scenes as separate as the comics go back and forth between the two. But my advice is to err on the side of Baltimore. Not only is it much more affordable, but there’s plenty of room for advancement at the Comedy Factory (city club) and at Magooby’s (suburb club). Comedy Factory books more urban acts but both bring in superstars, and both nurture local talent. Also, there’s Sully’s (in Magooby’s old location), which still occasionally has shows. Unfortunately the Baltimore clubs are in a bit of a turf war, but if that gets to be too much for you, just drive to DC. Add the two cities up, and they make a great scene.
19. Tampa-St. Petersburg (Metro Population: 2783243)
I don’t want to repeat my Orlando paragraph, so I might just ask you to re-read it. There’s an Improv and there’s Side Splitters, and there’s a fantastic comic like JB Ball emerging out of that scene. But it goes back to the whole “you should be happy to be in Florida” pay structure that makes being a central Florida comedian difficult.
18. St. Louis (Metro Population: 2812896)
The scene in St. Louis is divided into a club scene (two Funny Bones) and an indie scene (bar shows freaking everywhere). Overall, it’s pretty well balanced and there seems to be a good amount of stage time. Not a bad place for a Midwestern comedian to start.
17. San Diego (Metro Population: 3095313)
LA’s comedy little brother for decades, San Diego is finally coming into its own as a comedy city. Ten years ago, the only club in town was the La Jolla Comedy Store. Now the American Comedy Company, Mad House Comedy Club, and the Comedy Palace all compete for the town’s nightlife dollars. But the great thing about San Diego is there are enough nightlife dollars to go around. And just 45 minutes away there’s the Comedy Club at Pechanga and Aces. That’s a whole lot of comedy for the population. If you’re a SoCal comedian, San Diego is a great place to develop before you come up to LA.
16. Minneapolis-St. Paul (Metro Population: 3279833)
Minneapolis has consistently been one of the best comedy scenes in the country. Five of the top 100 comedians on Last Comic Standing last year were from the Twin Cities, and two more got their start there. That’s a hugely disproportionate number. Acme Comedy Club is one of the best run clubs in the country. House of Comedy (in the Mall of America) is owned by the same people who own clubs in Edmonton, Phoenix, and East Rutherford New Jersey. The Joke Joint also has a location in Houston. And all three of them actively look for and foster local talent. Plus there’s a ton of indie shows, too. If you can stand the cold, the Twin Cities are a great place to develop.
15. Seattle (Metro Population: 4039809)
If it didn’t rain so damned much, I’d live in Seattle right now. Aside from the food being unbelievably good, the population being one of the most educated in America, the progressive attitude, and the economy performing well above average, the comedy scene is also incredible. The Tacoma Comedy Club is a powerhouse, alternating between bringing in big names and creating them. The Parlor Live’s two locations are both almost always packed, and they treat their talent so well they have a server assigned specifically to the green room. And while the Underground has seen better days, it’s still a young and fun crowd. And if that wasn’t enough, Laughs in Kirkland is a quality road room. That’s 5 full-time clubs in the metro, and an indie show every three feet. There’s also the Seattle International Comedy Competition, which I highly recommend (once you’re good enough to have a shot at winning it). Maybe I will move there after all.
14. Phoenix (Metro Population: 4192887)
There’s been such a comedy club explosion in Phoenix in the last few years that I’m not sure which club will eventually close – but I don’t think the city can support this many. Stand-up Live is an Improv on steroids (600 seats) and there’s also an actual Improv (in Tempe). Stand-Up Scottsdale is the independent club that has fewer frills but great comics (and concentrates hard on the locals). New to the fray are House of Comedy (see Minneapolis for details) and a brand new and super gorgeous Laugh Factory (get ready for an influx of LA talent). Also vying for market share are weekend and pop-up rooms like LMAO Phoenix, Crack Ups Comedy Club, Speak Easy Comedy Lounge, Comedy Spot, and Outliars. That’s five full-time clubs and five part time ones, not even counting the myriad of bar shows. I don’t know if something will shut down – but for now, it is a wonderful time to be a comic in Phoenix.
13. Riverside-San Bernardino (Metro Population: 4224851)
Riverside is basically a suburb of Los Angeles, so it’s hard to count this as a separate area. Typically, comics live here because it’s cheaper than LA. But there is a pretty good independent scene that LA comics just aren’t going to drive out to because it pays so dang little. While the Ontario Improv is the big club in the area, Flappers in Claremont relies on the locals (MCs and features typically work free). Flappers’ main location is in Burbank, and Riverside comics have an edge by making their bones in Claremont first. There are also a ton of bar gigs that will pay for one LA headliner, but rely on guest spots from locals to fill the rest of the time. It’s not a scene I recommend moving for – but if you happen to live there, it’s a much better place to start than Los Angeles.
12. Detroit (Metro Population: 4290060)
It may sound crazy, but I recommend that every new comic moves here. It’s super cheap, there’s a good scene, and comedy is recession proof. If any population is coming out every weekend to laugh and drink, it’s in Detroit. Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle is one of the top clubs in the country (run by one of the top people in the business), and Mark LOVES local talent. The club alternates between people you’ve never heard of and freaking enormous celebrities (it’s where acts like Tom Arnold and Tim Allen started). In the Detroit suburbs, Joey’s is a solid club, and the Comedy Showcase in Ann Arbor is wonderful. (And so is Ann Arbor as a place to live). And a new club just opened down the road in Toledo. Every former manufacturing town within 100 miles has a one-nighter, and you’re also within driving distance of a LOT of other scenes. So if you’re broke and you want it to not matter, try Detroit.
11. San Francisco-Oakland (Metro Population: 4335391)
San Francisco does not have many full-time comedy clubs, but that scene has never been about the full-time clubs. The Punchline and Cobb’s are two enormous Live Nation Venues that specialize in more enormous headliners. And I’ve already talked about the great clubs in San Jose and Sacramento. But what the Bay Area is known for is its indie scene. Legendray venues like the Hungry I and The Purple Onion gave birth to an indie scene that is still thriving today. So many wonderful comedians got their sea legs in San Francisco, and they continue to.
10. Boston (Metro Population: 4552402)
Another great scene known for churning out talent, the Boston scene has waned in recent years. Some of the clubs disappeared, but new clubs like Laugh Boston and new locations like Dick Doherty’s Comedy Den are breathing life back in. Nick’s (a more blue collar room) is still around and so is The Comedy Studio (Cambridge’s ultra-hip showcase room). Most importantly, there’s just so much work in and around New England that some comedians have been making a fine living in Boston for decades. Sure, the Boston scene is not what it once was. But it’s still pretty great.
9. Atlanta (Metro Population: 5268860)
In the last 10 years, Atlanta has birthed many professional comedians. The Punchline has been one of the south’s premiere clubs since the comedy boom, and the recently opened Improv in nightlife-centric Buckhead is one of the few Improvs where local talent runs the place. The 74-seat Laughing Skull brings in headliners that normally only play big clubs, and the openers are almost all locals. There is ample stage time and creativity flowing through the whole city. It’s close enough to plenty of other work and it’s also a major airline hub making travel easy and inexpensive. Definitely a recommended scene.
8. Miami (Metro Population: 5564635)
Nope. The biggest city without a true scene, Miami lost it’s Improv recently. And while there are a few other Improvs within an hours drive, the city limits are surprisingly sparse. The local comics have made a valiant effort producing their own shows, and I am sure a new club will open soon enough, but Indianapolis should not have four more comedy clubs than Miami.
(EDIT: Eric Yoder informed me that they now book Homefield Comedy Club in Miami that holds 2 shows a night on Fridays and Saturdays. Eric and Funny Business book a LOT of work around the country, so that is very good news for the Miami scene)
7. Washington (Metro Population: 5582170)
In addition to the rundown I gave you in Baltimore, there are a TON of creative independently produced shows in DC proper (like the one where all the jokes have to be about science). The Arlington Draft House is a tough room to kill in (VERY high ceilings), but it’s a damn cool one with great headliners. And while the DC Improv is hard to get into for the locals, the double threat of DC and Baltimore so close to each other creates a great development scene.
6. Houston (Metro Population: 5920416)
Houston’s scene has seen better days. While the Improv still lives and Ken Reed opened up a Joke Joint recently (and I sometimes produce weekends at the Hard Rock), Houston used to have one of the best comedy scenes in the country. Bill Hicks, Sam Kinnison, and the Houston Outlaws owned the city and packed out shows. Then, one by one, mismanagement, criminal charges, and retirement led to the closing of all the other clubs. The 6th biggest metro (and 4th biggest city) in America should simply have more comedy than it does. For the cost to live here and the remoteness of the location, it is not an easy place to start.
5. Philadelphia (Metro Population: 5965343)
Philly’s comedy scene will always live in the shadow of New York City, as it’s only 90 miles away and there’s not enough paid work in NYC for all the comics who live there. So it is very hard as a Philly comedian to come up through that scene past the MC level without hitting the road or moving to New York (which so many of them do). Helium is the only full-time club in Philly – and while a recent remodel (and the closing of Laff House) makes Helium beautiful and packed every night, it is hard for one club to sustain a whole scene in a city as big as Philly.
4. Dallas-Fort Worth (Metro Population: 6426214)
If Dallas weren’t so remote, I’d recommend it as one of the best places in the country to start. There are a TON of venues. Two Improvs (Addison and Arlington), local clubs like Backdoor Comedy and Hyena’s (with three locations), and about a dozen improv and sketch rooms. The Improvs are how I’ve described them in other cities – hard to get into for local talent, but worthwhile if you do. Arlington is a much more urban targeted club than Addison, but both bring in enormous headliners. Backdoor pays below average, which means there’s tons of room for local talent to climb. And Hyena’s alternates between celebs willing to go to Dallas for just two nights, and non-celebs who need the work. There’s also a lot of corporate work and many affordable areas of the city (since the city is really about 10 cities crammed together).
3. Chicago (Metro Population: 9461105)
The top three most populous metros in America have the biggest comedy scenes, as they should. Chicago used to thrive on sketch and improve with a tiny stand-up scene – but that has really changed in the last ten years. Zanies (with one location in the city and two in the suburbs) routinely brings in big names, but often gives the MC and feature spot to the locals. The Laugh Factory brings in some big names for special events, but is one of the only showcase clubs outside of NYC and LA, providing ample stage time to the locals. UP Comedy Club’s calendar is a combination of celebrity stand-ups and home grown sketch troupes. The Improv in Schaumberg does what Improvs do. Riddles is a blue-collar suburb club that often relies on locals to keep their budget low. Jokes & Notes is one of the best urban clubs in the country. Lincoln Lodge is an alt room the locals love that has hosted acts like Hannibal Buress, Marc Maron, and John Mulaney. And the Comedy Bar is the Belushi-owned club that often uses local headliners.
In addition to the clubs (two of which are part of big chains), there are several mics, bar shows, and pop-up rooms on any given night. Comedians You Should Know is a group of comics that is known for producing great shows and graduating members to NYC and LA. Chicago is also within striking distance of a ton of road work, and nearby scenes like Indianapolis, Detroit, and Minneapolis tend to look favorably on Chicago comedians. I’d name some of the scene’s alumni or the current stars, but the list is too long. Chicago is a fantastic place for a comedian to develop.
2. Los Angeles (Metro Population: 12828837)
This is not the place to start, but it is the place to finish. There are so many reasons why you shouldn’t start in LA. The amount of famous comics makes quality stage time a rare commodity. The amount of casting and development executives that could be at any show limits experimentation (and you don’t want to be seen before you’re good). Most importantly, the amount of crazy people that are trying comedy in order to get famous makes it hard to be taken seriously as a new comic. All that said, once you’re good, Los Angeles is a wonderful place to be a comedian.
Because so much of the scene is either brand new or famous, there’s ample stage time for the working-level comic. There’s so much industry (and unlike in New York, they actually go to shows often to scout), and you will trip over celebrity comedians. In my first week in LA, I wrote a tag for Kevin Hart and had Jim Belushi tell me he liked my set. There is writing work, there is acting work, there is hosting work – but you need to be good to get it. One thing that is rough about LA is the judgment. In most place if you’re poor, you’re a starving artist. In LA, you’re a failure. And people in LA tend to help people who they think can help them.
Clubs in Los Angeles operate on the showcase model, where a night features many comedians doing short sets. The three clubs in West Hollywood are the most well known – The Laugh Factory, the Improv, and The Comedy Store.
The Laugh Factory pays the most, features the longest spots, and is a TOUGH club to get into (it took me ten years). But once you are in, you are family – tons of spots (including at the Long Beach location), press introductions, and just a generally wonderful place to be a house comic. The crowds at the Laugh Factory are the youngest in LA – typically 18-30 years old and very excited to be there. And of course, there are the locations in Chicago, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and seasonal club in Coronado. The best part about the Laugh Factory is the staff – if you ever meet anyone at the club and they’re not smiling, they probably don’t work there.
The Improv is also a tough nut to crack, as many of their spots are eaten up by Levity clients (they’re part owners). But if you’re in, you also work their clubs in Brea, Irvine, and Ontario (which are all within an hour of the city) and possibly the cross-country clubs as well. Lots of industry attends their shows, and their crowd is also relatively young – especially when you include summers (filled with teen tour shows, where a group of rich 15-year-olds and their counselors make for strange audiences).
The Comedy Store is the hardest of the three to get into, because they simply don’t care about credits. The Comedy Store is the only club in America where a famous person can’t just walk in and go up, unless they’re already passed on the active roster. But even if you’re not passed, the three showrooms mean a TON of produced shows.
The other mainstream LA clubs are Flappers (Burbank), the HaHa Café (North Hollywood), West Side (Santa Monica), Inside Jokes (Hollywood), the Ice House (Pasadena), and Comedy and Magic Club (Hermosa Beach).
Flappers was once described to me as “using every part of the Buffalo”. There are always shows going on in their main room and their tiny “Yoohoo Room” and sometimes an open mic in the bar or on the patio, too. That Yoohoo room is very valuable to newer comics, as it’s usually a willing audience.
The HaHa’s crowds typically skew latino and less “Hollywood” than many of the other clubs. But man, do they show up. Shows were packing so often that HaHa opened a second club down the street. Dirty material does very well here, and once Tere likes you, you’ll be there pretty freaking often.
West Side is the new beast in town, transitioning from an improv venue to one that now has some marquee stand-up shows (including one run by Chappelle’s Show co-creator Neal Brennan). Crowds here are typically willing and eager, and it can only seat 70 – so when it packs, it is a wonderful place to perform.
Inside Jokes is located inside theatre 6 of the historic Chinese Theatre, and the brainchild of a very connected comic (Chris Spencer) and a very connected producer (Jeru Tillman). Their Wednesday night show is produced by Russell Simmons (so the club tends to skew urban) but it really depends who is producing on any given night, as most of their shows are outside producers. That leaves a ton of room for an ambitious local comic to create something.
The Ice House is the oldest comedy club in the country, opening in 1960. The crowds in the main room are amazing. I don’t know if it’s the acoustics or just the 50+ years of training crowds to expect great shows, but if you don’t have a good set there, you should probably quit. Meanwhile, “Stage 2” is a smaller (but still sizable) room where rising stars get ample stage time.
The Comedy & Magic Club could be the gold standard of showcase clubs. Owner Mike Lacey is a sweetheart, and he’s cultivated a roster of super talented, often famous, and all around good people. Almost every show is sold out, comedians get dinner on the house (actually good food), and audiences are more like road clubs than the arms folded “make me laugh!” crowds that can show up in the rest of the city (and NYC). Daniel Tosh is a regular, Jay Leno performs there every Sunday, and it’s a block from the beach. All that adds up to it being an extremely hard club to get into.
There are three urban rooms (Comedy Union, JSpot, and the Downtown Comedy Club). Comedy Union is the most notable of the three, as they’re usually packed on weekends and often have celebrities hosting weekly engagements. Downtown Comedy Club (owned by Garrett Morris, who is often there) doesn’t seem to try to be an urban room, but the crowds often just fall that way.
And, of course, there are the infinite rooms in Los Angeles not devoted to stand-up, but featuring a great deal of it. UCB, The Lexington, Room 5, Sal’s Comedy Hole, Lyric Theatre, etc, etc, etc.
The main drawback of Los Angeles is that there is a weirdness to the independent scene due to all of the actors who are just dabbling in stand-up. Indie shows tend to skew towards acting, with the standard storytelling or alt shows being replaced by a “who can come up with the strangest way to showcase comedy” contest (Actual show: you had to bring an item from your childhood with you, hold it while on stage, and not address it). I often want to ask these producers, “that’s great, but why?”
But the real asset that Los Angeles has (that very few other scenes around the world do) is the Mediterranean climate. Some people need to be miserable to be funny – I prefer to write while eating brunch outdoors in February.
1. New York (Metro Population: 19069796)
The mother of all stand-up scenes, New York is where stand-up as we know it started, and it’s where it will be centered for a very long time. It is extremely hard to earn a living as a stand-up in New York (as its extremely hard to earn a living as an anything in New York. Not only are you competing against killer comedians for the paid spots, but the spots don’t pay much and the cost of living is ridiculous. Lets say you’re killing it in Chicago. Want to move to NYC? Groceries and utilities cost 35% more, and housing costs 223% more. And Brooklyn’s not all that different. Start saving now.
The myth of being able to get up four times in one night is true – but unless you’re one of the city’s elite, those four times will usually be at open mics. That said, there are mics EVERYWHERE. New York City doesn’t have the volume of independent shows that LA has, but it does have some great ones, and it has way more club shows, as there seems to be two to three shows a night at just about all of them.
Strangely enough, there are no full-time comedy clubs in Brooklyn. There are none in the Bronx either, and one weekend club in Staten Island (the Loony Bin – unrelated to the others) – but Staten Island is so hard to get to for most New Yorkers, that club may as well be in Philly. The only club outside of Manhattan is The Laughing Devil in Queens (which I sold about a year ago to the guys that run The Stand). So lets talk Manhattan.
Downtown, the gold standard is The Comedy Cellar. A very tough club to get into (you have to be recommended by three regulars), the reps regulars get here are fantastic. It is almost always sold out, and they have three to four shows a night. The Cellar also recently opened a second room at the Village Underground, which holds one show Thursdays and two on weekends. Lineups usually include Aziz Ansari, Ted Alexandro, Dave Attell, Amy Schumer, etc, etc. The Cellar is also an amazing place to hang out as a comic, as the restaurant upstairs features a table that is reserved just for comedians passed at the club.
Down the block from the Cellar is the Greenwich Village Comedy Club, owned by Al Martin (who also owns the Broadway Comedy Club). A 60-seat location (that feels packed at 30), it’s a great place to get some reps and produce shows. Especially since it’s easier to fill than most clubs.
Over on the east side of the Village is Eastville Comedy Club, a club where they rely on New York City’s work horses – and while celebrity drop-ins happen, you’re not competing with them for spots like you’d have to at the Cellar. The owner is also very open to produced shows, a great thing for a hustling comic.
There are three great clubs all within a few blocks of 20th street. New York Comedy Club (recently sold to new owners) is becoming a great place for the rising stars of New York to get in reps in front of increasingly large crowds. It’s a pretty small room (and could use a few facelifts), but it is aptly named, because there’s nothing more New York Comedy than a set in a smallish club, where the crowd hasn’t necessarily heard of anyone on the lineup but the occasional celeb drops in.
The Stand might be the only club in New York that completely ignores the tourist crowds to cater to their neighborhood. The easiest way to tell that they thrive off repeat business is the fact that they have really good food. Owned by the same people who own Cringe Humor, some of their stage time is devoted to CH clients, but they are known for their drop-ins (Burr, CK, etc, etc). They also now own the Laughing Devil in Long Island City (note: not Long Island – LIC is just one subway stop from midtown Manhattan). The Devil has become a development stage for the Stand, where the comics who do well there often get work at both. The Devil is also one of the most honest clubs in the country – it’s so small that there’s no cushion. Good comics kill and bad comics die, and you have no one to blame or credit but yourself.
I feel almost silly telling you about Gotham Comedy Club, as its been on TV for the last decade. It’s a gorgeous upscale 300-seat club that alternates between a showcase club during the week and a headliner club on the weekends. But what you may not know is they’ve also got a great 75-seat room downstairs. Because many of the weekend headliners bring their own openers, there aren’t a ton of spots to go around. But the owner (Chris Mazilli) is a smart and strait-shooting business man and a former comic who knows talent when he sees it. Having Chris in your corner is a very good thing.
Located in midtown, Caroline’s is the only other headliner club in the city (and they also have showcases during the week). Caroline’s is in Times Square, so they rely heavily on the tourist crowd willing to pay the ticket price that can help you afford rent in Times Square. That said, an expensive ticket makes for an excited crowd (yay for cognitive dissonance) so it’s pretty easy to have a good set there. Caroline’s also features the mother of all bringer shows, their Breakout Artist series where newer talent gets to headline, but is paid out of the door and thus responsible for selling the tickets. That’s a good deal if you’re a rising comic that can produce a show.
The three other midtown clubs that rely heavily on the tourist population are Dangerfield’s, Broadway, and LOL. LOL is hard to keep track of, as it used to be HA! and the location has moved a few times. They tend to have locations with multiple rooms where as many as 7 shows per night run for crowds that may or may not speak German. If you’re looking for reps, Ha! is a great place to get them. Dangerfield’s has longer sets than most New York clubs, where acts tend to do 20 minutes at a time (and the club is booked by Linda Rohe at Coastal, who also books several other clubs). Broadway has two rooms: the Red Room that seats around 80 (and is mainly used for produced shows) and the main room that seats almost 200 and is standing room only the entire summer (tourist season). Spots here can also skew long for NYC (usually 15-20 minutes) and when you’re in, you’re in. Because of the large turnover with their crowd, the club can use the same acts throughout the week.
The Comic Strip (on the upper east side) and Stand-Up NY (on the upper west side) are similar clubs to each other. Both are showcase rooms where comics typically do 7-15 minute sets, both give fairly regular spots to their roster once passed, and both have occasional enormous drop-ins from celebrities. Also worth mentioning in New York are rooms like the PIT, the Creek, and UCB, that feature mainly improv or sketch but also a healthy amount of stand-up. And then there are clubs like Tribeca, Dark Horse, the Metropolitan Room, and the Triad that feature stand-up part time. There are also full-time clubs on Long Island and in New Jersey within a short distance, and more coffee house shows in Brooklyn than most places have coffee houses.
So there is a LOT of stage time in New York. But the weather, the anger, the hours, and the price make it a tough place to live. “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere” was not a compliment to New York – it was a condemnation. Every comedian should live in New York at some point – just know it won’t be easy.
As I’ve said, and I will continue to say, start somewhere and get good, move to New York to get great, and move to LA to get famous. But where you start is up to you.