“As a matter of fact, a lot of people already prefer that room to this room,” says Noam Dworman, owner of MacDougal Street’s Comedy Cellar. This refers to the club’s initial, 150-person-capacity location, opened by his late father and situated below its affiliated enterprise, the Olive Tree Cafe and Bar. That is the new Comedy Cellar at the Village Underground, a basement venue just around the corner on West 3rd Street that Dworman purchased in 2000. Though officially still named the Village Underground and still hosting music shows during much of the week, this 200-seat spin-off formally opened for Friday and Saturday evening comedy shows in April.
Between consistently top-notch lineups; celebrity pop-ins by the likes of Chris Rock and even Dave Chappelle; and a prominent presence in Louis C.K.’s FX show, Louie, the original Cellar’s ticket sales have been booming, so much so that the majority of shows sell out the day before and standbys are turned away in unprecedented numbers. Any negative feedback from patrons, says Dworman, involves “the uncomfortableness” of the original room—the low ceilings, the small tables and abutting chairs that make it hard to avoid stepping on neighboring toes when venturing to the restroom. “I actually think the claustrophobic, cramped thing is very good for comedy,” he shrugs. “Nevertheless…”
The new iteration offers wider aisles and more personal space. The Underground’s decor—brick wall, stained-glass signage, floral vase, piano—is visually identical to its precursor, but features upgrades such as video screens, tiered seating platforms that improve sight lines, a lower and smaller stage, and added speakers. The result is a more physically relaxed experience that emphasizes the brand’s dedication to professionalism while promising an air of unpredictability. Dworman points to the Improv, opened in 1963, and Catch a Rising Star, 1972, as establishing the intimate feel widely associated with comedy. When later clubs turned upscale and these forerunners closed their local posts, NYC was left with rooms that came across as “somewhere between suburban strip-mall clubs or Vegas showroom-type clubs. But our rooms actually look like [traditional] comedy clubs.”
While Dworman is still formulating long-term goals for the Underground, comedian Tom Papa has begun using the space to tape his SiriusXM program, Come to Papa, every other Tuesday; Nick DiPaolo will headline Wednesdays in August; and the number of shows will soon double to include a late option every Friday and Saturday. “It was very important that [the new space] be as good as or better than the Cellar,” Dworman says. “Now that I’m finally proud of the room, I can think about where I want to take it in the future.”