Five years ago, promoter Bill Blumenreich gave up on comedy clubs in Boston, shutting down the Comedy Connection at Faneuil Hall and moving over to the 1,100-seat Wilbur Theatre. There, he could make big money with big-name acts like Joe Rogan, Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally, Bill Cosby, and Joan Rivers. As far as he was concerned, the old model was dead.
“Stand-up comedy clubs aren’t a hot thing anymore,” Blumenreich says. “Famous comedians are.”
Enter Laugh Boston, a new 300-seat comedy club due to open in August in the Seaport District. The partners behind it — Norm Laviolette, Chet Harding, and John Tobin — are betting clubs can still work with an onstage mix of local comedians and medium-size names: up-and-comers just starting to crack the national market as well as acts on their way back down the ladder. But Laugh Boston is also moving in on the Wilbur’s comedic territory, and doing it just down the street. This weekend, Laugh Boston launches a series at the Citi Shubert Theatre with “Legends of Boston Comedy,” and national acts are set to follow: Juston McKinney, Nick Di Paolo, “The Onion Live!”
Blumenreich says he doesn’t see it working. “There’s no demand for what they’re doing,” he says. “I’ve already covered all of the demand at the Wilbur. You name 10 good comedy acts that I’m not bringing in who I should bring in.”
“Legends of Boston Comedy,” on Saturday night, features four local comedians who helped build the foundation of Boston’s comedy scene in the 1980s — Tony V, Lenny Clarke, Steve Sweeney, and Don Gavin. That fits with Laugh Boston’s plan: to feature the city’s comedic old guard while booking smaller national acts for weekend shows.
Back in 1989, when Blumenreich first took over the Comedy Connection, he wanted to feature local acts, too. But they won’t be working at the Wilbur anytime soon. The money just isn’t there, he says.
“I opened it up to put in guys like the guys who are working across the street, like the Tony V’s and the Don Gavins and all those guys, who, by the way, are very, very funny comedians,” he says. But around the time he opened the Connection, the shows with local comedians stopped selling, he says, and he had to start booking bigger names from out of town. That’s what the Wilbur offers now, and Blumenreich is not shy about asserting that no one can compete at his level.
“I’m giving the people of Boston more big acts, funny acts, than they’ve ever seen, and it’s tremendously successful,” he says. “When you’re so successful like this, people try to imitate it and try to copy it. They want to try to steal your business. And it’s a free country. They can try. You’ve seen what happens when people compete with me.”
Blumenreich was especially happy to see the Providence club Stitches, which competed with his Comedy Connection location there, go under in 2004 after not even two years in business. He treated the resulting auction of the club’s assets as a victory lap. (The Rhode Island Comedy Connection is still running, but Blumenreich is no longer its owner.)
As the Laugh Boston partners see it, Blumenreich created an opportunity in Boston. “There has not been a full-time, stand-alone comedy club since the Comedy Connection left Faneuil Hall,” says Laviolette, who also owns Improv Asylum with Harding. “There’s a hole in the market. It’s not that hard to see if it wasn’t us coming in, it would be somebody else.”
The bulk of Laugh Boston’s programming will be at its club, where the trio plan to present shows Wednesdays through Sundays. Headliners will play the Friday and Saturday slots. Tobin says plenty of performers could do well with two weekend shows at a club that size.
“There just aren’t a lot of acts that can sell out an 1,100-seat theater,” says Tobin, a longtime comedy booker and former member of the Boston City Council. “That’s just the reality. But there are a ton of acts that can sell out a 300-seat theater. And that’s what we’re looking to do.”
Except, that is, when they’re looking to book the Shubert, which they hope, eventually, to do every month. The house can hold 1,500 people, but it can also be configured to be more suitable for 600 or 1,100. According to the Shubert and Laugh Boston, the “Legends” show has sold more than 1,100 tickets, and they are hopeful it will sell out. That’s a point of pride for Tony V. He sees Blumenreich as someone who kicked local comedy to the curb and often unfairly disparages the scene. “We’re in your neighborhood, and we’re doing well,” he says, as if to Blumenreich. Then he adds, with a laugh, “Sure, it’s taken four of us to do it.”
Tony V knows the market has changed, and a single new comedy club, even if it succeeds, won’t turn that around by itself. But it could mean another paycheck in local comics’ pockets.
‘Stand-up comedy clubs aren’t a hot thing anymore. Famous comedians are.’
The Boston scene is in a transitional stage. Several of the clubs that popped up in the Connection’s wake have closed down. Dick Doherty has booked the Beantown Comedy Vault for 26 years, but with the future of its location uncertain, he will begin booking shows at Howl at the Moon in the Financial District. And after resuscitating Nick’s Comedy Stop, Tobin will relinquish his job as its booker at the end of the month. Nick’s owner Bill Gateman says it’s a conflict of interest for Tobin to be part owner of Laugh Boston and still book Nick’s, which he has done since 2009.
Laugh Boston will be a different kind of business, says Laviolette, whose 15-year-old Improv Asylum pays its bills by doing both stage shows and corporate gigs. Unlike some clubs that have come and gone in the basements or side rooms of other establishments, Laugh Boston will control its own space, dictating its own schedule, able to rent the space out for conferences or private shows during the day. “We run a good business,” Laviolette says. “And that’s what we’re bringing to the table. Bill hasn’t seen anybody come in with our business acumen.”
To Tony V, the Laugh Boston team’s track record is reason for hope. “The guys from Improv Asylum have a great business model,” he says. “Maybe the clubs as we knew them are dead, but maybe there’s something else that can keep going.”Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.