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The funny business

Boston’s comedy scene has for years been missing one crucial ingredient—but that may be remedied this summer.

Will Noonan30 > Milton

matt kalinowski

Will Noonan

ALL JENNY ZIGRINO WANTS is more stage time. “Have you ever done stand-up? It’s like a drug,” she says. “It’s like cocaine. All you want to do is get onstage.”

Zigrino, who is 26, has been honing her craft in Cambridge and Boston for five years. She’s gotten really funny and has developed a warm, weird comedic voice that doesn’t sound like anyone else’s. One time she got to open for Tom Green at the Wilbur Theatre. Other than that she’s mostly played tiny rooms that don’t pay, and the occasional Elks Lodge that does.

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Lately Zigrino has been on the edge of her seat. Like a lot of young comics in Boston, she is awaiting the coming summer with a mix of anxiety and anticipation, wondering whether everything that’s been wrong with the comedy scene here is finally about to change.

What those young comics have been waiting for is the arrival of Laugh Boston, a comedy club that will host stand-up five nights a week when it opens in June in the Seaport District. Conceived by John Tobin, a booker at Nick’s Comedy Stop in Chinatown, and Chet Harding and Norm Laviolette, owners of the North End’s Improv Asylum, the new club’s defining feature will be nothing more complicated than its size: With a capacity of about 300 people, it will be able to attract national acts that for years have not had a place to perform in Boston because they’re too big for small rooms like Nick’s, which seats 140, and not nearly big enough for the Wilbur, which seats about 1,100.

The fact that there’s nothing in between — and hasn’t been since the nearly 500-seat Comedy Connection closed in 2008 — has meant that rising stars from around the country who have built national followings but aren’t yet household names just don’t come to Boston. As Sean Sullivan, 29, explains it, the economics of playing a room like Nick’s just don’t make sense for people from out of town who could fill twice as many seats. “It’s not that they don’t want to play here,” says Sullivan, who performs regularly in small clubs in Cambridge and Boston, “but no one can take the financial risk associated with it.”

Doesn’t shutting out national acts mean more opportunity for locals like Zigrino and Sullivan? Not really. Getting to open for pros would be a huge boon to the city’s developing comics — not just because it would put them in front of new audiences, but also because it would allow them to learn from comics they look up to. Right now, the absence of a mid-size club means that comics at the height of their powers and at the forefront of the art form — people like Kyle Kinane, Hannibal Buress, and Pete Holmes — rarely venture farther north than the Funny Bone in Hartford. 

As a result, comics here — and comedy fans — have become increasingly isolated from the rest of the country. “I don’t even see who’s touring,” says Matt Donaher, 27, who performs around Boston as Matt D. “It’s frustrating. When I go on the road and I work with a comic I like, and then, just as a comedy fan, say to them, ‘Oh, you should come to Boston,’ they’re like, ‘Oh. Where would I play?’ And I realize there’s nowhere.” That yawning gap in the city’s comedic infrastructure trickles all the way down the food chain. Donaher, Zigrino, and their friends don’t get to open for the next as-yet-undiscovered Chris Rock or Jim Gaffigan. So they’re stuck doing the same small shows over and over.

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The arrival of Laugh Boston could change that. If it does, the dozens of hilarious, creative young people who do stand-up in tiny venues around the city will finally get to perform for bigger crowds, and alongside comics they care about. 

All of which brings us back to that anxiety some of Boston’s up-and-comers are feeling as Tobin, Harding, and Laviolette prepare for the grand opening of their new club. Why are they anxious? Because they don’t want the old guys to screw it up.  

 

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BOSTON’S STAND-UP SCENE TODAY bears little resemblance to the golden age of the 1980s, when there were so many successful comedy clubs across the city that comics like Lenny Clarke, Tony V, Kenny Rogerson, and Don Gavin could each do a set at five different places in a night and walk away with hundreds of dollars in their pockets. Over the course of the decade, comedy became a major industry. Hard as it is to believe now, going to see live stand-up was the cool thing to do with your night out. Boston, in particular, became a crucible for talent that would find national recognition — so much so that aspiring comics actually started to move here to try to make it.

It was during this time that comics now referred to as Boston legends — like Clarke, Gavin, and Steve Sweeney — got their start, perfecting a form of stand-up that has been associated with the city ever since. “There was a Boston style of comedy,” says 43-year-old Tim McIntire, a stand-up who helped run a tiny, beloved club in Faneuil Hall called Mottley’s until it closed last year. “It was the angry white guy doing very rapid-fire jokes — boom, boom, boom, boom.” This was a popular recipe, and one you can see light up rooms throughout When Standup Stood Out, the 2003 documentary about the rise of the ’80s comedy scene in Boston. At one point in the film, Gavin tells a crowd that his bank sent him a threatening letter about a loan, saying it hadn’t received his final payment. “I wrote them back and said, ‘Yes, you have!’ ”

That era has passed. “There were just too many shows that weren’t very good,” says Rick Jenkins, owner of the 75-seat Comedy Studio in Harvard Square, which has served as a launchpad for locals since it opened in 1996. “It became a little formulaic. And all of a sudden, going to a comedy show, you didn’t know whether it was going to be any good.” But many of the local stars who dominated the landscape in those days, including Clarke, Gavin, and Sweeney, have stayed in Boston and continued performing — giving young comics an unusually strong sense of their roots for the simple reason that, as Jenkins puts it, “so many of those guys who started the scene are still here.”

Laugh Boston’s Norm Laviolette, Chet Harding, and John Tobin.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Laugh Boston’s Norm Laviolette, Chet Harding, and John Tobin.

They also still reliably fill rooms, and bookers at 150- to 200-seat places like Kowloon Komedy and Giggles in Saugus, both restaurants that host stand-up on the weekends, and Dick Doherty’s Beantown Comedy Vault , a 75-seater downtown, showcase them night after night, week after week. “They’re all killer comedians and they’re headlining for a reason, but there’s just a logjam,” says the Boston-based touring comic Tom Dustin. “Boston has its 12 headliners, and they don’t leave Boston. If you drive up Route 1 and you look at the ‘Coming Soon’ sign at Giggles Comedy Club, it’s the same six names every month.”

What a lot of young Boston comics are afraid of is that Laugh Boston is going to be yet another place that books those same guys — that instead of bringing in out-of-towners who are part of the national contemporary comedy scene and letting local up-and-comers open for them, Tobin, Harding, and Laviolette are going to make their new club a museum dedicated to Boston’s past. 

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Raymond Biesinger

IT’S NOT THAT ANYONE DOUBTS that the three guys behind Laugh Boston have their hearts in the right place. And to hear them describe their vision, it’s clear it matters a great deal to them that once the new club opens, it will be a draw not just for local comics, but also for better-known comics from outside New England.

“We’re coming at this as performers,” says Harding, whose improv theater in the North End hosts sold-out shows every weekend and enjoys a significant revenue stream from corporate gigs. “Norm and I have been performing for 15, 20 years. We love performing. And we know that sometimes performers are the last people to be taken care of, even though they’re the reason why people are in the venue.”

After traveling around the country looking at successful clubs and taking notes on their layout and design, Laugh Boston’s owners settled on a vision that sounds a little bit like a comedian’s idea of paradise, complete with a green room, a shower, and even a “comedy concierge” on staff who will greet comics when they arrive, set them up with a free beer or soda, and make sure they have everything they need. “I’ve called up road comics and told them, ‘E-mail me the three things you love about a club and the three things you hate about a club,’ ” says Tobin. As a result of that outreach, he notes, he and his partners decided to equip the club with retractable walls that will separate the bar from the seating area during performances, for example. 

Boston hasn’t had a club as nice as this one promises to be since summer 2008, when the Comedy Connection in Faneuil Hall closed down and its owner, Bill Blumenreich, shifted his attention to booking huge stars like Janeane Garofalo and Jim Gaffigan at the Wilbur Theatre. The Connection still inspires warm feelings in comics who remember performing there — as well as those who don’t. “People said it was pretty much the best,” says Donaher. “I don’t know how much of that is just nostalgia, but it was an A club. And we don’t really have an A club in Boston right now, which is what we need.”

An “A club,” as most comedians define it, is one that is dedicated to comedy — not a restaurant or a bar or a dance hall where the owners kick everyone out at 10 p.m. to make way for a loud DJ. And while locals love performing at the Comedy Studio in Cambridge and at The Gas, a weekly show at the concert venue Great Scott in Allston, they don’t get paid for it and generally find themselves sharing a stage with the same people over and over. With the arrival of a full-time club like Laugh Boston, that vacuum stands to finally break and give Boston’s young voices a chance to see — and maybe even be noticed by — comics from around the country who are at the top of their game.

You might ask: If all these aspiring young people are so interested in learning from professionals, why can’t they just go see Lenny Clarke and Steve Sweeney and learn from them? And the answer is a lot of them don’t particularly identify with those guys: Funny may be funny, but stand-up comedy has changed since the ’80s, and even the kids who admire the old guard don’t think of themselves as doing the same kind of comedy.

Generalizing about what’s stylistically different about modern comedy — as practiced by critical darlings like Louis CK, Mike Birbiglia, and Rob Delaney — compared with what was happening in Boston 30 years ago is not easy. You could say contemporary stuff tends to be more personal and idiosyncratic, and that a lot of it is more emotional, less topical, and more narrative-driven than the kind of thing you used to hear at Boston-area clubs like the Ding Ho. But at the end of the day, the best way to explain the difference between comics now and comics then is to say that comedy fans and comics alike have always prized original voices above all else. And for that simple reason, truly exciting modern comedy sounds nothing like the more traditional stuff: rhythmically and attitudinally, it just feels less familiar, more fresh.

“I don’t even think that’s the ‘future of comedy.’ That is the present of comedy right now,” says Ryan Douglass, who founded a show called J.M. Rodney’s Medicine Show on the second floor of a bookstore in Cambridge in order to promote friends of his who weren’t getting booked at Boston’s established venues. (J.M. Rodney’s Medicine Show is now monthly, and hosted at Middlesex Lounge, a bar not far from Rodney’s Bookstore in Central Square.) “That is what young people are going to see. And Boston is a very old-guard place.”

 

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Comic Matt D.

RIGHT NOW THE ONLY TIME most of the young comics in Boston perform on a professional stage is when they’re at the Comedy Studio. The rest of the time they’re playing boutique shows, some held at bars like the Middlesex, others at unconventional venues like the Howard Johnson Hotel in Fenway and the Out of the Blue Gallery in Cambridge. These events can be extraordinarily funny and inventive, and one feels a real sense of community when attending them. But for serious comics intent on making a career in stand-up, they are not enough: A person can only get so good playing to a handful of friends and acquaintances, and to learn how to command a room of strangers, you have to log a lot of time in rooms full of people who aren’t particularly inclined to laugh at your jokes.

Will Laugh Boston be the place where Boston’s best and brightest get that chance?

John Tobin, who’s in charge of booking, promises it will be. “Our initial plan is to have shows Tuesday through Saturday. There’s going to be plenty of room for all kinds of people,” he says. “These younger girls and guys — we’re not going to forget about them.”

Even so, Tobin will be the first to admit that, while he can rattle off the names of a dozen under-30 Boston comics he likes, his taste runs more toward the traditional stuff. As one person put it — off the record, for fear of offending Tobin — he “tends to like your older brother’s comedians.” This is borne out in Tobin’s vision for Laugh Boston, which he says will be a “home away from home” for local veterans like Sweeney, Clarke, Gavin, and Tony V. Once a week, he says, there will be a whole show dedicated to them at the club under the banner of “Boston Legends,” and sometimes they’ll be booked as headliners on Friday and Saturday nights.  

That’s not an encouraging sign for the city’s young experimentalists. But there is reason to be hopeful. Whatever Tobin’s personal taste, the fact is his latest claim to fame has been rehabilitating and rejuvenating Nick’s Comedy Stop, the small and long-suffering downtown club that was positively falling apart before Tobin was hired in 2009 to fix it up. Though headlining spots at Nick’s still often go to veterans like Gavin and Sweeney, Tobin has made a point of taking chances on younger stand-ups like Lamont Price, who is 30, and Jenny Zigrino. 

Of course, the kind of club Laugh Boston will turn out to be may be largely determined by the kinds of fans who walk in the door. “At the end of the day, they have to do what’s right for them in terms of ticket sales,” said Mehran Khaghani, 36, one of the area’s most well-established young comics. “This isn’t a modest financial undertaking, and if Steve Sweeney is going to sell 300 seats while a lineup of five of the best-loved up-and-comers is only going to sell 80 . . . Nobody expects Tobin and Co. to sink the ship so that the new kids can develop.” Given Laugh Boston’s location on the waterfront, amid upscale hotels, expensive restaurants, and the convention center, Tobin expects to draw everyone from traveling businesspeople to young hipsters from Southie. Comedy, he says, is enjoying a fertile moment in America, and Laugh, as he’s taken to calling the club, is going to be Boston’s ticket to the party. 

“It’s happening everywhere,” Tobin says. “There’s a whole group of comedians out there that are too big for Nick’s and too small for the Wilbur. And that’s who we’re looking at. People on the way up, people on the way down.”

Leon Neyfakh is a staff writer for the Globe’s Ideas section. E-mail him at lneyfakh@globe.com.

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