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Plans for a new Comedy Studio in Harvard Square hit some snags

Laughter on the way at Harvard Square
WATCH: The beloved Comedy Studio was home to Boston’s comedy boom in the 1980s and now work is underway to rebuild.

CAMBRIDGE — Rick Jenkins expected the Comedy Studio to be back in business by now, but the hassles and high cost of reopening the celebrated club have been no joke.

Faced with increased construction costs, COVID-related ventilation requirements, and supply-chain snafus, Jenkins was forced to postpone the Comedy Studio’s return to Harvard Square and to seek donations to bridge a $100,000 shortfall.

“Everything is just more expensive than we anticipated,” said Jenkins.

For two decades starting in 1996, the Comedy Studio occupied an attic space above the Hong Kong Restaurant in Harvard Square, establishing itself as a destination for comics and audiences alike. Eugene Mirman, Gary Gulman, Sam Jay, Jen Kirkman, Mike Birbiglia, Ali Wong, Anthony Jeselnik, and Sarah Silverman are just a few of the funny folks who worked there.


In 2018, Jenkins moved the Comedy Studio to a space at Bow Market in Somerville, but, like every other venue, it closed its doors because of the pandemic. A year ago, Jenkins announced plans to reopen — in the basement of The Abbott, the wedge-shaped building in the heart of Harvard Square. But economic realities intervened and The Comedy Studio’s revival — Jenkins hoped to be hosting comics last fall — was delayed.

“Ventilation systems have become much more sophisticated and expensive,” Jenkins said. “I don’t know if there’s any actual legal requirement, but I do know everyone’s building to that standard to make sure everybody’s safe.”

Whenever it happens, the Comedy Studio’s return to Harvard Square will be welcomed by many, especially those who lament the loss in recent years of small, independent, or family-owned businesses in the Square — Crema Cafe, Hidden Sweets, Dickson Bros., and Cafe Pamplona, to name just a few — and the proliferation of anonymous, chain-owned enterprises like Patagonia and Ray-Bans.


“As culture changes, the Square changes,” said Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association. “In the ‘50s, when the beatniks came, older people from the ‘30s and ‘40s were, like, ‘Oh, my God, who are these people?’

“I spoke to a student from California not long ago and she was telling me how much she loved Harvard Square, and I asked her what she loves about it,” said Jillson. “She said, ‘I love that there’s a 24-hour CVS and how convenient the Bank of America is.’ ”

The reality is people have been complaining for generations about the changing character of Harvard Square. Indeed, in her new book, “Harvard Square: A Love Story,” Catherine Turco makes the case that “the Square has always been not what it used to be.”

Nonetheless, Turco, a professor of entrepreneurship at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, agrees that places like the Comedy Studio, The Sinclair, Club Passim, and the Brattle Theater make the Square more appealing and dynamic than bank branches. And “with so much retail shopping having moved online, the role of an in-person experiential venue like the Comedy Club is even more important today,” Turco wrote in an e-mail.

As much energy and excitement as the Square will derive from the Comedy Studio, Jenkins said the club will also benefit by returning to its roots. When he arrived in Boston in the ‘80s, Jenkins said, Janeane Garofalo, David Cross, Marc Maron, and Louis CK were all regulars at Catch a Rising Star in Harvard Square.


“If you’re in the Square, the smart, cool people come to you. We used to have people like Colin Jost and Dan Mintz, when they were going to Harvard, stopping by,” said Jenkins. “And other people would just show up, like David Spade or Sandra Bullock.

“There’s a whole atmosphere and vibe in Harvard Square that you don’t find anywhere else in the country,” he said.

The new basement space will be nearly double the size of the Comedy Studio’s former location in the Square, with a capacity of about 185, and there will be two bars. To raise the money needed to reopen, Jenkins has launched a GoFundMe campaign, offering enticements for different levels of support. For example, a $50 donation gets you a Comedy Studio T-shirt and five minutes of stage time, and anyone donating $1,000 will get a VIP booth for four shows.

“We’re trying to be like public television,” Jenkins said. “If you contribute this much, we’ll do that much.”

He’ll also be hosting three fund-raising shows — “with lots of comedians we can’t mention” — at The Rockwell in Somerville’s Davis Square on Jan. 18, Feb. 22, and March 21.

“As soon as we have the money, we’ll have an opening,” Jenkins said.

Mark Shanahan can be reached at Follow him @MarkAShanahan.