New York City’s Upper West Side just got a new full-time comedy club, and everything about the club is looking like it’s going to become a strong addition to a city full of great clubs. Simply dubbed West Side Comedy Club, the brand new stage is located on 75th and Amsterdam, nicely positioned to get some great foot traffic beneath Playa Betty’s restaurant and bar. The club had a private opening Thursday night (which I’m sure you’ll hear about in Jeffrey Gurian’s column Monday morning) and is now open for business with some great lineups. The 100 plus seater is owned and operated by Eugene Ashe and his wife Nina who met in the 90’s while working together at Carolines, and they’re joined by manager Lori Sommer, and GM and booker Gina Savage who collectively have lifetimes of comedy experience at Carolines, Gotham, Broadway Comedy Club, Comix and more.
The club has a great entrance, and although I haven’t had a chance to catch a show yet, the vibe and decor are promising. With a 75th street entrance, guests will be able to wait for shows upstairs at Playa Betty’s before heading down the stairs to the very cool entrance to the club proper, where homage is paid to many comedy greats. Following the trend in New York City, the club will have a full menu with a real kitchen- not just warmed up frozen foods, but none of those superficial niceties are what really matters. What makes or breaks a great comedy club is the team that runs the room, so I sat down with Gina, Lori and Nina to talk a bit about how they plan to run things at West Side’s new room.
The story starts about two years ago when Eugene and his partner Tom opened up Playa Betty’s- a gigantic space by New York standards on 75th and Amsterdam. The space downstairs had always been there, but Nina explained, “Nobody knew what to do with it. First, they had to get this up and running before they could deal with that.” The prior owner of the space had used the downstairs for private events, but Nina knew it could be a perfect space for a comedy club. Once the restaurant was up and running, they came back to the idea and made it happen.
As soon as they decided to create the club- right before the summer- Nina said she reached out to Lori and Gina. Gina and Nina had worked together at Carolines, and she knew Lori, who is a comedian, from her days at Gotham Comedy Club. Lori has worked all sides of the business- performing, producing shows, and even teaching classes. Gina started out as a hostess at Carolines, has bartended, waitressed, and moved up to the office before working with Barry Katz, and later at Comix comedy club and most recently Broadway Comedy Club. Combined, the three women have an extensive comedy history. “We’ve seen it all,” Nina told me. “We’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work in every aspect of the business. Behind the scenes and on stage– every part of it.”
The decor is old school, dark, and described to me as sexy. There’s no brick wall, the owners opted to stay with wood instead. Their experience told them the space should be intimate– tight seating, low ceilings– essentially what works best for comedy. “Its a great breeding ground for laughter,” Gina said. She told me they chose to keep the shows tight, as well. “I like that its an hour and a half show. There are some shows that drone on and on, and with all due respect to them, we have limited attention spans these days.” Comics used to be able to do 20-minute sets. But I could see, and it’s unfortunate– the patrons– no matter how good the comic is sometimes, they can’t hold it.” Training the staff is important too. She explained that she wants her staff to make people feel welcome, but also be “stealthy” because they’re not the focus of the evening the way a waiter in a restaurant might be. “We’re kind of training them, we’re going back to the roots of like how we kind of learned,” she said. Lori described their new crew as already gelling. “The staff that we hired is such a great group of people and you already see the friendships form. It’s like a family.”
Some clubs are all business. They know how to get comics and audiences in and out, and waitstaffs do their job and go home. Other clubs that want to create a “hang”– an atmosphere that everyone likes to be around. West Side Comedy Club is aiming to be the latter. “When Eugene and I first discussed it and we were like, we wanted to get that feeling that we had back in the 80s and 90s where like comics really loved to hang out there even if they weren’t working there; that type of feeling where comics felt like this is kind of their home. And staff and comics hang out and they know each other and everybody’s having a good time. Just that kind of vibe.” Lori agreed. “They’re creating an environment where people want to be.”
Shows run seven nights a week, with one 8pm show Sundays through Thursdays and two shows on the weekends. Tuesdays will be new talent night, and Mondays, the club has something special lined up. “Monday is a show that’s called The Bettys,” Gina said. “It’s an all woman stand up comedy showcase every Monday night at 8:00.” The show is named after the restaurant, and it’s something they’re very excited to offer. “I really like being able to utilize women, not just on the weekends,” Gina explained. While some clubs offer once a month shows with all-female lineups, they’re proud to offer a weekly showcase featuring women. They are aware that many clubs feel there isn’t an audience for that type of show on a weekly basis, but they’re determined to prove them wrong. “You have to change the consciousness of the norm,” Nina said. “Sometimes you have to do certain things, one, on behalf of women, but also to change the consciousness of the people coming out to comedy shows. Let them know that you can get great comedy, thoughtful comedy, thought-provoking comedy that we’re [women are] not just talking about what they think we’re always talking about.”
Shows are already running, you can get line-ups, information, and tickets at westsidecomedyclub.com.
“We’re also aware that they are challenges. We may think we know everything…but it’s still new,” Gina admitted. “You never really know. You can only take whatever wisdom you have from these experiences, and go okay, well, we didn’t think of that! So it’s always a challenge.”