The Israeli Link Behind New York’s Temple of Comedy

The Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village is a place where Dave Chapelle, Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman and Ray Romano just drop by to perform unannounced. The bosses there tell Haaretz why

Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker
New York
A comedian performing at the Comedy Cellar on the first night back during the coronavirus crisis, April 2021.
A comedian performing at the Comedy Cellar on the first night back during the coronavirus crisis, April 2021.Credit: Caitlin Ochs / Reuters
Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker
New York

NEW YORK – On one of my visits to the Comedy Cellar, among the oldest and most famous stand-up comedy clubs in New York, the list of artists scheduled to perform that night didn’t promise too much. Except for Michael Che, one of the anchors who appears on the “Saturday Night Live” satirical news show and who has his own two solo specials on Netflix, the rest of the comedians on the poster were rather unknown.

After waiting an hour in the long line at the entrance, it became apparent very quickly that it was worth waiting for. The first woman who showed up on the stage without any advance notice was Amy Schumer, who recounted her experiences as a young mother; after two more comedians – good but not very well-known – Aziz Ansari took over the microphone to a boisterous welcome from the surprised audience. It was an unforgettable night.

This is one of the great advantages of the Comedy Cellar, which is in the Greenwich Village area in Manhattan: Every program is just the basis for the changes – or to be more precise: add-ons. Ticket buyers are shown a list of stand-up comedians who are performing, but the unofficial lineup almost always includes famous comics who come to test their new material, or perform as a favor to friends or just because they were in the neighborhood.

It’s no wonder that the Comedy Cellar is the biggest name in stand-up comedy clubs in New York – the capital of comedy – and alongside the Comedy Store from California, it is also the most important in the entire United States. It’s also likely that comedy fans who have never visited it know the room from the episodes of “Louie” that were filmed there and from the show opening to the iconic series – at the end of which comedian Louis C. K. eats and then throws away his piece of pizza on his way down to perform.

The two people who run the institution every night and preserve its lofty status, in spite of the enormous competition, are owner Noam Dworman and booker and artistic director Estee Adoram. Dworman is the son of Israeli parents who came to the United States in the 1960s. Adoram was born in Poland and lived in Israel for a while – and arrived in New York some 40 years ago.

Noam Dworman. "We're in the midst of a golden age."Credit: Haim Handwerker
Estee Adoram. The Hollywood Reporter has called her the most powerful woman in American stand-up comedy.Credit: Haim Handwerker

“The biggest come to us,” the two say proudly.

Dave Chapelle, Louis C. K., Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, Ali Wong, are all at home here,” Dworman says. “Jerry Seinfeld wasn’t connected to us at the beginning of his career, but later he also began coming to us and performing. Jon Stewart began with us. Before that, he worked in a Mexican restaurant. Bill Maher, who hosts the political guest show ‘Real Time’ on HBO – was here right at the very beginning of his career. The same as Paul Reiser from ‘Mad About You’ too. The late Robin Williams also would perform here.”

“Over the past decade there has been a jump in the popularity of stand-up,” Dworman says. “We're in the midst of a golden age. There have been good periods for stand-up in the past, for example in the 1980s. But it’s impossible to compare that to what is happening today with the decisive contribution of the internet, social media and of course YouTube. At a time when live music in clubs is getting weaker, comedy has taken its place in the entertainment culture.

“This renaissance of course didn’t appear in a vacuum. There were HBO specials that brought stand-up to a new and well-off audience and branded it differently. After that came Netflix, which entered this field with all its power and uploaded hundreds of titles to its streaming service, and of course there is also the Comedy Central Channel [which has] stand-up as its bread and butter. So it’s true that the big money goes to artists through the specials, but without the comedy clubs, where the comedians accumulate mileage, test material and gain experience, none of this would have happened,” Dworman says.

A safe space for comedians

In the 1960s, operating in the exact same space was the Feenjon Café club, where musicians played Israeli and Middle Eastern music. The owner was Menachem (Manny) Dworman, Noam’s father, who played guitar and mandolin in a group. Estee’s husband, Eliezer, was the accordionist while she worked as a hostess. At a certain point, comedian Bill Grundfest joined as a partner and changed the club’s direction toward comedy. In the 1980s, after Noam studied law and reached the conclusion that the entertainment world was more interesting – he took the club into his hands and began being more and more involved. When his father passed away in 2003, he inherited the ownership of the club.

The reason that in spite of all the competition around, the Comedy Cellar turned into an institution – one that is a tourist magnet for comedy fans from all over the world, alongside the locals – was simple. “We treated the artists better, that’s all. Now they trust us,” Dworman says. “We paid them more, gave them better food and we created a feeling of camaraderie, a meeting place for them. We didn’t leak stories to the press, we didn’t look for how to advertise the place at the expense of the talents that came to us. The place may be old and the budget low, but the lighting, sound and stage are better here.”

Modi Rosenfeld, known by his stage name Modi, is probably one of the most successful Jewish stand-up comic in the United States. He has been playing at the club since 1994, and knows just how important his gigs at the Cellar were in establishing himself outside the Jewish community where he was already a known commodity.

“The special thing about the Comedy Cellar,” Modi says, “is that the owners give a lot of respect to stand-up artists. In a lot of clubs, comedians are just a way to sell alcohol. It may sound trivial, but at the Comedy Cellar people have room to sit down, eat and drink. They don’t just come to see a show and leave. Another thing is that members of the audience have to leave their phones before they go in so that people don’t film the show. The well-known artists really appreciate that. They are trying out new material and they don’t want it to leak out, especially when it is still a work in progress. At the Comedy Cellar, they can feel safe.”

Standing behind the artist doesn’t mean that Dworman will stick with any comedian, no matter what. For example, when it came to Bill Cosby Dworman was quoted once as saying “there was nothing to talk about. He will never perform at the Comedy Cellar again.” Louis C.K., on the other hand, is another story from Dworman’s point of view.

The Comedy Cellar on Macdougal Street in Lower Manhattan.Credit: Ajay Suresh / Epicsunwarrior / Wikimedia Commons

“He made a mistake, just like so many others have,” Dworman says. “But you can’t compare him to Cosby. He’s in a completely different category. He behaved inappropriately but not in a way that would cause the audience to reject him. We let the audience decide if they want to see him – and when he turned up for a surprise performance, he was really warmly received. What’s more, he apologized. It’s true that there were people who felt betrayed and felt that he was hypocritical because the values he presented on stage weren’t matched by his behavior offstage, especially toward women. But my impression is that the audience is very happy to see him back.”

He just released a very successful new special called “Sorry,” which the Comedy Cellar promoted in its email blast.

Adoram, whom The Hollywood Reporter has called the most powerful woman in American stand-up comedy, holds similar views. “Sometimes people express their opinion without knowing exactly what happened. Even if he did do a few things that were tasteless, not every statement or act needs to lead to a boycott of an artist,” she says. “A lot of people welcomed us letting him appear, although there have been protests and people have got up and left the place demonstratively when he turns up, or they have something to say. But it doesn’t happen very often.”

Do you feel comedians are more careful these days?

“Not in the way it’s portrayed in the media,” Dworman says. “People who go to comedy clubs know what to expect. And they aren’t necessarily too concerned with vulgarities. Sometimes, there are jokes that I have a problem with as well, but the audience laughs so I shut up. Jackie Mason, the Jewish comedian who died not so long ago, for example always used to use the word schwartze [a disparaging Yiddish term for black people], which today is problematic and in fact, not just today. Over time, he ended up performing less and less. People said to him, you can’t use that because it’s offensive, but he kept on doing it.”

Do you still have a lot of Jewish comedians performing at the Comedy Cellar?

“Not as much,” Adoram says. “What’s more interesting is the trend of Muslim stand-up comedians. Hasan Minhaj and Ramy Youssef perform at the Cellar. The fact that they come from another cultural background doesn’t make any difference. What’s important is if they make people laugh or not and if they are funny or not. And they are very funny.”

Do you have any red lines?

“My approach is to accept everybody and everything that is funny,” she says. “You have to give the artists full freedom of expression. There is only one thing that bothers me when people make jokes out of it, and that’s the Holocaust. I’m the daughter of Holocaust survivors and I don’t understand how people can make jokes out of that. Dave Attell is one of the only people whose jokes about the Holocaust and Hitler I can accept. We don’t censor anything, which on the one hand is a risk but on the other is our way of maintaining pure stand-up comedy. If I come across a problem, then I just won’t invite that artist anymore. Some women object to jokes about abortions. Personally, I don’t really like jokes about toilets.”

With all due respect to political correctness the boundaries of humor and red lines – subjects that have inundated the cultural debate to saturation point in recent years – it’s a lot more interesting to understand from Dworman and Adoram how comics who are just starting out can get to perform on the prestigious stage of the Comedy Cellar. It is a torturous route that is illustrated in Judd Apatow and Pete Holmes’ TV series “Crashing” about a stand-up comedian making his first steps in the comedy clubs of New York and aspiring to play at the Comedy Cellar.

“I get hundreds of emails every week from people who want to play at the Cellar,” Adoram says. “We have stand-up comedians who are regulars, but I’m always looking for new faces. You have to bring in new blood otherwise it’s boring and that isn’t easy work. Sometimes I get machos coming in for auditions and they sweat and shake. I have to say I don’t feel comfortable with that situation, but I’m here as the filter. I tell them, ‘Go work on your act and improve.’”

“The truth is though that performing with us today is easier, it’s a more realistic target than it used to be,” Adoram says. “Once, to perform here, you had to get recommendations from two stand-up comics already working with us, to film a video clip, and then do a live audition with me. Today with YouTube, it’s a lot easier to check out comics. If I find somebody funny, I take him to an onstage audition, but the fact that somebody has put up a successful clip doesn’t mean that they can necessarily carry an entire venue.

“It’s never easy, but you can always see each person’s humoristic core. After so many years, I’ve developed an instinct and I can guess. Some artists are good writers, but the audience won’t listen to them. For example, Gad Elmaleh who is a huge star in France, the French Seinfeld, who I found very funny but the New York audience just didn’t get how big he is.”

Can you make a living being a comic these days?

“There are a lot of stand-up comics and more talents than there ever were before. And yes, a lot of them are really good. Almost every one of them has a podcast and they can good money like that. The big stars make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and more. The rest battle for survival. Chappelle for example gets $20 million for a special. Seinfeld is worth something like a billion dollars. Chris Rock, Amy Schumer Ray Romano all do very nicely. On the one hand, you have to remember that they spend a lot of time on the road going on tour in conditions that aren’t optimal, on your own, without your family, without a band like musicians have. It’s complicated.”

Sarah Silverman speaking at the Beverly Hilton on July 27, 2017.Credit: Willy Sanjuan / AP

So when they finish these big tours, they come back to your Cellar and feel at home.

“That’s part of the tradition of the Comedy Cellar. Famous people can come in whenever they feel like it, and then they push out other artists. There are comedians like Amy Schumer, who will send a text message or an email before to let me know, but most of them just drop in and perform. One time, a well-known actor got upset because the security guard didn’t know who he was and didn’t let him in the building, and since then, he hasn’t come back. If you’re a famous stand-up comic, the kind that we work with, like Louis C.K. Chris Rock, Al Franken, or Dave Chappelle, you can just turn up and we’ll let you onstage.”

So what happens if you’re a comic that’s just starting and you get pushed off?

“You’ll still get your money if you don’t perform,”says Dworman. “I know artists don’t like that but just that’s just the way it is with us.”

It doesn’t look like the pandemic hit you too hard.

“There have been times we have had 1,400 people,” notes Dworman, “and that’s with the pandemic still going on and a lot of tourists staying out of town. Our big advantage is that the entry price is relatively low – between $14 to $24 plus two drinks at $8 a drink. That’s considered cheap in New York terms. Most importantly to get into our crowded venue, you have to show a vaccination certificate.”

The Comedy Cellar in the heart of Greenwich Village. Credit: Caitlin Ochs / Reuters

How I ended up missing a mythic evening / Hagit Ginzburg

One day, when I’m on my deathbed, one of my grandchildren will ask me, “Grandma, what’s your biggest regret?” I’ll answer, “that I continued the family dynasty, just so that you exist. Stupid kid waking me up from my afternoon nap.” But the real answer will be much shorter: January 12, 2017.

My grandchild will ask, “what happened on that date?” and I will leave the world sooner just so that I don’t have to tell him that on that day I was too lazy to head down from Brooklyn to the Comedy Cellar and I missed the most iconic evening in the history of the club.

I was on a short visit to Brooklyn at the time, a stand-up comedian at the beginning of my career, just two and a half years into this self-torture that is called “the art of being funny.”

Louis CK At Comedy Cellar

By that stage, I already knew about the Comedy Cellar, the mecca of stand-up comedians. The name comes up, wrapped in admiration and longing, in conversations between artists in moldy clubs in south Tel Aviv. The most famous stand-up lab in the world, the place where stars like Dave Chappelle, Kevin Hart, Sarah Silverman, Louis C.K., and Amy Schumer were born. A venue where the red and white walls have absorbed so much talent that maybe some of it will stick to you as well.

Stand-up comedians who come to New York come to the Cellar in the way that artists go to MoMA and fashionistas go to Beacon’s Closet. They are a site of pilgrimage that you can’t miss. Even if it’s just to build up a fantasy.

So when I came to New York in January 2017 that was my plan. I was crashing in the guest room of a girlfriend who had rented an apartment in Brooklyn. On that particular evening, I had planned to go to the Cellar. I went back to her apartment after a long day dealing with urgent matters (shopping at Urban Outfitters) and the plan was to put down the bags and then head out immediately to register on standby for the Cellar (you can’t pre-order tickets) and to take a peek at the Olive Tree Cafe where the artists sit before and after the show.

But a few things went against me: It was a freezing January outside and my girlfriend said the magic words, “perhaps we should stay at home and we’ll go to the Cellar tomorrow,” which is all my frozen ears wanted to hear, and then there’s my personality which suffers from the congenital defect known as procrastination.

So, we agreed on tomorrow and I got into my warm bed with not a worry in my heart. In the morning when I Googled Comedy Cellar to check what time that night’s show started, I was shocked to see an article whose headline was “New York’s Comedy Cellar may have bore witness to the greatest night of stand-up comedy ever.”

The Cellar doesn’t publish the names of the comics appearing each evening and so, to my great horror, I found out that I had missed a marathon of stand-up comedy with all my heroes: Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Amy Schumer. Aziz Ansari, Jerry Seinfeld. All of them were there. That night, the night that I was supposed to be there, I could have seen them live, but I was too lazy to go.

Since then, every time I’m in New York, I go to the Cellar every night and pray for that magic to repeat itself. I have seen amazing stand-up comedians there like Michael Che and Mo Amer, but a historical evening like the one I missed has never happened again, and probably never will, which is a shame because it could have been a great story to tell my grandchildren.

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