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Live and thriving: Local comedy clubs busy

Live and thriving: Local comedy clubs busy

The laughs keep coming at intimate spots, larger venues
Live and thriving: Local comedy clubs busy
Schenectady native and comedian Dan Frigolette; inset: Funny Bone GM Kayla Davis (top), Cedric the Entertainer and Lily Tomlin.
Photographer: The Los Angeles Times and provided photos

Imagine having had a seat at the Hollywood Palladium in 1982 to see Richard Pryor perform "Live at the Sunset Strip." Or maybe you were there at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre in 1998 to see Eddie Izzard's "Dressed to Kill."

Two of the greatest "live comedy" films of all time, they both hold up quite well on television or your laptop, even after all these years. Still, having been there to see it in real time would have been something special and truly unique.

"It's a lot different to see a show live, then to see it on TV, Netflix or some other streaming service," said Schenectady native Dan Frigolette, now a New York City resident who travels up and down the East Coast performing his own stand-up routine and promoting others. "When you go to a show, it's an organic, living being. You can cross major boundaries, and you can feel the comic feeling out the audience. Should he go there? Can he not go there? You don't get that kind of experience watching something on television."

Live comedy venues and the number of performances around the Capital Region may seem to be on the rise, but according to Tommy Nicchi, owner of The Comedy Works in Saratoga Springs, getting people away from the television and into a setting where live comedy is being performed isn't easy.

"There is a lot of great comedy out there, but there's also some pretty good comedy and some not-so-great comedy," said Nicchi, whose father started the Comedy Works 37 years ago in Albany. "We've been through some lean years and some really good times, and right now we're not really in either of those. There are so many ways for people to stay home and watch comedy for free instead of going to a club."

At the Funny Bone Comedy Club in Crossgates Mall, general manager Kayla Davis looks at things a bit differently than Nicchi.

"People see somebody on TV, so they want to come out and have a good laugh and see that person live," said Davis, an Amsterdam native. "I would say we are booming right now. We have a steady business, with more new acts, and we're still attracting first-time customers."

Live comedy, despite Nicchi's reservations, does seem to be doing pretty well. More than 9,000 people braved a January snowstorm to watch comic/ventriloquist Jeff Dunham perform at the Times Union Center in Albany, and all of the Capital Region's major venues — Proctors, the Palace Theatre, the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall and the Cohoes Music Hall to name some of the biggest — have all incorporated standup comics into their schedule.

"It's always been a part of our programing," Proctors CEO Philip Morris said about live stand-up acts. "When we opened the GE Theatre we had a comedy series, and then we would put larger acts on the main stage. I think with the growth of the Comedy Channel on TV, it's helped create an audience. You see new names on television, and you want to see them in person because comedy always had a component in it that worked better live."

Even the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, which typically has much more melodious sounds emanating from its chambers, has begun booking stand-up comics.

"It's actually part of a strategy we adopted about three years ago," said Troy Music Hall director Jon Elbaum. "There is this perception that we're all about chamber music, and we wanted to attack that and try to diversify our programming to deal with that. We want everyone to know that we offer much more than just music."

Elbaum brought Lily Tomlin to the Music Hall back in 2015, and Paula Poundstone was there that same year and again in 2017. Izzard performed in Troy just last week, while just around the corner are Nick DePaolo at the Cohoes Music Hall (March 24) and Gabriel Iglesias at Albany's Palace Theatre (April 19).

And, fortunately for smaller clubs like the Funny Bone, big stars sometime enjoy playing in more intimate surroundings. Last week at the Funny Bone, comedian D.L. Hughley ran through a three-day stint.

"We had great audiences, and both of his shows on Saturday were packed," said Davis, who also has Cedric the Entertainer booked March 9 and 10. "You'd be surprised to see how many big names sometimes go to a smaller club so they can work on new material for a few days. When D.L. was here no set was the same. That's why seeing live stand-up is so exciting. It was so great to see him interact with the crowd and really get them engaged."

"Nothing compares to the live thing," said Nicchi, who lives in Niskayuna. "Stand-up is a great medium when it's done very well. The challenge is to get people away from their cell phones, and make sure they're not just watching clips on Facebook or staying home to watch things for free. We have to remind them that the best option is not to stay home, but get out of the house, go to a club and have some fun."

Sometimes, stand-up will work at a non-traditional performance venue. When Frigolette was producing his first live comedy album last year, "Naked and Amused," he filmed it at a nudist colony in St. Louis.

"The energy in that room was different than any I've experienced before," said Frigolette. "Sometimes, you never know what's going to happen."

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