The Knitting Factory
361 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn
Sundays at 9pm
As a graduate student, I’ve found that free time can be scarce. It can be difficult to justify the toll (both on your wallet and on your schedule) of a night seeing live comedy. But when you study stand-up comedy, you’ve got a built in excuse you make the time in the name of research. And if you’re doing your graduate work in New York, as I am, you have your pick of a number of scenes, venues, price ranges and styles of comedy from which to choose. With this in mind, I have decided to put together something of a living map of New York comedy. My plan is to make my way through the five boroughs to visit as many venues as possible, and to consider the relationship between New York and the ever-changing comic space.
I’m not starting with a landmark venue—or rather, a landmark venue for stand-up. I’ll certainly get around to profiling some (all?) of the great spots to see comedy around New York, but I decided to start with a local Brooklyn show, and I’ll tell you why: Hannibal Buress and, to be perfectly honest, the anticipation of a great surprise guest. Hannibal is a Chicago native who has made a name for himself as a stand-up and a writer (SNL from 2009-2010, 30 Rock beginning the following season). Fans will notice his jokes making their way into 30 Rock scenes with some regularity, as well as his recurring stint as a homeless man on the show. He never mentions his writing credits by name during his stand-up sets, but it’s safe to assume the growing audience (the Sunday shows are now frequently standing room only) is familiar with his work. In fact, the crowd is comprised of a significant number of repeat customers.
If I wanted an all-star lineup, I could go to a traditional venue to increase my odds of catching some great comedy (or, failing that, some big names), but there’s a charm to the smaller venues, and the anticipation of a lineup change. And while this can happen at any comic venue, large or small, I can rest assured that a precedent already exists.
These Sunday night shows have a unique neighborhood-comedy-show feel, mixing the hipster Williamsburg set with local and (inter)nationally touring comics. The Knitting Factory’s Brooklyn space has the bare design and pseudo-industrial feel common to some Williamsburg/Bushwick performance spaces. Immediately past the door is the bar and seating area—sparsely decorated without the kitschy wall hangings or adornments of a themed bar—and a small stage stashed to the side. (I took this picture just before a recent show) Between the stage and the bar is a swinging door, which leads to the bathrooms and the concert venue. As a result of this design, comics performing during the Sunday night show are forced to confront a flowing stream of customers making their way from the concert venue to the bar (and back) with the feigned spontaneity of a comic doing the same crowd work in one set after another.
While this design may be distracting, The Knitting Factory was founded as a multi-purpose performance venue. Michael Dorf opened the first Knitting Factory in 1987 as an art gallery and performance space meant to join together different performance media. The initial space in Manhattan programmed various styles of performance on different nights—poetry and spoken word on Wednesdays, jazz on Thursdays, etc. [This kind of audience fragmentation is fairly common in comedy clubs, too—e.g feature nights dedicated to different races and ethnicities] As a result, you get a fairly mixed crowd of local patrons watching whichever Sunday night game is on the two televisions (which are turned off as soon as the show begins), anyone sitting at the bar, those wandering concert-goers, and those actually there to see Hannibal and his guests.
Brooklyn is full of comedy shows outside of traditional comic venues. Given the costs associated with a comedy club in Manhattan—overhead, two drink minimum, etc— and the related movement of the alternative comedy scene (at least in part) from the East Village to Brooklyn, it’s no wonder you often find comedy shows in music venues or other ‘alternative’ spaces. These shows tend to be free or cheap, and they create a space that feels local, far from the madding crowd of tourists. A lot of the time, these comics are performing at venues in their own neighborhoods.
The Sunday night show is free, with no drink minimums or other associated fees, and is located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (popular among the post-college set) so the audience skews young. And as a result of the growing popularity of the show and the host, there’s a good chance you’ll watch the show standing up, facing the stage at sort of an odd angle—such is the design of the booths and the sometimes-appearing folding chairs set out for the audience, around which late-comers have to crowd. And while standing for a series of sets can get a little taxing (in the way a long concert is), replacing heckling out-of-towners, drunken patrons, exorbitant cover charges, long lines and the crowd’s palpable expectations of the performers before them (see heckling out-of-towners) with a more subdued audience willing to follow a performer while they work out material or experiment with something weird is an exchange I’m willing to make.