New York City is the best place in the world for stand-up comedy. Period. Arguments on behalf of Los Angeles can be made but should be quickly cut down since, I believe, like many others, the bulk of the comics based there are looking for acting or screenwriting work just as much as they’re scrambling for stage time. In New York, stage time is like heroin for a comedian. You can spot them sitting around in coffee shops writing bits for hours in the afternoon, jonesing for a hot mic and a chance to shine under the hotter lights. I know this because I’m a freelance journalist who often covers comedy, and I frequently find myself around comics in coffee shops.
Fortunately for New York stand-ups, the five boroughs offer countless stage-time opportunities, which is also great for die-hard comedy fans like myself. For starters, there’s Carolines on Broadway in Times Square; New York Comedy Club in midtown; and, perhaps the most prestigious of them all, with its own weekly Comedy Central show and multiple appearances in sitcoms and movies, the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village. These clubs and a few others are considered “mainstream rooms,” a comfortable spot where comedy veterans present polished material for audiences heavily populated by tourists. Though virtually any comic would savor stage time in those places, the stakes can be high, since attendees pay for tickets and comply with two-drink minimums. With the cost for 90 minutes of stand-up at these comedy churches potentially reaching $50 per person, audiences tend to demand rapid-fire laughs with jokes most anyone will get.
But if my pockets are light, I’ll head to a smaller room—a café, bar, bookstore basement, or even a laundromat—where comedians are free to take bigger risks. There, in the alternative comedy scene (alt-comedy to its adherents), the laughs are just as good if not better than anything on mainstream stages.
Fair-weather comedy fans might view the alt scene as a place for weird performers in robot costumes incorporating props into their jokes that may result in bodily harm—to themselves or audience members. Sure, you could see some of that at an alt-comedy show, but only because it fits right into the more outcast spirit of the community. Alt performers don’t necessarily wear robot suits; many deliver jokes like any traditional comedian with a slightly more tweaked perspective, like what the alt-scene vet–turned–mainstream success story Aparna Nancherla is saying these days about living with depression as a woman of color and an introvert: “Sometimes I feel sad for no reason, but then I remember: a few reasons.” And, hey, if you don’t like what you see, you probably didn’t have to drop $50 to witness it. Many alt-comedy shows are low-cost or have no cover at all.
With people in seats on the cheap (and sometimes satiated with free pizza and beer), alt comedians are freer to explore.
In addition to saving you money, an alt show might even give you something for free. At the Secret Loft, a small performing arts space not far from the Comedy Cellar, you can score free pizza as you watch Casey James Salengo do his cackle-inducing bit about superspecific dating profiles and Sydnee Washington confessing that she frequently gets confused for a stripper named Black Magic. At Precious Metal, a bar in Bushwick that presents a regular show called Karen, hosted by the hilarious Caitlin Peluffo and Emily Winter, you’ll net a free beer.
With people in seats on the cheap (and sometimes satiated with free pizza and beer), alt comedians are freer to explore. You can see them developing not only new jokes but their voices, which might never play with a mainstream audience or lead to a sitcom deal. In other words, alt shows are like going to see an independent movie instead of a Hollywood blockbuster. And similar to the way an A-list movie star sometimes reclaims his or her artistic integrity by doing an indie (hello, Bruce Willis in Moonrise Kingdom), big-name comedians will occasionally appear in alt rooms, too. John Mulaney and Neil Brennan have dropped in, unannounced, to the intimate downstairs space at Union Hall in Brooklyn to try out material, for example. I once spied Broad City’s Ilana Glazer onstage twice in one week, at Better Days, a Lower East Side tapas restaurant, and at the bar of Williamsburg’s Knitting Factory, which hosts comedy every Sunday night. Both shows were free, and I got to see Glazer refine a disturbingly funny bit about Nazis marching into town in sexual identity–defying leather pants.
Though New York’s mainstream scene boasts a fair amount of diversity, it’s even more pronounced in the alt scene. That Knitting Factory show I went to that featured Glazer also featured a Greek-American guy, a black woman from Atlanta, an Iranian-American dude who described himself as a “weapons-grade homosexual,” a black comedian in town from South Africa, and a token Midwestern white guy. There’s LGBT comedy at the historic Stonewall Inn, all-women improv at Q.E.D., while Brooklyn’s Friends and Lovers bar has a monthly show entirely devoted to immigrant comics called Speak American. Transgender comedians are also rising through the ranks of the alt scene, one of whom told me she wouldn’t be doing comedy if it weren’t for the more generally accepting alt rooms. The more wide-ranging population of comics in the alt community means audience members get to experience a range of perspectives—sometimes challenging ones. Watching women, people of color, or LGBTQ+ folks joke about straight white guys like myself not only makes me laugh, but helps me to keep my privilege in check. And their perspectives on social issues sometimes make me aware of goings-on I otherwise would not have known about, even as I get rosy-cheeked from giggling.
As enjoyable a night out at a mainstream comedy club is, it’s the alternative comedy scene that offers jokes as insightful as they are sidesplitting, at a minimum cost. The only thing you have to lose in going to an alt show is your dignity—from falling off your chair.
Michael Stahl is a freelance reporter, writer, and editor based in New York City. You can see select clips of his from Rolling Stone, Vice, Vulture, CityLab, Narratively, and elsewhere on Muckrack. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelRStahl.