Al Martin Interview
By Leo Goodman
If you’re on this site then you already know New York has some pretty damn good comedy clubs. What you might not know is that three of them are owned by one guy.
Over the past couple decades Al Martin has developed himself into a one-man comedy industry, with New York Comedy Club, Broadway Comedy Club, and now Greenwich Village Comedy Club providing audiences with stand-up shows and more seven nights a week. It’s even more than you realize, once you consider that Broadway Comedy Club itself has three different stages, each of them with shows every night. Sitting in the comic’s lounge area just off the main room downstairs at Broadway, with the sounds an audience’s laughter just on the other side of the wall, the comedian-turned club owner talks about telling jokes, booking jokesters, and just how much comedy a city like New York can sustain.
BCT: You actually started as a comedian.
AM: Correct. In the late 80’s I was doing stand-up comedy. Got some t.v. credits, I actually have more credits than some of the guys who are working in the club here. I always said my highlight would be see my name up in Vegas, see my name on tv, then thank you and goodnight. I occasionally get up, once in a blue moon I get up and do a spot.
BCT: I would assume you get up whenever the hell you want.
AM: Yeah, yeah, I would say. But you move on to other things, you know? It’s a funny thing, I got into producing shows, running a room, to get stage time.
BCT: That’s why all comics run rooms.
AM: Right. And then it became so all-encompassing that now I can’t concentrate on doing sets because I’m busy running the shows.
BCT: Where was the first room you ran?
AM: The first room I ran was a place called the Eagle Tavern, it was on 14th street. It was actually right next door to what later became Comix. At the time that place was a supermarket. We did the longest-running open mic there, it would run from four o’clock in the afternoon till about eleven at night, and a lot of the bigger names in comedy now started at that open mic. Sarah Silverman worked that open mic, Judah Friedlander worked that open mic. (Chuckles) I worked that open mic.
BCT: Four to eleven, you said?
BCT: And was that just five minute spots?
AM: Five minute spots. We would get –
BCT: Every comic in town.
AM: Yeah, sixty, seventy comics come out. And then from the people who came to that open mic, we developed, myself and another guy, a room at Houlihan’s on 48th and 2nd. We had a downstairs room, we would do a Saturday night show, and I would bark. I was actually a barker in front of Grand Central Station. We would bark in an audience, and have a few people bringing, we’d have a good show every week. And then one day the manager of the place came and said to me “no more stand-up comedy.” I asked him why, and he said because they’d had a reggae party there the other night and there was a riot, so they decided no outside producers anymore. And I said “I have seventy people coming to a show tonight! What does reggae have to do with comedy?” And he said sorry, no show. So I had to run on second avenue, and I found a bar on 48th and 2nd, they had a room on the second floor that was vacant. I said to the bartender, who was the owner, “do you have anything going on up there tonight?” And he said no, and I said “would you like sixty customers up there?” And he said definitely. So we dismantled our sound system from Houlihan’s, we ran it up to 48th and 2nd, and hence the New York Comedy Club was born.
BCT: That became-
AM: That became New York Comedy Club. We operated at that location for five years. We started on Saturday nights, then we added a Friday, and then Jim Mendrinos ran our “New Material Wednesdays,” Chris Menzilli, from Gotham fame, ran our Thursday college night, Andy Engel, who runs new talent at Gotham, was one of our comics, a lot of the people in comedy today started in that little room on 48th and 2nd. And then after five years the landlord there sold that building, and we wound up moving to our current location, 24th and 2nd. The New York Comedy Club, been there almost twenty years now.
BCT: So that was the first club that was yours, what was the next one, was that Broadway?
AM: Well what happened with New York Comedy Club is we expanded into a second showroom, and –
BCT: A second showroom at the club?
AM: Yeah, it was a space right next door.
BCT: Cause that’s not the case now.
AM: No, no more. What happened was … New York Comedy Club’s biggest competitor was Broadway Comedy Club. It was the same landlord. He said to me “Al, I have a space on 53rd street that I’m building, I want you to take a look at it.” Now, when I first came to look at it, it was the café space upstairs, and I thought this was gonna be too small for a comedy club.
BCT: Where The World is now.
AM: Yeah, where The World is now. I asked him “what do you have going on in the lower level?” He said oh, it’s just a space for storage, maybe some lockers, and I said “let me take a look at it.” I looked and said “you know what, I think I can make this work as a comedy room, can you make a deal with me?” And he said yeah, and that was ten years ago. We opened up with that one room, and then expanded.
BCT: So when you said that New York Comedy Club’s chief competition was Broadway …
AM: What happened was that a lot of the business in those days … we were the first to use street teams. Before they had street teams a lot of the operations would be going into offices and selling comedy club tickets, hair salon packages, all that stuff. And then we got the idea of, hey, let’s put some guys in Times Square selling comedy club tickets at a discount. New York Comedy Club was the first to do it, but with the advent of Broadway Comedy Club the street teams found that it was easier to sell in Times Square for a Times Square location.
BCT: Oh, absolutely.
AM: Yeah, if somebody at the Hilton wants to walk just four blocks over here, why go all the way to 24th and 2nd? So it became a lot harder to pitch New York. It’s only now, ten years later, that New York is starting to get another street team built up. So that was a challenge for New York.
BCT: But you were running both, you were in competition with yourself.
AM: Yeah, I was in competition with myself.
BCT: And trying to not ruin your old club with your new club.
AM: Right, but what happened was we started doing different things at New York Comedy Club. We started doing a lot of new talent stuff over there, made it a very new talent friendly club. We made it hey, you’re a new performer trying to get stage time on a Saturday night at ten o’clock, New York became the place. But now that’s sort of blended now, we’re adding, for the first time in years, we’re adding professionals onto the shows there because we have a street team starting to sell tickets for those shows over there.
BCT: Also you have, dare I say, this web site.
AM: Yes, true. Also, Broadway now is celebrating its tenth year next year. Feels like just yesterday the place opened but it’s almost ten years. And this year we opened up the third one, Greenwich Village Comedy Club, that’s down on Macdougal street, 99 MacDougal.
BCT: I talked a little while ago to Dustin Chafin, who runs a lot of the doings over at Greenwich, and I’ll ask you the same question I asked him, I’m interested to see if your answer is the same. What made you figure “hey, you know what the Village needs? Another comedy club.”
AM: Well, I’ll tell you, I didn’t set out looking for a comedy club in the Village. I have this real estate broker, whom I’ve had for years, he calls me up all the time with properties. He called me and said “hey, I have this place on MacDougal Street.” I said “MacDougal Street, I used to go there all the time when I was a kid.” I looked at the place, it used to be a music space, and I figured a comedy club could make it here. It has the Al Martin signature, which is the lower level, like I have here at Broadway. I looked at it and said well, there’s a lot of comedy here, but then I came back at night and realized there’s a lot of people there. I was able to really negotiate a good lease with the landlord, and that was how Greenwich Comedy Club was born. It wasn’t something I was looking for, but I’ll tell you it’s been doing very well right from the outset. We haven’t really gone through a cold snap yet, of January February March, so I don’t know how that’ll shape out but we’re making contingencies to deal with that. But the crowds have been robust, Fridays and Saturdays we’re selling out shows, and the weeknights have been good. We also have opportunities there for a couple of open mics in the early evenings, get some newer talent in there, and it’s doing well.
BCT: One thing I’ve noticed is that Greenwich and New York are both, not tiny, but they’re cozy little rooms, and then you have Broadway which has that big room downstairs.
AM: I like the small atmosphere. If you could put a gun to my head and say “what’s your favorite room of yours in the city,” I love New York Comedy Club. I love Greenwich Village Comedy Club. I love those rooms because of their intimacy. When you get laughs at New York Comedy Club, I don’t know if it’s the tiles on the floor, sound bouncing off the low ceiling, there’s just nothing like it. That room, when you’re crushing in there, it’s old time comedy, the went it was meant to be. We’ve sort of got away from that, with these big mega rooms that get built around the city, but there’s a place for some of these intimate, smaller spaces. And in this facility, Broadway, I like the Red Room upstairs.
BCT: You mean The World, or the other one?
AM: The other one. Some people call it the CCL Room, some call it the Red Room, depends what era you’re from. Early days it was CCL, now it’s Red Room. I don’t know what to call it, I just call it one of my favorite rooms. The main room down here, as a performer, it’s not my cup of tea, but a lot of guys like it. A lot of guys tell me how much they like it. Because Broadway, down here, gets crowds from all over. You know? It’s America. If you’re getting ready to go on a tour across the country, this is the place to do your stuff, to know if it’s gonna work.
BCT: Because you have a big crowd of tourists, so you’re gonna be performing for New York and the Midwest and the South and the North, all at the same time.
BCT: Now, in all your different rooms there are a number of different shows and you don’t micromanage all of them. Is there any particular criteria for who gets to run shows?
AM: Well, in the main room it’s always run by myself and Rich Brooks, in terms of the booking. So, we’re very tight on who goes on our main stage here at Broadway. That being said, the café room, The World, that’s Aaron Haber, and then the Red Room is where we do a lot of our produced shows. If you have got an idea of how to bring in an audience and you wanna do your own thing, it’s a great lab to produce and your own show. It’s a good opportunity for a lot of younger comics to get on stage and start to develop shows, and get that stage time, that oxygen that they need to develop as performers. So that answer, in a nutshell, is if you have an idea to promote and can get a room filled, by all means run with it.
BCT: Having been a performer and then moving into the management end of the business you have a good perspective on watching trends in comedy. Is there a big difference between comedy now and comedy when you were on stage?
AM: You know, I’ve seen four or five resurgences of alternative comedy over the years. It seems every few years people try to push alternative comedy on the population and then it seems to eventually fizzle out. A lot of club owners, when they book people they go “I want the next big tv star.” I take a little bit of a different attitude, my attitude is, if I’m sitting where I am right now, in the bar area, and I can hear, through two heavy, thick concrete walls, the audience laughing, then I know I’ve got a winner on stage. And that’s really the criteria I want. You know, someone, they work a forty or a sixty hour week and then they come in here on a Friday or Saturday night they don’t want to hear your deep, dark stuff. They just want to laugh. If you can tell them that deep dark stuff and still be funny that’s fine, but my criteria is make my audience laugh. Simple as that. If you have that ability I’ll book you.
BCT: Can you give me any good heckler stories, both from when you were on stage and also as an owner?
AM: One time, this was back at the old New York Comedy Club, I actually threw a drink at a customer that was mercilessly heckling me. He got up as if he was gonna come at me, and I picked up my soda and threw it at him. And he was saying “this is bullshit, your paying for my sweater,” and I said “yeah, I’ll pay for your sweater, send me the cleaning bill, now get the hell out of my club!” It was well worth the privilege of dropping that soda on him.
BCT: Did he send you the cleaning bill?
AM: No, he didn’t. Just left, never heard from him again. There was an incident at New York Comedy Club when the ceiling was leaking, the rain was coming in, and a customer actually had her umbrella open in the showroom. There was another time when a customer was waiting for a drink. And this was when cell phones were just starting to be a thing, and she actually called the club. I was up front and I answered the phone, “New York Comedy Club, can I help you?” And she said “yes, we’re sitting at a table right at the stage, haven’t seen a waitress for a while, can you send her over?”
BCT: That’s the beauty of cell phones.
AM: Yeah, nowadays she’d just text it. We get all sort of customers. We’ve had customers walk in an hour late for a show and say “I have a reservation,” we say sorry, we gave your seat away. “How can you give our seats away, we had a reservation.” “yeah, you’re an hour late, you weren’t here.” People can get very demanding.
BCT: And that’s why when you get a reservation now they tell you to be there ten minutes before showtime or they give your seat away.
AM: Yeah. I had a customer once … the tickets say “reservation required.” The tickets say “two beverage minimum” This guy comes in, gets his seat and then complains about the two drink minimum. First of all, you’d be hard pressed to find a comedy club in the country that doesn’t have a two drink minimum. Second of all, it says it on the ticket. You’ll notice it’s all around you, the two drink minimum. It’s on the ticket, there’s a sign up at the box office, when you’re greeted at the box office they tell you, when you make your reservation they tell you that, your waitress tells you that. That’s because people will complain that they didn’t know about it. And then when you look on Yelp you see a review that says “what’s up with New York Comedy Club, all they did was tell us about the two drink minimum.” So you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.
BCT: Do you feel like eventually you’d want to open up a fourth club?
AM: Well, three years ago I almost bought one of the other clubs in the city. I was trying to close the deal in June, and they owner of that club threw in a kink at the last second that would have made me miss the entire summer. Now I felt at that time that with our street team I could have made the purchase price back just with the summer, but if I lost the summer then now I’m opening up a comedy club in September or October, which is about the worst time you can open a club. The middle of people going back to school, Jewish holidays, and the Yankees in the playoffs.
BCT: People who want to go out will stay in if it’s rains
AM: Right, right.
BCT: So coming in to fall and winter …
AM: Yeah, and that leads me to another question, I don’t know if you were going to ask it or not. People ask me, “in this age of the internet, when people are staying home more and more, watching things streaming live, how do you feel about the future of your business?” I think people still go out, I don’t have an issue, we still have people here at the club. I think the problem is when too many comedy clubs open in the city. Of course people will say “well why does he have the right to open a comedy club, if we can’t?” But you know this was a city, originally, you had Catch a Rising Star, The Improv, then came the Comic Strip and Dangerfield’s. So for many years you had four clubs in the city, and they thrived and flourished. Then came Caroline’s, then came Comix, then came Boston Comedy Club, and the field virtually doubled within a few years, and the business started feeling the effects of it when Catch a Rising Star and the Improv closed in the early nineties. I think this city can support six or seven comedy clubs, and now with ten … Comix has gone out of business, Laugh Factory’s gone out of business, Ha’s closed, it got back down to a more manageable level of six or seven clubs. And then I had to go and open Greenwich, and The Stand just opened …
BCT: Which are very nice clubs.
AM: Yeah, nice clubs.
BCT: But so was Comix. Comix was a gorgeous stage.
AM: Yeah, Comix was nice, the Laugh Lounge was nice too. We lost four clubs in this city in the last few years and then replaced them with two others. But the thing I like about my clubs is I have some of the best locations you can have, for foot traffic, and that is Times Square and Macdougal Street in the Village. You can’t beat that.
BCT: And even New York Comedy Club, which is kind of out of the way, it still fills up.
AM: Right, it fills up, it has its own niche. And the overhead is low there. It’s interesting that when you run that kind of operation you don’t have to deal with a lot of comic budgets, because they’re mostly produced shows, so the economics is different over there. My goal would be to eventually have more professionals in there and pay the money, but once we lost the street teams we had to adapt. That place is like a cockroach, it always survives.
BCT: There’s been a big burst of improv and sketch in the city, with Upright Citizens Brigade, the PIT, the Magnet. Do you plan on bringing any of that in, or are you sticking with just stand-up?
AM: Well, here At Broadway Comedy Club we have Eight is Never Enough, an improve troupe, they do Saturday afternoon matinees, in the summer they do every day of the week. We have Comedysports at 6:00 on Saturdays, and Fridays at 8:00 and Saturdays at 8:00 and 10:00 we have Chicago City Limits. So we have a pretty good amount of that. And at Greenwich they have Chicago City Limits Second Generation.
BCT: On that little stage?
AM: Yeah, somehow they figure it out. It’s improv!
BCT: Well, I’ve done improv too and you want space to work. Greenwich Village Comedy Club has a very small stage.
AM: Yeah, they figure it out down there. Listen, my objective is always to get varied types of programming and not just to rely on any one thing. Slowly we’ve built a reputation for a decent amount of improv here. We’ve done plays here, off off broadway. We’ve done Cabaret singing shows, I’m still stuck with a baby grand piano from those days. One of the things we’re getting involved in now is we’re starting to do some pay-per-view here at the club. We’re hooked up here and at New York Comedy Club to do live streaming on the web, and we’re starting to put together some pay-per-view shows of comedians who want to get their stuff out there. Even newer comedians who have a following outside of New York. What we’re gonna do is have a show and you can download it and watch it for 99 cents. So that’s something we’re working on, and hopefully we’ll get a big name who wants to do that. Live from Times Square. We are the last block on Times Square. If you look at a map, Times Square ends at 53rd and 9th, so we’re on the northwest quadrant. Right there on the edge.