The crowd is ready in a Park Slope basement packed beyond capacity. The sound of cheap drinks and rich conversation weaves around the cozy space, creating a sense of anticipation, as if everyone knows they’re in for a treat together. The stage everyone faces barely qualifies as a stage: On a tiny platform rests a table set for two with a bottle of wine and a couple of glasses, some flowers, and a popcorn machine, but like most shows worth seeing live, the stage is hardly hindered by anything as finite as dimensions. As the two stars take the stage, the room erupts with hoots, hollers, and laughter.
Keep in mind, this is not a play, but a stand-up comedy show. It’s called “Cheap Date,” the brainchild of Sharron Paul and Tyler Fischer, two comedians barely out of college. It’s quickly becoming one of Brooklyn’s most buzzed-about comedy events, drawing luminaries like Saturday Night Live alum Colin Quinn and writer John Mulaney. Moreover, “Cheap Date” and its creators are a sign of New York City’s current state of independent comedy, a vital scene thriving with talent and more active than ever.
New York’s comedy scene is older than Regis Philbin at this point. According to Paul, “there’s comedy at every turn.”
“You could trip and fall into a show,” Paul said. “We’re in tough economic times and there are free and cheap shows all over the place. People love to be entertained and welcome it with open arms.”
Fischer called the city “an encouraging place for a comic to start out,” but emphasized that there are a lot of anticipations.
“You have to deal with performing to people who aren’t listening to you,” Fischer said. “And you have to deal with people not laughing at all.”
The city has been launching comedians since the 1940s with Steve Allen, first host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show.” Other New York comedians include Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, the original cast of SNL, and Eddie Murphy. Stand-up comedy suffered a setback in the early 1990s due to oversaturation, but roared back in the 2000s, a time when one of Columbia’s own, Steve Hofstetter, GS ’02, started making waves.
According to Fischer, there are “an endless amount of venues” for live comedy, with each one catering to various tastes. Traditionally, most comedy venues have been located in Manhattan. Caroline’s in Midtown and the Comedy Cellar in the West Village are popular tourist traps for stand-up, while Upright Citizens Brigade in Chelsea is an improv institution.
The most authentic shows, though, happen in smaller venues with a tightly packed audience. “Cheap Date” marks the spread of the comedy scene to the outer boroughs, with shows and venues popping up in Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Park Slope.
After securing the famed Union Hall in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Fischer and Paul ran their first performance of “Cheap Date” in August 2010. Each show is framed as a date night in which the hosts play characters hopelessly unlucky in love.
It’s those two hosts that make “Cheap Date” stand out. Both in their early twenties, Fischer and Paul have shared a love of comedy since before they can remember. Fischer graduated from the
University of Rhode Island with a degree in acting, working local theater and television pilots. Paul appeared in CollegeHumor videos before hosting stand-up comedy, and in March, she will appear in a reality show on a major cable network. But the fact that they became professional comedians is a complete surprise to both.
“I could never envision myself doing comedy,” Paul said.
She started participating in comedy shows after being urged into a few open mics by friends and fellow comedians.
By the time Paul and Fischer met in mid-2010, each had been performing in comedy for at least two years—time spent developing their chops and “meeting the right people,” Paul said.
Like Paul and Fischer, Hofstetter, a Queens native and comedian of 10 years, had no intention of doing comedy as a career, but started performing improv when he was 13 years old.
While at Columbia, he started going to shows at The Underground, and eventually did a set there during his senior year. Hofstetter credits Bill Hicks as a big influence on his own work.
“I want to be like Bill Hicks if Bill Hicks didn’t hate his audience,” Hofstetter said.
Hofstetter started as a sports comedian, having written for ESPN and Sports Illustrated. In 2006, however, he gained attention for criticizing Larry the Cable Guy on his album “Cure for the Cable Guy.” Hofstetter was motivated to speak out against him after the military adopted the Cable Guy’s catchphrase “Git-R-Done” as their slogan, and especially after an Indiana teenager responsible for two shootings claimed to be a huge fan of the character.
“An artist is never responsible for their work,” Hofstetter said. “But they are responsible for reacting to the reaction to their work.”
Last December, Hofstetter opened his own comedy club, the Laughing Devil in Long Island City in Queens, which hosts a college night every Thursday with $3 admission.
As a Columbia alumnus—or “Columnus” as he called himself—Hofstetter reminds fellow Columbians to “never take yourselves too seriously.” As it happens, Columbia itself boasts a strong comedy scene. Fruit Paunch, an improv group on campus, gained national attention when founding member Jenny Slate, CC ’04, appeared on SNL in 2009.
More recently, the sketch comedy group Chowdah had its first show outside campus, participating in UCB’s “Backyard Brawl,” battling Dinner for One, a seasoned sketch comedy group from Boston’s Emerson College on January 27. Even though Emerson won, this event represents a new era in student comedy at Columbia.
Chowdah co-president Charlie Dinkin, BC ’12, mirrors the aesthetics of the typical NYC comedian. As a London native, she comes from “a deeply entrenched” comic tradition of Monty Python and the Cambridge Footlights. As a comedy city, she found New York “intense” and “overwhelming,” but admired the “encouraging” variety of opportunities.
Dinkin is also coordinating the formation of a new comedic venture: This year for the first time ever, Columbia will be sending a team to Rooftop Comedy’s College Stand Up Competition. The final eight students who make it through the auditions this week will have a TBS-televised face off against NYU students at the Gotham Comedy Club on March 20.
“Comedy is really fun,” Dinkin said. “It’s about looking at your world and understanding it in a different way, and now is the time to try it. So everyone should have a go.”
New York remains an institution, a destination, and a foundation for comedy. The centers may be shifting, as Brooklyn and Queens steadily—and rapidly—build their own scenes. The comedians, though, remain alike—devoted, disciplined, and above all, funny. Hofstetter, Paul and Fischer, and Dinkin may be at different stages of comedy, but they are all part of a process that makes this city vitally relevant, and forever an invaluable home for comedy.
Back at “Cheap Date,” Fischer celebrates news of having received “an amazing book deal.”
“I’m so excited!” Fischer says. “$2.50 for ‘Catcher in the Rye’! You usually can’t get it for under four dollars.”