Fun houses: a guide to comedy clubs


January 10, 2002|By Lisa Wiseman | Lisa Wiseman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

DO YOU need a good laugh? We mean a big laugh. Not a mild chuckle or a little tee-hee, but a full-out, gut-busting, knee-slapping, side-splitting, tears-in-your-eyes, complete-loss-of-all-bodily-functions laugh. If that's what you really need, then check out the new Improv Comedy Club that opened its doors at the Power Plant Live! in Baltimore just two weeks ago.

It joins four other comedy clubs in the Baltimore area and a sister club in Washington.

What sets the Improv apart from the other clubs in town is the level of talent of the comics. Because most of these performers have been on stage for years, and nearly all have appeared on late-night talk shows, they have a polish and sophistication that you just won't find in comedians at other clubs.

Take the inaugural act: Kevin Pollack. It seemed as if he were telling funny stories to a close group of friends and not a room full of strangers. And when the occasional joke didn't seem very funny, Pollack handled it with wit and grace instead of embarrassing, awkward silence.

Pollack, who got his big break as an actor in Barry Levinson's set-in-Baltimore movie Avalon, also does great impersonations. His bits on Christopher Walken explaining the "birds and the bees" to an 8-year-old, William Shatner auditioning for Star Trek and Arnold Schwarzenegger getting down on the dance floor at a hip nightclub were hilarious.

The Baltimore club is one of three new Improvs that opened last month; the other two are in Ontario, Canada, and West Palm Beach, Fla. All total there are 13 Improvs, and there are plans to open five more in the coming year, says Tony Baldino, president of Comedy Club Inc., the company that owns the Improvs.

The first Improv opened in New York City in 1963. Budd Friedman, the founder, imagined it as an informal, after-hours place where aspiring entertainers could perform for an audience and each other. The club quickly grew in popularity, featuring performers such as Richard Pryor and Bette Midler.

In 1975, Friedman opened a second Improv in Hollywood, attracting the likes of Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld and a number of other comics who would go on to become big names in entertainment.

As Friedman opened more Improvs across the country, the clubs' profile grew ever higher. If you had cable television in the 1980s, you might have seen the show An Evening at the Improv on the Arts & Entertainment channel.

Suddenly, comedy was hot and comedy clubs were opening up in bars, restaurants and basements everywhere, including Baltimore. Here there were several small clubs and one large one -- Slapstix, which was located in the now-defunct Brokerage, in the exact same spot where the Improv is now. Slapstix attracted many national performers -- and the HBO and Showtime television networks, which taped shows there.

"Comedy clubs were very hot, but then [in the 1990s] things started to cool off," Baldino says. "There was an over-expansion, and there wasn't enough good talent to keep them all open."

Several Improvs were closed, and little clubs everywhere were shut down. Slapstix closed when the Brokerage failed in the mid-1990s. At the time of the club's demise, big-name comic talent had fallen off, and the club was relying more and more on open-mike events and performances by noncomedians.

Now, Baldino says, the era of the comedian is back. "Look at the stars of television and movies today. Almost all of them came out of the comedy clubs," he says.

With the debut of the Improv, top-flight comedy is back in Baltimore, and the comedians don't have to serve as waiters and waitresses -- as they did in the chain's early days.

The fact that the Improvs were bought three years ago by restaurateur Al Copeland, of Popeye's Chicken and Copeland's New Orleans Restaurant fame, has helped the chain, Baldino says. "It has improved the quality of the food and the service."

Indeed, during one of Pollack's shows, there appeared to be a server for every two or three tables, and service was very efficient. The food was delivered fast and tasted fresh. Dishes include prime rib, chicken tequila pasta and nachos. (No, fried chicken and biscuits are not on the menu.)

So what makes the Improv so special as a comedy club? "We were the first, and I'd like to think we're the best," Baldino says. "The quality and level of the entertainers are better. Every headliner who appears on the Improv stage, at the minimum, has appeared on Leno or Letterman," he says.

Even though there's an Improv less than an hour away in Washington, Baltimore is not going to be treated as a second-tier club. "You'll see that the same comedians will play both clubs," Baldino adds.

And there's more for this year. "Expect to see some [really] big names in comedy at the Improv," Baldino says. Such as? "Top talent." So name some names. "Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock."

Start lining up for your tickets now.

Following are vital stats on the new Improv as well as a guide to the area's other major comedy clubs.

The Improv Baltimore

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