Baltimore's last comic standing

The Comedy Factory hopes to knock 'em dead in a space where many others have bombed

  • Jorge Adame and Kelly O'Driscoll share a laugh during a show last month at The Baltimore Comedy Factory.
Jorge Adame and Kelly O'Driscoll share a laugh during… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
April 15, 2011|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

Tucked between Mosaic and Maryland Art Place, No. 6 at Power Plant Live might as well be called the place where comedy goes to die.

Slapstix quietly premiered it almost a decade ago, when the area was still called the Brokerage. The Improv followed, drawing top-shelf talent, comedians who had actually gotten sitcom deals. But that closed too, done in by expensive overhead. Rascals did some time in the space, but it was so negligible it barely registered with area comics.

For the past four years, 6 Market Place, the comedy destination in the downtown entertainment complex, has sat empty, its sprawling interior gathering dust.

That changed in February, when a familiar operation became its new tenant. The Baltimore Comedy Factory, a mainstay for 25 years in downtown, where it was located above Burke's Restaurant, moved in.

The Factory is, for better or worse, the Uncle Miltie of Baltimore comedy, begrudged by some, embraced by others, simply a fact of life for city comics. Chris Rock played there. So did Robin Williams.

With this move to an 8,000-square-foot space, it earns the real estate to match its seniority.

Its owner, Matt Weber, and manager, Chip Cucchiella, are counting on brand recognition. In their favor is the simple fact that the Factory has survived competition and two recessions, changing management several times. And still, it remains the last comic standing.

"We're the only game in town," says Cucchiella, whose brother, Mickey, is a local comic and radio show host. "We have no competition in the city."

The Comedy Factory was stationed above Burke's in 1985, where it was a cramped club with no lobby, a microscopic bar and customers who had be ushered out after every performance to welcome a new audience.

"It was a nightmare," says Cucchiella, who's been managing the club for eight years.

Weber had been wanting to leave the restaurant for several years because of the club's size, but the right offer never came. Cordish Cos., which runs Power Plant, first tried to woo Weber four years ago, after Rascals closed, Weber says.

The company approached him again in October, and he was more receptive. The complex was about to undergo its first upgrade in a decade, a $11 million investment, and Burke's future was in doubt.

After Burke's closed in December, Weber accepted what he called a long-term lease and officially moved in February.

"I had wanted to leave. This was the easiest fix. It came with a liquor license and was in a place with a built-in audience," he says.

The new space is also much larger — "you could fit the old club in here twice," Cucchiella says — and is in a contained, mall-like maze of entertainment options. There are still 250 seats, but it has more lounging room, a lobby and space for a bar.

"We weren't missing the tourists [at Burke's], but couldn't keep them there," Cucchiella says. "We'd send them to Power Plant Live. Now we're part of it. We don't have to throw them out."

Weber and Cucchiella started renovating the club two months ago and haven't finished. Though the club has been in a soft opening since early March, the two still want to make some cosmetic changes.

They don't plan an official grand opening until at least April 28, when Bill Bellamy, a regular on late-night and network TV, performs there.

The clubs at 6 Market Place — first Slapstix, then Improv and Rascals — had maintained a bare-bones aesthetic: stage, microphone, comic.

The Factory's owners have turned it around with a tiki theme. The lobby now looks vaguely like the inside of the SS Minnow in "Gilligan's Island."

Weber says the club will recoup its investment through a combination of the old strategies that kept the Factory afloat through the years. The club also has an established wholesale team that is responsible for 20 percent of its business. In addition, it has an e-mail newsletter with some 70,000 subscribers.

The other strategy is one that worked well since Weber has been at the helm: Though the club's walls are still adorned by images of Roseanne, Kevin James and David Spade, Weber and Cucchiella prefer to book lesser-known performers.

"Our headliners aren't Chris Rocks. But they've all been on Leno, on movies, or they've had their Comedy Central specials," Cucchiella says. "They're quality names."

Guests over the next months include hypnotist Rich Guzzi, comic Juston McKinney and Kyle Grooms, a former contestant on the reality show "Last Comic Standing."

That allows them to keep costs down, Weber says, unlike past clubs, which blew their budgets on booking marquee names.

"We're the Walmart of comedy," says Weber. "I don't mean cheap. We try to provide reasonable entertainment. "

When the Factory opened in 1985 — under different management — Baltimore had a booming comedy scene, recalls comic Marc Unger, name-checking comics, like Patton Oswalt and Lewis Black, who grew up here and are now regulars on Comedy Central.

The Factory was also one of a handful of clubs.

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