At the Comedy Cellar, the Customer Is Always Right -- Unless They're an Idiot
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The word “iconic” is as overused as its auto-correct brother “ironic” is misused, (thanks for that, Alanis) -- but the annoying adjective doesn’t even cut it when it comes to describing Greenwich Village’s one and only Comedy Cellar.
Modern humor’s history runs through the club’s bulb-framed awning as swiftly as Louis C.K. inhaled that Ben’s Pizzeria slice while entering the club during the opening credits of his FX show. (Both the stage and the property’s adjoining restaurant, The Olive Tree, were also featured in Jerry Seinfeld’s 2002 documentary Comedian.)
The club opened back in 1982 and was operated by then owners, Bill Grundfest, and the late Manny Dworman, who died of cancer in 2004. Manny's son, Noam Dworman, was reluctant at first to take the reins but was eventually convinced by the club's loyal clientele. Soon after he made big moves to expand the space and the number of shows to accommodate more comedy-seeking tourists and regulars.
“Noam runs a tight ship and isn’t afraid to try new things for the sake of the business,” said longtime Cellar host and manager, Steve Fabricant. “He also has a sense of humor on par with the top comics that perform there.”
Stand-up legend Colin Quinn agrees.
“Noam keeps the legacy his father started alive because he forces elevated political conversations to the table upstairs instead of just letting things deteriorate into showbiz idiocy." Quinn's Comedy Central show Tough Crowd was inspired by the “comedians table” at in the Olive Tree, where legendary club booker Estee Adoram acts as both mother hen and referee between performers.
“Noam’s Trumpian in his energy -- and that’s a high compliment in my book,” says Ann Coulter, author of In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome! and guest star of The Cellar’s Underground Debates series. “After a night of watching comedy, we’d all go around the corner to listen to music at the Village Vanguard at 1 am -- and up on the stage would be Noam, playing in his band.”
Regular headliner, and cohost of The Brilliant Idiots podcast, Andrew Schulz notes, “Noam understands what few club owners get: Invest in the comics. No club treats us with more respect, no club pays as much and no club is as appreciative. And because Noam takes care of the comics, they take care of him -- I filmed parts of my special there.”
Adds FOX LA anchor and 2010’s “New York’s Funniest Reporter” winner Lauren Sivan: “Imagine if your favorite uncle ran the city's most beloved comedy club: I walk in to see him holding court with the biggest names in the business, but then he'd slide over, make room for me and ask about the latest political scandal, news story or just ‘where have you been?’.”
Earlier this month I spoke with the man in question on how he continues to cultivate comedic gold.
Bill Schulz: Can a comedy club become a victim of its own success?
Noam Dworman: In a word? Yes. The bigger we get means anything I say -- whether it’s on our radio show or just in an interview -- can be taken out of context. Political correctness is damaging for both the comics and a venue’s owner. Another way success can make you lose focus is by taking for granted the sea of people trying to get in every night. Most of my staff never saw this place, back in the day, when it was empty and we’d have to ask waitresses sit down and pretend to fill empty tables. We maintain our edge one customer at a time.
ND: We follow up immediately with any customer complaints. You get so much valuable information by just following up with a customer. The staff won’t tattle on the bad employee that may have treated a customer badly. They close ranks. It’s human nature. Good business owner finds how to do it. We learned right away that asking online helped.
What is your biggest problem?
ND: We’re always hearing about it regarding diversity. How come you don’t have more women? How come you don’t have more Asians? You name it, we get it. So-called empowered people will come just so they can gauge the ethnic makeup of a night and criticize. It’s a lot of pressure and I try to ignore it. There are just a lot of white males in this business, so some nights diversity can be difficult no matter how much you try. I wanna have the best -- be it, black, Hasidic Jew…any gender you can come up with! Problem is there’s a lot of hammers out there in search of nails, so they’re either going to question the makeup of the lineup or any mentions of race or what they perceive to be anti-gay jokes.
You've mentioned in past interviews that you often quibble about politics with Louis C.K. What’s the argument?
ND: Oh, the truth is we haven’t in a long time. Louis is a very reasonable and very smart guy. When it comes to talking politics he’s very good about seeing both sides. Look at his abortion bit in his last stand-up special. It was genius. We actually approach things in much the same way. Neither of us is very partisan.
As far as comedians behaving badly is concerned: How many strikes does a stand-up get, and do they get more if they’re super talented?
ND: Uh, it’s endless strikes a lot of bluffing. Way back in the day Nick Di Paolo really insulted an audience member. So I had to meet with him. I remember waiting out front so everyone wouldn't see that he met with me. And he sat down and immediately said, “I know I fucked up. I’m sorry.” And that was all I had to hear. I wasn’t going to pile on.
The Cellar doesn’t have enough space for the amount of tourists, locals and fans of the funny that it draws: How do you deal with this enviable problem?
ND: I’ve noticed this in the last couple of years: when you’re in your thirties you just want to add to the success and just want to know how to expand. In your fifties, you learn to play defense rather than offense. It’s not How do I further exploit this? It’s How can I not fuck this up? What I have now is precious and needs to be protected. We have an opportunity to expand into Vegas. I’ve been very cautious. I can’t say the name but I think I have the right partners. But despite my nervousness, I've run all the numbers and done pretty extensive research, and I think the Vegas opportunity is just too exciting and too good to pass up. I'd be a fool to turn it down.
Explain your strategy when a Seinfeld, Rock, or Silverman comes in unannounced to try new material. Is there a process to bumping less established performers?
ND: If it’s the last show we usually just spread out the scheduled comedians and nobody gets bumped. If it's not? Somebody is getting bumped. They take it on the chin. One time James Smith [Flight Of The Conchords] wasn’t too happy to lose his spot to a visiting Chris Tucker. He kinda had a meltdown in front of Estee. Things finally calmed down, but it does happen. We pay them anyway -- not they do it for the money. But it’s an important principle.
How often is the club a showcase for a John Mayer type experiment where a singer, musician, or actor will try their hat at stand up -- and does it get awkward?
ND: John Mayer was actually awesome, I gotta say. But it actually rarely happens. I remember Chevy Chase wanted to go up. He didn’t kill. It was weird. He kinda hit the stage but didn’t think about or know what he wanted to say and there wasn’t much of a response. It wasn’t horrible, but not great.
What's the hardest part of your job?
ND: You hear it all the time from business people: The old rub about balancing work and private life. Look I’ll just say it: The Olive Tree is not doing well -- it’s doing all right -- but it could be doing a lot better. I know what it takes to make it better and it’d require a lot more hours than the already long ones I’m putting in -- and I’m not 30 years old, anymore. Staying away from my kids is painful at this point. I have a 23-year-old, a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old with another coming in June. Sometimes you have to let the little things go because family is the most important thing.