Philly's burgeoning comedy scene

Improv comics BJ Ellis (left), Matt Akana, Matt Lamson. Ellis is head of the N Crowd short-form troupe.
Improv comics BJ Ellis (left), Matt Akana, Matt Lamson. Ellis is head of the N Crowd short-form troupe. (KATIE REING)
Posted: February 22, 2013

Stop me if you've heard this one: Philly is finally fully funny.

There's Helium Comedy Club, where top national acts fill the room alongside such notable local stand-ups as Chip Chantry, Juliet Hope Wayne, and Doogie Horner. Spaces from PhilaMOCA to the Trocadero host comedy affairs of varying scale. We've got valued sketch troupes, improv crews and collectives with regular gigs - Comedy Sportz, Secret Pants, Philly Improv Theatre, Sideshow Presents, and the N Crowd - and more open mikes for them than you can throw a stick at, if throwing a stick is your idea of fun.

"So many locals are working to make improv, stand-up, and sketch accessible," says Alison Zeidman of WitOut.net, a two-year-old info-packed comedy zine created by Luke Giordano and Aaron Hertzog. They have since split for Hollywood - Giordano in 2011 to write briefly for Two and a Half Men, and Hertzog just weeks ago to further his stand-up career.

As far as expanding audiences and reach, Zeidman says regular events like Accidents Will Happen at South Philly's Adobe Cafe, Comedy Dreamz at Northern Liberties' Barbary, and Polygon at Queen Village's L'Etage happen where audiences might not expect them.

"Like Field of Dreams, 'If you build it, they will come,' " says N Crowd boss BJ Ellis of creating and maintaining a supportive, open environment for comedians of all stripes.

"In the past five years, locals have regained interest in live comedy," says Horner, known for his time on NBC's America's Got Talent. "I think it has something to do with the philosophy of New Sincerity. The '90s were too sarcastic, the early 2000s too ironic. People have retained some of that '90s skepticism and that early-2000s detachment but are ready to relax and sample some 1980s openness."

Philadelphia has a curiously disjointed comic past. It birthed legends Bill Cosby and David Brenner; Dom Irrera, Bob Saget, Todd Glass, and Paul F. Tompkins made their bones during the boom of the '80s and early '90s. There were good rooms: Comedy Factory Outlet, Stitches, Comedy Works, the Comedy Cabarets, the still-going Laff House.

"When I started in '82, as a teen," says Paoli-raised, L.A.-based Todd Glass, "there were the places where Jerry Seinfeld and Garry Shandling would play, and I'd do open mikes."

Glass is back in town this week with news of a book and TV series and a fresh perspective, having come out as a gay man last year.

"Then, as a comic, I had support from my [Conestoga] high school friends and other comedians. It's the same now as it was then: If you want support from fellow comics, you have to give it."

But a Philly comedy scene? There really hasn't been one since then.

Glass notes that Philly's comedy scene sagged when the boom went bust and local clubs shuttered: "What made that slow period worse was that Philly went a long time before there was a relevant legitimate comedy club."

A defining year for resurgence was 2006. Glass calls it crucial because Helium opened - the legit stand-up room he knew Philly needed. "From day one, that club taught audiences how to behave - not heckle, but pay attention to comedians."

Helium could accommodate comedians at the hipness level of Patton Oswalt, Doug Benson, and Glass, plus it offered its 300-seat room to locals like Horner for opening slots as well as top billing.

"Intimate rooms are cool, but it's good for young comics to get a taste of bigger crowds willing to spend $30," Glass says.

Horner concurs. "There are things Philadelphia comics can do to keep audiences coming back, the biggest one being write original, unique material. . . . Now that audiences are ready to give stand-up a second chance, we should show them that it's an art form as vibrant and surprising as music, theater, or visual art."

The year 2006 was significant for the improv scene, too. Director/performer Greg Maughan founded the Philly Improv Theater, and BJ Ellis moved his short-form N Crowd from Society Hill Playhouse's Red Room to the larger Actors Center, where it now sells out most Fridays.

"When we moved, I truly began investing time and effort into social media," Ellis says. "That helped get crowds into our shows and introduce improv comedy to an entirely new demographic here, a demographic that, in turn, began exploring other comedy venues. I think we helped change the scene by providing easily accessible, audience-friendly, reasonably priced comedy on a regular basis."

Having one of its own, N Crowd's Zeidman, running the WitOut website also shows progress. "WitOut tries to help by being a hub of information, and by blogging and promoting what's going on all the time," she says.

Glass notes with enthusiasm that local stand-up and improv scenesters commingle: "That's how it is among comedians in New York City with the Upright Citizens Brigade, and L.A. comics with the Groundlings."

With his book of autobiographical rants, The Todd Glass Situation, due out by summer and a not-ready-to-talk-about cable sitcom to follow, he's pleased to see his hometown finally achieving comic-scene greatness.

"I'm not responsible for Philadelphia comedy then or now," Glass says. "But I'm excited to be part of it and where it's going."


Laughs Forthcoming

ComedySportz, BeatBox Philly at 8 p.m. Friday; CSz's adults-only The Blue Show at 10 p.m., the Playground at the Adrienne Theater, 2030 Sansom St. Tickets for both shows: $12. 1-877-985-2844, www.comedysportzphilly.com/cszpresents/.

The N Crowd, Fridays at 8 p.m., the Actors Center, 257 N. Third St. Tickets: $10 in advance, $15 at the door. 215-253-4276, www.phillyncrowd.com.

Wine Time 2013 with Doogie Horner, Bryan Carter, Jeremy Reilley and more at 7 p.m. Saturday at PhilaMOCA, 531 N. 12th St. Free. 267-519-9651, wwwphilamoca.org.

Todd Glass, Wednesday-March 2; 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 and 10 p.m. next Friday and March 2; Helium Comedy Club, 2031 Sansom St. Tickets: $14-$33. 215-496-9001, www.heliumcomedy.com.

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