By Lucas Lewis
Other clubs say, “Tell all your friends about us.” We want you to keep this quiet, because we’re not sure the Chinese know we’re here.
— Rick Jenkins
|Rick Jenkins of The Comedy Studio|
Among them are Eugene Mirman, who has released three comedy albums, written a book (“The Will to Whatevs”) and acted in the HBO show “Flight of the Conchords”; Joe Wong, a Letterman favorite; Shane Mauss, who had a Comedy Central special and released an album on the station’s imprint; and Frank Smiley, the senior producer (and talent scout) for Conan O’Brien.
But unless you’re a comedian, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of The Comedy Studio. That’s by design. When owner Rick Jenkins starting doing Sunday night shows at the Hong Kong 15 years ago, he didn’t set out to create the kind of cookie-cutter, two-drink-minimum comedy club that proliferated in the 1980’s.
At first, he didn’t set out to create a comedy club at all.
“I was almost 35 and had not made it as a standup comic, and clearly wasn’t going to make it as a standup comic,” Jenkins says, “and I got a day job at a bookstore for minimum wage figuring, ‘Alright, I got to do comedy for 10 years and now I have to start the real world.’”
Instead, his Sunday night shows starting doing well, so he added Friday and Saturday night shows. There’s now a magic-themed show on Tuesday nights, and Wednesdays and Sundays tend to feature less polished comedians than weekend nights, but the format — about 10 comics doing 5-7 minute “feature” sets — has remained relatively constant.
That’s one thing that separates The Comedy Studio from some of the bigger clubs downtown, such as Nick’s Comedy Stop, which more often than not follow the standard format of feature performer (doing about 30 minutes), out-of-town headliner and maybe an emcee.
Another is the crowd. Jenkins likes to joke that he doesn’t want the audience to tell their friends because “we’re not sure the Chinese know we’re here...and for the first 10 years that was really true,” Jenkins says. “People would call the Hong Kong and they would have no idea what they were talking about.”
Jenkins is quick to point out that it’s not generally overrun with Harvard people, but the Cambridge location does lend itself to a smart, hip crowd.
“Boston is a thinking person’s town, and it’s counterbalanced with a rich and delicious tradition of a**holeism,” says the comedian Mehran, who grew up in Lexington (and attended high school with Mirman). “The right Bostonian will point out exactly why you don’t need to be so psyched to be alive, tell you to go f*ck yourself and somehow invigorate your day with that information. I love it.”
Smiley is the senior producer for The Conan O’Brien Show. The first time he went to the Studio, he looked at 10 comedians and had three on the show in the following two weeks.
“That's pretty much unheard of,” says Jenkins. “Usually it takes at least a year of them tracking someone, and out of 10 they might find one they want to track.”
Not surprisingly, Smiley returns often, and he's quoted on the club’s program:
I consider it the greatest comedy club on earth. It’s a return to the days of smart audiences, which I find are rare, and I’ve been everywhere. You go to the Comedy Studio and then you come back to the New York clubs and you fall into a depression.
“The Studio has such a good crowd,” says Ahmed Bharoocha, a Boston (by way of Rhode Island) comedian who moved to Los Angeles earlier this year. “They’re usually smart and they’re going to like you. It’s not like a road room where you have to bang it into (their) heads — which is a good thing to learn, too. I think Rick really wants you to get your set ready for what you think it’d be on TV.”
And that is the most crucial ingredient of The Comedy Studio: Jenkins himself.
“Seven chairs on that side,” Jenkins tells a comedian who’s helping him transform the third floor of the Hong Kong into a comedy club.
There are four 20-foot long tables plastered with snapshots and press clippings that constitute the bulk of the seating at the Comedy Studio. Six nights a week, Jenkins is here to set up, though mercifully he only has to break down four of those nights. Every show starts at 8 and ends by 10.
Girl Talk is playing over the speakers while a comedy DVD menu circles repeatedly in silence. Along the back walls is additional seating, and after setting up the tables, Jenkins takes to arranging a handful of promotional signs from over the years along the back wall. One features a black and white photo of a much younger-looking Jenkins, when the Buffalo native, who’s approaching 50, still had a full head of hair.
Then, as now, when he dons a dark suit for his hosting duties (he emcees most of the weekend shows), Jenkins seems surprisingly straight-laced for the proprietor of a hip club considered to be a bastion of “alternative” comedy (see “Indie Comedy”). He credits comedian Eugene Mirman, who was a staple of The Studio for four years before moving to New York in 2000, with shifting things in an experimental direction.
“He’s really the one that took my mainstream instincts and pushed them towards the gorilla operation,” Jenkins says.
But Jenkins’ mainstream instincts and appearance are in part what allow The Studio to thrive. Audiences who wander in off the street might be put off by the bizarre antics of one comedian, but 5-to-7 minutes later they have Jenkins up there smiling and delivering the kind of setup/punchline jokes they expect during the segue.
And it largely operates like a real comedy club, apart from the fact that the comedians don’t get paid, so there is a professionalism and efficiency to everything.
“Rick does a great job running it,” Mirman says. “It has a wonderful spirit to it. It’s got so many elements that come together that make it great place.”
Comedians are able to experiment; the audience is exposed to different kinds of jokes than they might see on TV without being pushed out of their comfort zone for too long; and Jenkins gets to feature a variety of comedic acts and styles.
“You’ll hear a lot of comics say you need a place to fail,” says Nick Zaino III, who has covered the Boston comedy scene for more than a decade (for The Boston Globe, among others) and runs the Boston Comedy Blog (bostoncomedy.blogspot.com). “The Studio is often that place, where people are supportive enough that you can really swing big and whiff sometimes.
“But if you make contact, you’ll really have something. That’s not something you can get everywhere. And the Studio isn’t a big club, but it’s an established place, so it means something to people to get to a certain point there.”
Jenkins’ willingness to try new things and let comedians experiment is unusual for a legitimate comedy club, especially one that generally pulls a good crowd, but it’s central to his mission. He doesn’t just select talented and unique voices; he helps to foster them, often from the beginning.
When comedians contact him about getting on a show, he’ll send out a welcoming care package, replete with a filled letter, articles on The Studio, a listing of open mics and a free pass to the club. It’s not clear what Jenkins gets out of this, but for aspiring comics it’s a great primer for the scene.
“Comics really develop here,” Jenkins says of Boston generally, but he could be talking about his club. “It’s really more like a graduate school.”
He rarely offers advice without being asked, but he has it at the ready. Jenkins even has a Comic-in-Residence program, a sort of finishing school for young comedians. Every night for a month, the Comic-in-Residence does a set at every show, hosting or taking the bullet (going first) for crowds that range from teenagers to tourists to grizzled veterans of the Boston comedy scene.
One of the first Comics-in-Residence was Myq Kaplan, the Last Comic Standing finalist. When Kaplan first performed at the Studio 10 years ago, he was an aspiring singer-songwriter who just thought he'd try some of his funnier songs onstage. He was crestfallen when he found out he only had seven minutes.
Also on the bill that night were Jonathan Katz and Louis C.K., though at the time neither name meant very much to Kaplan. Later, when he became serious about comedy, he hosted a show at the Studio with Micah Sherman before moving to New York a few years ago.
“Basically Rick was the first person to put me on stage,” Kaplan says. “The Studio I think of as my home club. That's where I got started, I love going back there. It's just a really great place with great audiences and Rick is great.”
“I don't want to blow smoke up his a**hole one more time, but The Comedy Studio was a really important terrarium for me to do stuff,” adds Zach Sherwin, who performs — and recently released his first CD on Comedy Central Records — under the moniker MC Mr. Napkins. “Rick gave me that weekly hosting spot and then I'd do a couple other spots a month, and it just was a really good community of smart, appreciative people who gave me a lot of good feedback early on. The Comedy Studio was huge.”
Sherwin and Kaplan are among the latest batch of Boston comics to find success only to skip town. Another is Shane Mauss, who now lives in Austin. Mauss' rise was downright meteoric (see “Onward”), but like Mirman and Kaplan before him, it really started with the Comedy Studio.
“I think of the Studio as my home club,” Mauss says. “As far as actually performing, it's my favorite club in the country. It's not always super intelligent comedy that you see on stage, but the audiences are usually up for whatever — dumb jokes and smart jokes alike.
It's one of the few places where I can do my really weird alternative stuff, but then I can also do my blue collar-y stuff talking about drinking or my old construction job...I haven't really seen that in too many clubs.”
For his part, Jenkins thinks the recipe is simple: “If you have good audiences, comics will want to be here, and if you have good comics, audiences will want to be here.”
You can point to many things as evidence of the Studio's central place in the Boston comedy landscape, the respect it engenders among comics in particular. The club has sustained itself without a single professional promotional push. Smiley and other scouts regularly look to Jenkins to produce showcases so they can locate the town's top talent.
But one of the most impressive things is this: The Comedy Studio occupies this elevated space despite the fact that it doesn't pay its comedians. The space is too small and the tickets too cheap to support anything more than Jenkins and his Hong Kong restaurant overlords. But it doesn't seem to matter. The best out-of-town comics often try to make a pit stop at the club, even when they're playing far bigger, far better paying (and this would include anything that's paying) gigs downtown. Todd Barry and Gary Gulman have recorded CDs here.
Whether it's the crowd, Jenkins, the space itself or some combination in between, the alchemy has worked for 15 years. When asked what sacrifices he's made to make that happen, his dismisses the idea entirely.
“I'm making a living doing something I love, instead of making a decent living doing something I hate,” he says.
In The Comedy Studio, Jenkins has created the kind of club he’d want to attend.
Just don't tell your friends.