From the Windy City comes Comedians You Should Know, an eclectic mix of comics who are on a mission to make a lasting imprint in the New York comedy scene. Produced by comics David Drake, Jeff Steinbrunner, Saurin Choksi, and Mike Lebovitz, the show has found a home in Brooklyn at Gutter Bar. We caught up with Mike Lebovitz to discuss the history of CYSK and the challenge of creating New York’s best weekly comedy show.
When did the show start?
We started the show just about 8 years ago at a bar called Fizz on Belmont Avenue.
The godfather of Comedians You Should Know is Danny Callis and the original members were Danny, Marty DeRosa, Junior Stopka, and Michael Sanchez. When I first started with the group I was an intern and it was me and Drew Michael and maybe some other people and then the group solidified over a couple of years. Some of the interns were able to come on as full time Comedians You Should Know members which was a very big deal to us at the time.
The show grew in Chicago over a number of years and moved from Fizz to its current location at Timothy O’Toole’s and it pretty quickly became one of the best shows in town. The philosophy behind it was we’d book ourselves and all of the best comedians in Chicago. It turned into a thing where the first time you got to do Comedians You Should Know, it was something you’d been trying to do for a while and it meant something. Our acts all developed and Joe Kilgallon who was a member of the group moved out to LA to become a successful comedian, which is what everyone from Chicago does at some point. It’s a great comedy town but it’s definitely an incubator town. Everyone moves to try and reach that next level. It’s a great place to develop but not a great place to cash in.
Joe moved out to LA about 2 and a half years ago and I think he’s been running the show for about a year and a half with some guys out there, most of whom do the show a lot in Chicago. He runs it with Chris Redd, who was in the latest Andy Samberg movie, Ryan Dalton who is a Cleveland guy who used to do the show a lot. Aaron Weaver, who used to do the show in Chicago, and Mo Welch, who was also in Chicago for a time. There are all these comedy Chicago expat communities all over.
At what point did you decide it was time to move the show to New York?
It happened more organically then that. I didn’t move to New York to start the show. I moved to New York to take the next step in my stand up career, and then after I was here for a while it felt like a good idea. I missed having that show, it was a great show. I felt like the way we produced and ran the show, there weren’t a whole lot of shows like that here. I thought it would be great to have one like that here, and it’s just nice to have a show that’s your home base where you can develop your act in a somewhat controlled environment. My friend Jeff Steinbrunner, who is one of the guys running the show in Chicago, moved out here too and he was looking at rooms and found this great room at the Gutter and we said ‘yeah, let’s go ahead and do it.’ They were into it and we booked a couple of shows there. The shows are kind of like trial balloons, if they go well we want to have a regular show. That’s what we’re working towards. The goal is to have the best weekly stand up show in New York City. There’s a lot of great weekly stand up comedy shows in New York City, there’s a lot of competition in that regard, but that’s what we have our sights on.
What’s the challenge of making the show unique?
There are a lot of great comedy shows in New York. There are the clubs, mostly in Manhattan, and then there are a lot of bar shows. A lot of the bar show are great, and a lot of them are not great and there’s a huge variety. A lot of times it is sort of like ‘yeah, turn on a microphone and start a show’ but with CYSK we’ve always asked the audience to pay admission- it’s a small admission, but we feel like f you’re going to pay money to come in the room, you deserve to see a real show. We’re not doing anything fancy, there’s no gimmick to it, but the idea is you come in the door and your experience starts when you come in the door. We pay a lot of attention just to little details: making sure the lighting is right, making sure the sound is of high quality, that the room is laid out in the most beneficial way , that it looks right and is a smooth experience for the audience, and that it’s also hosted in such a way – a lot of shows are very casual and one or two hosts get up and start talking, and then the shows starts and it’s cool. The host gets on stage, the show has begun. We want it to be hosted in a more presentational way. There’s a style of hosting that we’ve always done that we didn’t see as much in New York. I don’t know if it’s a Chicago style thing or a CYSK kind of thing, but we wanted to say “Host the sh-t out of the show!” So we wanted that to be a part of it. Paying attention to all those small things and then making sure that the lineup is 100 percent only killers and that the lineup is booked in a certain way so that the acts compliment each other . One week you don’t have all very similar acts and then another week we have different kinds of viewpoints and different comedic styles so that it feels like a well rounded show. It’s all simple stuff that requires some attention. There’s no gimmick to it or anything and there’s no secret. It’s all pretty straight forward and maybe stuff that people who go out to see a show don’t think of. We don’t want them to think about it, we don’t want people thinking how we positioned the light or how we made the sign or whether we spent time dressing up the room. We just want people to come out and have a great time and not have to think about any of that stuff. Just know that they’re to see comedians, maybe they’re famous, maybe they’re not, but from our perspective are the best comedians available in New York, which is probably the best in the world.
How would you say the comedy scenes of Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York differ?
I’ll start with a Chicago. It’s a little bit different now because there are more full time comedy clubs but when I first started in Chicago there was only one true full time comedy club. All of the comedy shows were barroom shows and a lot times at these shows, you didn’t have – the audience didn’t always know that they were going to be an audience. They were just at the bar and a show would break out. The style that I think you develop – a lot of Chicago comics are loud, spontaneous, and I think there’s a lot of bleed over from the improve scene which is pretty dominant in Chicago, so it trends toward experimental and extemporaneous, and a need to develop that second gear where you can wrangle an unruly audience. The upside is that the act you develop there can be pretty spontaneous. A Chicago comic maybe doesn’t have all of the jokes worked out or the wording –it can be a little rough around the edges. I feel like in New York, there’s much more emphasis on writing great jokes and I think maybe part of that comes from, when you come up in New York, the open mics you go to you only have two minutes, so you have to really write these tight, succinct jokes that get to the point and don’t waste any words. I feel like the scene here is a little bit more “writerly” in that way.
In LA, obviously you have some of the best comics in the world because they’re movie stars now. You also have the in-the-trenches working comic , you have a lot of people who are out there interested in showbiz generally. You have some great comics but you also have some people I think whose agent told them “I think you should do stand up.” It tends to be a bit more drawn out, but then there’s also a great experimental scene in LA too, I think maybe because so many people in the audience are in the industry, you can have these shows where the whole thing feels super – you hear about comics playing to the back of the room, so there are some shows in LA where sort of the whole room is the back of the room. You can really get away with manipulating the form of stand up and just playing with convention. I would say, an LA comedian at their worst doesn’t know that they’re supposed to be telling jokes. I would say a New York comedian at their worst doesn’t realize that they’re supposed to be doing a show. That they’re on stage. You have great writers, but a lot of leaning against the back of the wall, not choosing to electrify an audience when you really could. But these are gross generalizations obviously. I say something clever and they laugh.
I always figured that when I’m performing, I know where the punch line is, but the audience doesn’t know where the punch line is or when it’s coming if I’m doing my job well, so I figure like the whole thing should be funny. I love getting laughs just from facial expressions or weird movements or sounds or whatever throughout so you keep them guessing. The goal is that it’s engaging the whole time.
If you’re performing a show on the North Side of Chicago in a hipster bar is not so different from a show in Williamsburg, is not so different from a show in Silver Lake, is not so different from a show in Portland. There are different enclaves in cities all over the country where the references are sort of similar. In general on the East coast, you can get away with being a little darker than you can in the Midwest. You might get a laugh on something where you might get a groan or silence if you’re in Wisconsin as opposed to New York or Boston. One big different between New York and LA is that everyone at the show in LA works in the industry. They might not be comedians, they might be APs or whatever these jobs are, I don’t even know what they are – but they all work in entertainment. Whereas in New York, you can do a show, and it’s just people who have jobs or are just regular people who want to come and laugh, so that’s the difference.
How do the audiences differ from city to city?
The economy is huge here, so you might get more people who work in finance or you might get more graphic designers than maybe you would in Milwaukee, but I still think that what the audience is doing during the day is more diverse here than it is out west.
How long was Jeff looking for a room?
He was actively looking for rooms for a long time. Part of producing a really great stand up comedy show is finding the right room , so you need a room that is separate from the bar so the people who are there for the show are only there for the show and you don’t have people who didn’t want a show breaking out in their bar after their softball match. He was looking for bars that have side rooms or party rooms or whatever. He found a number of places but this was the best one, it’s perfect. One of our biggest fears is someone’s going to try and poach it from us. A bunch of comedians came out to the show and you could see their faces like”Oh, this is a great room.” It’s something that comics look at differently, but it’s small, it’s compact. They do bands there so it’s a killer sound system and stage lights and a bar back there. When that room was full and you get a laugh in that room with those brick walls, it reverberates. That room is actually pretty special. I don’t even know if the people at the Gutter know that, but it’s really perfect for a stand up show.
The show at Timothy O’Toole’s in Chicago, part of that is the room too. They did a remodel of it with our show specifically in mind. Everything about it is great. Low ceilings, tiered seating, small stage, good sound system. That makes a big difference, the elements of the room have to be right.
A lot of times what happens is people will find a great room and then other people will start producing shows there. There are places where it becomes like a defacto comedy club, where they have different people producing different comedy shows. 30 people will show up all these different nights and people will drink beer and we’ll make money. Sometimes if you have shows of different quality going on at the same venue, the lesser show can sort of cheapen the greater show. There’s a great show at the Cobra in Bushwick called Live From Outerspace every Friday night. It’s a rock and roll club so it has a lot of the same attributes. That’s the only comedy show that they do there. They’re loyal to the show and vice versa. It makes the show special. This is a cool bar where lots of cool stuff happens.
We want people to be able to focus on the show and if possible, lose themselves in it. Get whatever the benefit is from sitting down and laughing with a group of friends and or strangers for an hour and a half. The more you can lose yourself in that moment, the more beneficial the comedy is and the way that a show is run and the space that it takes place in is all important to creating that effect.
I think that a good show makes the world a better place. I think it makes a difference in people’s lives and that’s why we get into it in the first place is to bring joy into people’s lives. You get caught up in the ego part of it, too the self-aggrandizement. The purest reason that people do comedy and I think the main reason that most people get into doing comedy is to spread joy and laughter in the world.
Have people had emotional reactions to the shows?
Not after every show, but that happens where someone will come up after the show and say they’re with a group and they’re in town because their dad’s in the hospital and it’s not going well and we had to get out and this really made a big difference.” That’s the most powerful feedback I’ve ever gotten from doing stand up. It reminds you why you’re doing it.
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