A year after Hurricane Sandy almost took away his comedy club, Steve Hofstetter is going strong and ready to help revitalize Astoria. His work continues on Dec. 14th as the Laughing Devil’s “Temple of Comedy” takes over the Astoria Center of Israel to help raise funds for the neighborhood synagogue. I caught up with Steve while he was on the road in Seattle to find out more about his upcoming work.
AC: Tell me about your work with the Astoria Center of Israel.
SH: In the past, we’ve had a relationship with them and kind of advised them. They did a comedy event last year and we helped them through it. The chair came out this year and said “Hey, is there any chance that you can get a little bit more involved this year?” We helped them find some fantastic comics this year that usually get $1-3k a piece for events like this to come in for next to nothing and we’re also helping them sell some tickets.
AC: Why is the Center in need of a fundraiser?
SH: It’s a tough neighborhood. It’s a part of Astoria that’s going through a great deal of demographic change and there’s only one demographic that goes to a synagogue and that’s Jewish people. I think a lot of congregations are facing this now, especially smaller ones. With a bigger congregation there are ebbs and flows and it’s fine, but with a smaller congregation such as the Astoria Center for Israel – if a piece of the membership gets older, if the neighborhood faces a large demographic change, it just becomes harder to have the funds necessary to support the congregation. So they’re not dying or anything, but they’re not exactly Park Avenue Synagogue either. Synagogues need a bit of money to keep operating and we’re going to do what we can to help. The Laughing Devil doesn’t take any of the ticket sales whatsoever.
AC: What’s the past year been like for the club?
SH: Its been a ton of work. Each week we feel like we turn a little bit more of a corner. Every time we think we’re over the hump, something else happens. For the marathon this year, the weather was absolutely terrible. We thought we’d have a whole bunch of people drinking at the bar and watching the marathon and it was the most empty the neighborhood has been for the marathon in years, aside of course from last year when it didn’t exist. Every time we think we’re over the hump, there’s a new challenge but we’re getting there. It gets better each week and we’re looking forward to a big New Year’s. New Year’s Eve is always great, so we’re excited about that.
AC: Do you feel like you’re in a better position now than you were a year ago?
SH: Yes, because we didn’t know if we’d have to close due to Sandy. Summer is always light for us, but a year ago was the first time for any of the clubs that I’ve run that we’ve really been looking around and been like “Holy crap, can we make it? Can we weather the storm?” literally and figuratively. Luckily we didn’t have any physical damage to the place, but we really started worrying. It’s one of those things that’s difficult as a business owner. There are grants for lost business, but then I look at the places that don’t have roofs – we can’t take that money, that would be terrible of us. That money’s meant for people who need heat. It was a tough period.
AC: Has the changed location of the stage (from the back of the club to the center) made a difference for comedians?
SH: Yeah, that was a little over a year ago. We wanted it there from the beginning, but we didn’t think we’d have enough space for the servers, so logistically it would be tough. We figured we’d just try it one night, and we did and we just moved some stuff around to see how it would work, and immediately it was wonderful. It used to be there was one front row and one front table, and now there are four, and so not only do more people get a great way to see a show, there’s also more of a connection to the audience, there’s more people that you could reach very easily. When we first started, if the front table were great laughers, they would be the crowds’ ears and they would lead the room and create a dynamic for the club. If the front table was a little stingy in their laughs – and there are plenty of people who take in the show and they just smile, and that’s how some people chill with comedy, but if you have them all at the front table it made it a lot more difficult to blow up the room. I think it just makes the show more fun for everybody. The performers love it and the crowds are into it as well. But I cannot take credit for that idea, it was all Scott Sharpe.
AC: You have a comedy special coming up, what’s the process been like for putting that together?
SH: It’s something I’ve been trying to work on for the better part of a year now. I first wanted to do it in Boston and record it at a small club, and it just didn’t come across right because the cameras were too big a part of the audience. It’s like you can’t really make a documentary if you’re shooting something in a bar, so I decided I needed to do it in a theater. I became friends with the people at the Chinese Theater in LA, which is “holy crap” try and find a better venue than that. It’s one of these things where it’s a big old puzzle and a lot of pieces needed to fall into place. Once we had that set up, I look around and I have two choices: I can either take this whole package and try to sell it to a network or I can crowd fund it, I can raise the money myself and not have to worry about network input and just do it the way I know I can do it, and then when it’s awesome, take it and sell it to a network. The great thing about crowd funding is that it really lets you realize your artistic vision. There’s no one who is going to say “Well, why don’t you try this this way? Because I know it won’t work and I don’t have to, that’s why.” So it’s pretty wonderful, and it’s also cool for fans because for people who are big fans there are all kinds of interesting packages that we put up there that are kind of funny. There’s one where someone can come on the road with me and experience comedy in the trenches. They can come with my wife and I to try to save some shelter dogs, there’s all kinds of interesting stuff.
AC: When will the show air?
SH: We’re taping February 15th and it’ll take a couple of months to edit, so I’m hoping Summer of 2014.