It was during this time that comics now referred to as Boston legends — like Clarke, Gavin, and Steve Sweeney — got their start, perfecting a form of stand-up that has been associated with the city ever since. “There was a Boston style of comedy,” says 43-year-old Tim McIntire, a stand-up who helped run a tiny, beloved club in Faneuil Hall called Mottley’s until it closed last year. “It was the angry white guy doing very rapid-fire jokes — boom, boom, boom, boom.” This was a popular recipe, and one you can see light up rooms throughout When Standup Stood Out, the 2003 documentary about the rise of the ’80s comedy scene in Boston. At one point in the film, Gavin tells a crowd that his bank sent him a threatening letter about a loan, saying it hadn’t received his final payment. “I wrote them back and said, ‘Yes, you have!’ ”
That era has passed. “There were just too many shows that weren’t very good,” says Rick Jenkins, owner of the 75-seat Comedy Studio in Harvard Square, which has served as a launchpad for locals since it opened in 1996. “It became a little formulaic. And all of a sudden, going to a comedy show, you didn’t know whether it was going to be any good.” But many of the local stars who dominated the landscape in those days, including Clarke, Gavin, and Sweeney, have stayed in Boston and continued performing — giving young comics an unusually strong sense of their roots for the simple reason that, as Jenkins puts it, “so many of those guys who started the scene are still here.”
They also still reliably fill rooms, and bookers at 150- to 200-seat places like Kowloon Komedy and Giggles in Saugus, both restaurants that host stand-up on the weekends, and Dick Doherty’s Beantown Comedy Vault , a 75-seater downtown, showcase them night after night, week after week. “They’re all killer comedians and they’re headlining for a reason, but there’s just a logjam,” says the Boston-based touring comic Tom Dustin. “Boston has its 12 headliners, and they don’t leave Boston. If you drive up Route 1 and you look at the ‘Coming Soon’ sign at Giggles Comedy Club, it’s the same six names every month.”
What a lot of young Boston comics are afraid of is that Laugh Boston is going to be yet another place that books those same guys — that instead of bringing in out-of-towners who are part of the national contemporary comedy scene and letting local up-and-comers open for them, Tobin, Harding, and Laviolette are going to make their new club a museum dedicated to Boston’s past.
IT’S NOT THAT ANYONE DOUBTS that the three guys behind Laugh Boston have their hearts in the right place. And to hear them describe their vision, it’s clear it matters a great deal to them that once the new club opens, it will be a draw not just for local comics, but also for better-known comics from outside New England.
“We’re coming at this as performers,” says Harding, whose improv theater in the North End hosts sold-out shows every weekend and enjoys a significant revenue stream from corporate gigs. “Norm and I have been performing for 15, 20 years. We love performing. And we know that sometimes performers are the last people to be taken care of, even though they’re the reason why people are in the venue.”
After traveling around the country looking at successful clubs and taking notes on their layout and design, Laugh Boston’s owners settled on a vision that sounds a little bit like a comedian’s idea of paradise, complete with a green room, a shower, and even a “comedy concierge” on staff who will greet comics when they arrive, set them up with a free beer or soda, and make sure they have everything they need. “I’ve called up road comics and told them, ‘E-mail me the three things you love about a club and the three things you hate about a club,’ ” says Tobin. As a result of that outreach, he notes, he and his partners decided to equip the club with retractable walls that will separate the bar from the seating area during performances, for example.
Boston hasn’t had a club as nice as this one promises to be since summer 2008, when the Comedy Connection in Faneuil Hall closed down and its owner, Bill Blumenreich, shifted his attention to booking huge stars like Janeane Garofalo and Jim Gaffigan at the Wilbur Theatre. The Connection still inspires warm feelings in comics who remember performing there — as well as those who don’t. “People said it was pretty much the best,” says Donaher. “I don’t know how much of that is just nostalgia, but it was an A club. And we don’t really have an A club in Boston right now, which is what we need.”Continued...