The Comedy Cellar was New York’s premier comedy club even before featuring in every episode of Louie, the hit FX show starring Louis C.K. Now, the comedian is attempting something of a comeback by way of drop-in sets, a tradition at the club where anyone, even the biggest names in comedy, might show up. But when you have the baggage of a Louis C.K., appearances are bound to draw criticism both in the audience and out in the real world. On Tuesday’s episode of The Gist, Mike Pesca talked with Noam Dworman about how he navigates it all.
Mike Pesca: How did you come to run and own the Comedy Cellar?
Noam Dworman: My father died in 2003, so the Comedy Cellar went to [me] and my stepmother. And for a year or two, we both ran it together. She ran it mostly. But it wasn’t working out. It wasn’t good to have two people at the helm, and we had to figure out what to do. And I sold the Cafe Wha? and I bought out my stepmother in the Comedy Cellar.
What’s your involvement in the comedy world beyond the Cellar itself? How big a maker are you?
Well, I’m not, until maybe our show comes out on Comedy Central, This Week at the Comedy Cellar. That will be the first time I’ve ever had any influence on anything outside the Comedy Cellar. And of course, for most of the time we had the Comedy Cellar, it was a pretty sparsely populated place anyway. So the answer is I’m not. Not at all. I don’t know anybody, and I have no influence.
OK, let’s talk about Louis. Of all the comics that have come through and been important—Jon Stewart and Colin Quinn and Chris Rock—how important was Louis to the Comedy Cellar?
Well, when his show hit big, and people started re-enacting the introduction to the Louie show to send home to their friends, we realized it was much more important than anything had been prior—including when Jerry Seinfeld did his documentary Comedian mostly at the Comedy Cellar.
Did you have a close professional and/or personal relationship with Louis?
No, not at all. I’ve known Louis, I guess, since the late ’80s, since I was a kid in my 20s, and he’s always been an aloof character. The most important stories about Louis is, like, he had some really bitter fights with my father. I think one time my father yelled at him, “You’re not funny.” Or something ridiculous like that.
But never denied him sets.
Like, he would yell, “You’re not funny.” But of course, he had a spot.
He never denied him sets. And when Louis came to me prior to his show, I was like, “Oh, God, here comes another comedian, who wants to use the club for another one of these projects.” He wasn’t a big shot at the time. When we put his name on the board, it had no ripple effect.
Right, you saw no increase in people wanting to see shows if Louis C.K. was listed on your grease board outside.
Yeah, he wasn’t famous. And of course, because we always try to accommodate the comedians, we rolled out the red carpet for Louis’ project, and whatever he needed. We never knew we were gonna be in the introduction until it debuted. You think he might’ve mentioned that, right?
He never mentioned it, nothing.
Did you make money off of Louis’ show?
Not any real money. The first season, I think we were charging like $1,500 location fee, which is very low, basically, to cover our costs—we had to lose seats, or whatever it was. But the second season, as soon as I saw that we were actually benefiting from it in a way that I had never predicted, I went to him and said, “Listen, I don’t want any—I feel like a pig taking money at this point. So just use the club whenever you want.” So, for the rest of the time, we didn’t make any money.
Has the coverage of Louis coming back and doing these sets, some of which I know you have a lot of problems with—has the coverage hurt business?
I don’t know yet. I’m very nervous about it. It hasn’t brought us to our knees, but it could. I just don’t know yet. I’m monitoring it very closely.
Were you aware of the rumors, the factual rumors, about him before they came out in public?
I wasn’t. Well, I was—not before they came out in public. I was, starting with Gawker and maybe slightly before that. And maybe at that point somebody attached to the club, somebody might’ve told me that it’s Louis, and I didn’t know whether to take it seriously or not. But other people apparently knew these rumors for many years, but I didn’t.
OK, let’s talk about him coming in and doing these drop-in sets. How many has he done so far?
Six. I don’t know that six have been reported.
Well, he also did Carolines. He did Governor’s. But most of them have been at the Cellar. And no, they stopped reporting each one. There’s always somebody tweeting about something in some way, but—
So when he comes, what’s the process? Who does he have to notify that he wants to go on?
Well, we have it a little bit more organized now than we did. So we’re in communication with him, and I have some idea when he’s gonna come.
He’ll tell you, what, a day ahead of time, or two days?
I don’t want to say, because I don’t want to clue the mob into anything that might be used, but we’ve taken steps so that comedians don’t have to get bumped and things like that.
So there will be a gap, a scheduled gap, in the show?
We’ll just run later, or whatever we have to do. We also have this policy now, where we warn all the customers, “Swim at your own risk. Somebody may show up that you don’t like, and if they do, and you want to leave, whatever you’re eating or drinking, it’s fine. The check’s on the house. You can go.”
You are allowed to walk out during his set?
OK. Have people taken advantage of that?
I want to say this clearly: Have people asked for their money back?
No, they don’t pay. That’s the thing. At the Cellar, you don’t pay until you leave.
Right. So if people said, “I object,” you said, “Thanks for coming.” And that’s it.
And they just leave, yeah.
How many people have done that?
The last two sets, zero. We had one set where I think one big table, like, six or seven people walked out. And he had one set where I think he just seemed very nervous. And what I noticed is that part of the reaction people have, even if they don’t know how they feel about it, it depends on how well he does in his set. If he’s very, very funny, people will just want to stay anyway. So he had one set that didn’t go so well, and that set, like, seven or nine people left. But that was the anomaly. Maybe another set, two people left, and the last couple sets, nobody’s left.
OK, so basically 11 people maybe have left?
Something like that.
And something like nine of those 11, as the result of the one very bad set he had?
Yeah. “Very bad” is harsh, but yeah.
It was difficult. I would say difficult.
I haven’t heard it. It’s been reported that he got ovations. I think some people misreported it as standing ovations. So what reception does he get from them?
Very, very warm. Not different than the Louis C.K. ovations when he was just a big star. But not standing ovations, no.
Does the emcee have to sign on to this? When is the emcee told, and what instructions do you give that person in terms of how to prime the audience and introduce Louis?
Right now, the biggest thing we always worry about is people trying to record things. So, really, the only priming I do to the emcee, and to the whole room, is like a full court press. Like, every single employee is there stationed around, and the emcee pauses and makes a serious statement about the presumption that if anybody takes a phone out now, we’re presuming the worst, and you’ll have to leave. But that’s it.
Does the emcee bring this next comic up and get the crowd excited, or give a warning? What is the tone of introducing Louis C.K.?
No, there’s no—he doesn’t pump them up. Sometimes it can be very casual, and that actually works. Like, he’s kind of low-key about the introduction, but then he says the name, Louis C.K., and the crowd’s like, “Whoa, Louis C.K.!” You know?
Yeah. Same guy as the emcee all the time doing this?
No, not the same emcee each time, but there’s four or five different emcees.
But there’s a standard way to do it? Have you talked to the emcee about it?
No, they do it however they want.
They’re professionals. Yeah.
Each emcee has their own style. The only thing I insist is that they make sure that the audience knows not to be recording. That’s it.
Now, let’s talk about the “swim at your own risk” policy. And by the way, that is a misnomer. It’s not swim at your own risk, right? It’s you as the owner saying, “You’re not swimming at your own risk. If we surprise you, we’ll give you your money back.”
Yeah, other people have gone Talmudic on this thing, but we just want to let you know, we’re not gonna help you. There might be sharks tonight, whatever. You might drown, whatever. This is on you. You are assuming the risk of whatever might happen.
That’s true, but you’ll give the person their money back, so that’s the “CPR” after swimming at your own risk.
Yes, OK, fair enough.
OK. How did you come to that policy?
I thought about this kind of thing years ago, because Louis wasn’t the first comedian to become a little radioactive. But with the Louis thing, the one question that I didn’t have a good answer for is “What about these people who are upset by this, and they’re ambushed, and they have no choice in the matter?” And I had to decide how to handle that. So this became the natural way to handle it.
And then it was interesting to me, when Norm Macdonald got disinvited from The Tonight Show—
Yeah, one of the things that apparently Fallon told him was that, “look, Norm, people are crying.” It’s become so serious that even someone who expressed some sympathy in some way to Louis was now causing people on the Tonight Show staff to start crying. So I realized that it’s not just Louis anymore. If some comedian makes the same comments that Norm Macdonald made, they might be perceived as unacceptable to the audience. So I don’t want anybody to hold me accountable for this stuff. It’s not a safe space. It’s a comedy club. You may not approve. Close friends of mine don’t approve. But if you come, that’s the way it is.
Yeah. Was there ever a thought of, either with Louis or anyone else, “because of this person’s morality or actions in the world, he’s not going to have the platform that I provide”? Have you ever thought about that?
Yeah, I think about it. I mean, before this happened, “What about if Cosby walks in?” And I’ve tried to avoid going down that road as much as I can, because I know that quickly I’m gonna end up a hypocrite. “Why did you do this one? Why not that one?” Like, if somebody has written something, like, really anti-Semitic on Facebook—that’s happened—I just ignore it, you know? And there has been one situation where I was uncomfortable about something, and I did draw a line, but I never told anybody I drew a line, and—it’s just my personal decision, because I just wasn’t comfortable with somebody.
But how did you drawing a line become concrete? This person doesn’t get invited to play the club anymore?
I slowed them down at the club, because until I knew more about it, I was uncomfortable about it. But that was a while ago, and I never judged any other club for who they put on. It’s very tough. Obviously, at some point, it becomes untenable, but ideally I would hope that it would be the audience that would make that decision and make it clear. Like, oh, no, the audience doesn’t want to see this guy. So then it’s like I’m not getting involved in it either way. I’m just saying, “As a business decision, you no longer work.” I really don’t like to substitute my judgment for the audience’s judgment. I think that’s one of the reasons the club works.
Besides the judgment that you have to make in terms of the audience, you’re also running a workplace. So not only do you have to somehow find a way to survey the audience, you have to figure what your employees think, and maybe what some of the other comics think. So how did you go about figuring out what their take on Louis would be?
I asked every single person I could get in from of me. And everybody who runs the place is female. Our general manager is female. Our booker, Estee, for 30 years is female. Most of the floor managers are female. Most of the waitresses are female, and most of the servers are female. I also have everybody that I know, who I feel like I could trust, also go out [and talk to them], just in case they’re afraid to tell me. I really do a really good-faith effort of trying to uncover people who are upset about this and talk to them.
And what did you find? Did any object?
Astonishingly, no. The people who have objected have not been, like, the young women in their 20s, who you would think would be part of that demographic that would be the most sensitive to this. They’ve actually been kind of supportive of him.
The terms all sound like I’m disparaging them, but I don’t mean it to be disparaging. But people are very into that P.C., woke, whatever. I don’t know what the anodyne adjectives are for that movement. But whatever that is, we know it exists. People who take that stuff seriously are the least tolerant of this, and that’s a small number of people, especially in comedy.
Yeah, people who are progressive, or socially conscious.
I consider myself socially conscious.
Well, this is what I wanted to ask you. There seem to be different principles in tension in making the decision, and not just yes or no but then how to do it. What do you perceive those principles to be?
There are competing principles, and that’s difficult, especially when a principle becomes important, like even “thou shalt not kill.” Well, actually, there are competing principles to that—self-defense, war, whatever it is, you know?
I think there’s a lot of talk now about the issue of civility and whether or not it’s OK to be uncivil and disrupt, and the fact is that if Louis were to put his name anywhere on a show, people would show up there to disrupt it. Like, yeah, it’s OK to protest and everything, but you don’t go and disrupt a show. We are not in that vibe right now as a society. Do you really think that would work? What do you really think would happen if Louis said, you know, come tonight to Louis C.K.? I mean, don’t we all know what would happen? Is that really a fair thing? Say what you want about Louis. Maybe he should never perform again, but that’s not really going to work.