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Ted Alexandro isn’t a fan of the name “Mitt.”
As the comedian paced the stage on a Friday night in mid-October, his riffs on Governor Romney, “La Bamba,” and aging went over well with the audience, a group of mostly 30-somethings that filled the venue to capacity. The scene was fairly typical for a New York comedy club on a Friday night—with the exception of the unconventional location of the venue: The Laughing Devil, the only full-time comedy club in New York City outside of Manhattan. Located just two blocks away from the 7 train’s Vernon Boulevard station, The Laughing Devil sits in the heart of Long Island City, the Queens neighborhood just a hop, skip, and a jump over the East River from Manhattan and the unlikely site of a burgeoning comedy scene.
Founded in December 2011 by comedian Steve Hofstetter, a 2002 alumnus of GS, The Laughing Devil is a two-minute walk away from The Creek and the Cave, a Mexican restaurant and performance space that currently hosts nearly 100 comedy shows a month. Forming the small but robust core of the neighborhood’s comedy scene, the two venues are joined by The Secret Theatre, a performing arts space that is home to an in-house improvisational comedy troupe, The Queen’s Secret Improv Club; bars and restaurants that regularly host pop-up comedy shows, such as Cranky’s Café and Dominie’s Hoek; and L.I.C. Bar, which hosts a weekly trivia and stand-up night every Thursday. The result, says Hofstetter, is a unique density of entertainment options. “On any given night you can really just walk around the neighborhood and find exactly what kind of comedy show you want to go to. The only other place in the city you can do that is Bleecker Street. It’s kind of amazing.”
Comedy’s setting up shop in Long Island City was mostly a product of chance. In January of 2008, Rebecca Trent, the owner and former bartender of The Creek and the Cave, reoriented the space’s programming entirely around comedy. Trent explains, “I wanted to work with my favorite group of artists that I had worked with over the past few years. And my favorite, hands down, were the comedians. Part of the reason why I wanted to work with comedians was because I think that there is an incredible lack of advocacy for them. There’s no retirement plan. There’s no gold watch for them at the end of their stint.”
Hofstetter, meanwhile, decided on the neighborhood for The Laughing Devil’s location only after hitting dozens of dead ends. Hofstetter originally looked for locations in Manhattan, but nothing quite seemed to work. The comedian was living in Long Island City at the time, and it finally occurred to him to open a club in the neighborhood, when an apartment search revealed a slew of commercial spaces. Hofstetter describes it as an “aha” moment: “I started thinking, ‘Wait a second, this could actually work.’”
But like any “scene” that crash lands and takes root in a ghost-of-New-York-past neighborhood, Long Island City’s emerging comedy scene is not solely a product of coincidence. Though Brooklyn often gets the lion’s share of attention when it comes to emerging culture—and the gentrification that accompanies it— Queens has been the site of its own rapid transformation over the past five years.
Once known as a largely industrial area, home to warehouses, factories, and Silvercup Studios (the massive lot where many New York-based shows, from 30 Rock to Gossip Girl, do much of their filming), the neighborhood’s proximity to Manhattan has led to a population boom of young professionals. According to the New York Daily News, the median household income of Hunters Point, a subsection of Long Island City, is now $100,000. The area’s newfound affluence is apparent in Vernon Blvd.’s storefronts: The Laughing Devil shares a block with a realtor advertising apartments in brand-new luxury high-rises, an upscale nail salon, and several thriving bars and restaurants.
Long Island City’s changing demographics and central location make it an ideal spot for a performing arts venue. “Long Island City had the populace without the stuff,” Hofstetter says. “It’s 20,000 people in a quarter of a square mile, it’s very close to Manhattan, Astoria, Greenpoint, and Williamsburg, which is where most comedians live ... and Long Island City’s kind of in the middle of it.” Trent describes her audience as “post-hipster young people,” professionals in their 20s and 30s brought to the neighborhood by both convenience and its increasing cultural capital.
Both Trent and Hofstetter emphasize their venues’ unique roles in the New York comedy scene. The Creek and the Cave charges no cover for its shows and bills itself as a development space where comedians can test out new jokes through events like Permission to Fail, the Creek’s weekly opportunity for comics to perform experimental material. “We make sure that what happens on our stage is always artist-forward,” says Trent. “It’s more about the artists than it is about the audience. And the audience comes along with it.”
Hofstetter and his business partner, Jacob Morvay, market The Laughing Devil as a more traditional comedy experience. “Our brand is clever comedy. Our brand is well-written. We uniformly reject anything hacky,” Hofstetter says, drawing a contrast between The Laughing Devil and larger, tourist-oriented clubs in Manhattan. “Everything from the beers we choose to the original records on our wall is designed to harken back to what comedy used to be.” With its small size and uncensored humor, The Laughing Devil aims for an intimate and cutting-edge vibe reminiscent of classic Manhattan venues like the Comedy Cellar—a far cry from the 400-person theaters many big-name comedians now choose for their performances.
Though The Laughing Devil and The Creek and the Cave both provide the same form of entertainment in the same neighborhood, the two venues occupy separate roles in a thriving area of New York’s diverse performing arts world. Hofstetter sums up The Laughing Devil’s relationship with other neighborhood venues: “Our competition will never be another comedy club, or a comedy venue. Our competition is anything that gets someone to stay home.”
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