“Welcome to Philly’s premier ice cream shop and comedy club,” said the young comedian, known as Short Stack. The crowd cracked up inside Manayunk’s Crazy Cow Café.
“This is the only place where comics compete for attention with a blender.”
“Believe me, guys, the blender doesn’t have any good jokes. But its timing is great.”
Cellars, alleys and attics
As Short Stack, and many other comedians, would tell you, stand-up comedy is a tough business. Many comedy clubs operate in cheap spaces temporarily annexed from other more profitable businesses.
Helium, Philadelphia’s premier venue for live comedy, occupies an unassuming ground floor space in a parking garage on Sansom Street.
The Comedy Cabaret hosts stand-up at a Ramada in a strip mall on Roosevelt Boulevard in the Northeast. Now, a new venue finds itself tucked into the attic of an ice cream parlor on Main Street in Manayunk.
“Why do you think so many comedy clubs have ‘cellar’ in their names?” said Alex Grubard, a touring comic originally from New York but now based in Philly. “Street level space is just too expensive. That’s why Crazy Cow is in the attic.”
Comedy in Manayunk
“I had a room upstairs that I wanted to fill,” said Gail Moore, proprietor of the Crazy Cow Café. Soon after Moore started serving ice cream and other treats at 4414 Main Street in late 2013, she went online to cast about for ideas for her extra commercial space upstairs.
Her search brought her to Grubard, who was performing at Helium as part of the Philly’s Phunniest contest. Moore said she was interested in booking a comedian. Grubard went one step further and helped her put together a system to run two shows every weekend in the space.
“I was not interested in running the show myself,” said Grubard, who has held jobs as a bar back, waiter and show booker at comedy clubs while working on his own material.
Grubard instead connected Moore with Jim Korhan who books benefit shows for Comedy Train Rek. “I saw that Jim was very good at learning a room, figuring out how to put together a good show,” said Grubard.
After a few months of discussion they started hosting shows for every Friday and Saturday night. Gradually, booking and emceeing duties were handed over to Abeeku Cobbina, another young local comic. Korhan still stays involved with backend operations, including the club’s finances, promotional materials and improvements, such as a new stage, backdrop and carpeting.
“I’m very picky about the spaces I book,” said Korhan. The key to a successful venue, he said, is having a separate room for comedy. “I booked a show during one of the Flyers playoff games, and it was in a room with a bunch of TVs. People were just annoyed with the comedians.”
Crazy Cow Comedy Club does not have this problem. “Who doesn’t want to have ice cream and laugh!” says Korhan. And if ice cream is not enough lubrication to get the laughs rolling, the Crazy Cow is BYOB.
“I like the intimacy of this space,” said Cobbina. “I like the colors, and the low ceilings. This space has great acoustics.”
A typical weekend
Like every other week, Cobbina booked full shows for last Friday and Saturday nights. Friday night’s show featured host Short Stack, as well as Nicole Yates, Sidney Gantt, Brandie Posey and headliner, Joanne Syrigonakis. The small room, holding about 40 people, felt slightly cramped but full of energy.
Gantt, who headlined the first shows at Crazy Cow on January 9 and 10 of this year, was filling in for a late cancellation.
“Sydney’s my go-to comic,” said Cobbina. During Gantt’s set, a few alcohol-laden women in the front row started interrupting his bit with loud outbursts and interjections. Gantt seamlessly folded the women’s comments into his act.
Short Stack noted the incident demonstrated why comics dread two words more than anything: Bachelorette party.
Syrigonakis, the headliner, said working in small rooms, where confrontations might be more awkward, is worth it. “When a venue is too big it’s hard to connect with the crowd,” she said.
Beyond the ice cream shop
The attic of an ice cream parlor is by no means the strangest place Syrigonakis has performed. She’s told jokes at a bowling alley and in a Fingers, Wings and Other Things fast food joint in rural Pennsylvania while families ordered buckets of fried chicken.
Short Stack does five-minute sets before the Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Ritz Bourse.
Cobbina performed his first set in the Founder’s Garden off of Liacouras Walk on Temple’s campus.
For Syrigonakis, these unorthodox venues mirror the role of comedy in many comedians’ lives.
“Comedy is our weird way of fitting into a world we don’t really fit into,” she said.
Korhan and Grubard see Crazy Cow playing a role in helping young, local comics reach a broader audience.
“Helium usually gets the headlining, national acts,” said Korhan. “In Manayunk we’re taking smaller Philadelphia acts and molding them for Helium and New York City.”
As for Philly’s reputation with stand-up comics as “the scariest place to do comedy,” Nicole Yates, one of Friday’s performers, said the New York media, which helps shape the public’s notion of the city, likes to criticize Philly for things that would go unnoticed if they happened in New York.
“New York sports media and ESPN in particular just jump on Philly horror stories,” of fans behaving badly and disrespecting their sports stars, said Yates. The same spills over into comedy, she said. New York comics who treat their audience poorly in Philly leave with a bad taste in their mouth and share their mistaken impressions with the world.
Grubard, who is originally from New York, disagrees with the city’s critics. “I always describe the Philly audience as educated, blue collar people who appreciate comedy and absurdity.”
Grubard has seen the comedy scene here grow since he first lived in Philly in 2005 and then moved back in 2011.
“I think Philly is great. Hey, I moved from New York to Philly and New York is the mecca of stand-up comedy.”