While DIY music venues are pretty much done for on the waterfront, a new independent comedy club– run by comics, for comics– has popped up amongst luxury housing and sprawling new developments in Williamsburg. The Experiment Comedy Gallery isn’t located inside a gritty warehouse, but this former furniture store is an equally barebones kind of deal (for now anyway), save for a monochromatic psychedelic window mural.
The space is much closer to the Silent Barn than it is to, say, Caroline’s– and that’s very much intentional– the founder Mo Fathelbab and his artistic director, Eliana Horeczko, are trying to keep ticket prices at a minimum. “If there’s one word to describe what we’re really all about, it’s accessibility,” Eliana explained. “We’re really focused on giving people the opportunity to perform– like, all people, not just a small group.”
While The Experiment Comedy Gallery opened nearly three weeks ago and has already played host to a handful of shows and mics, the grand opening is going down this Friday, October 16. The venue will celebrate with a full night of free shows, starting with an open mic at 5:30 pm. Though most of what’s been stewing at the space, located inside a building at the very edge of Broadway where the street threatens to spill into the East River, has found an audience by word of mouth. “There are so many dads with strollers who come by,” Eliana laughed. She and Mo say they’ve already made meaningful inroads into the neighborhood– babies or no babies the comics are still dropping “f-bombs”– and have even landed the support of The Mayor (aka a guy named Darryl) who “physically drags” people to see the place.
The Williamsburg waterfront is an impressive zone for a little indie comedy venue. Mo and Eliana certainly don’t have the means to buy a condo from the real estate office down the street. “They’re selling condos before they’re even made!” Eliana said. “Can you imagine?” Both of them live in South Brooklyn, so I wondered if the recent closure of nearby DIY venues (285 Kent, Death By Audio, Glasslands, you know the drill) made them nervous. “Vice isn’t here yet,” Mo said. “Vice just wants to be above the bridge. I mean, If they would like to give us money to turn us into the Vice comedy whatever-the-hell…”
Despite being already prepared for a buyout, things aren’t quite rolling at The Experiment just yet. Eliana still referred to it as “a brand new startup,” one that began as a website and a loose show circuit that rotated through various venues– but Mo has been developing the idea for a while. “We were basically putting up shows all over town under The Experiment name before we had an actual hub, and now we have that hub,” Eliana said. “It’s kind of nice because we don’t have to schlep around town to get to the shows we need to go to, it can all just be here.”
It’s may be early in the game, but The Experiment is nevertheless ambitious. “We’re trying to be the stop in Brooklyn,” Eliana explained. The immediate area is weirdly bereft of comedy venues, so they might actually end up being the stand-up venue in Williamsburg at least by default. “Annoyance is up there, but they’re more improv. Not saying you shouldn’t go there, just that we’re not in direct competition with them because we service different needs.”
With The Experiment, the pair are hoping not just to focus more on stand-up, but to defy the existing models out there for comedy in general. “We’re accessible to people who want to make stuff happen– with some clubs there are politics but we’re looking to develop a community of artists, basically,” Eliana explained. “I think the Creek and the Cave have done that really well. People really want to go there and hang out there. We’re trying to create the same thing here, where people feel free to try things, feel comfortable, and have fun.”
But The Experiment is almost nothing like the Creek & the Cave or any other comedy club you’ve been to, for that matter. There’s little emphasis on atmosphere– the place feels like a divorcee’s ad hoc suburban condo, complete with fold-up chairs, vaguely modern furniture, and a purple, sage, and color palette. Gaudy cabaret lamps are scattered around what look like dining room tables. There’s a dry “bar” (but one that’s in keeping with the DIY loose-juice tradition) in the back that looks a bit like an office kitchen and not much else. “We try to keep the overhead low,” Mo explained. Clearly, you’re not supposed to be looking at anything else except what’s on stage.
Mo assured us this will change once the art exhibitions are up. Um, art exhibitions? Yes, hence the term “gallery.” In addition to open mics, stand-up performances, improv, sketches, variety acts, and the like, The Experiment will be hosting gallery shows. “So it’s like art gallery slash comedy theater,” Eliana clarified. It might not surprise you that the first show is dedicated to Colbert-themed work, but not every art show will have such an explicit comedy bent– others will be on the light-hearted, goofy side. The gallery part, to be honest, seems like a bit of an afterthought and it’s clearly comedy that both Eliana and Mo are most passionate about.
Much like their DIY music-venue cousins, The Experiment is aiming to make it feasible for people to come see several shows here a month, even if they’re on a tight budget. “We’re cheaper than going to the movies,” Mo said. As of now, you’ll never drop more than $5 to $15 at the door and some performances are totally free. The model differs from most comedy clubs– instead of making it rain free tickets, The Experiment charges at the door. But on they upside, they say they’ll never invoke drink minimums or bringer shows.
The Experiment is equally interested in keeping performers happy. “We look for ways to compensate people and be competitive because UCB doesn’t pay anybody, the Pit doesn’t pay anybody, and so forth,” Mo explained. As for open-mics, “A lot of places you’ll be asked to throw in $1, throw in $5.”
“And you don’t have to buy a drink even,” Eliana chimed in. “It starts to cost [comics] a lot of money when you have to buy drinks at every mic.”
“It’s a little tough right now in the comedy scene,” Mo admitted. The widespread struggle means it’s important to make open mics (the bread and butter of comics who are starting out or trying new material) not only free of admission, but also free of other obstacles for performers and attendees alike.
In tweaking the traditional way of way of doing things, the Experiment is ultimately trying to make comics feel more comfortable about taking the initiative. “I’m trying to create an open-arms environment where people feel free to come pitch stuff,” Eliana explained. “Some of these comics, they’re not really business people, they don’t know everything about promoting which stresses them out sometimes– yes, we want you to help sell tickets, but there’s not going to be a punishment if you don’t sell them out.”
The space will eventually offer more than just performance opportunities for comics– classes are planned for the near future and The Experiment’s worked out a deal that will give comics the opportunity to broadcast their stuff via Meerkat, an app that Mo called “the new Periscope.” Much like the Silent Barn, they want to utilize the space at all times of day and night in a variety of ways. “At some point down the line we’re going to have a functional cafe back there where people can come to meet up, work on jokes, and collaborate on projects,” Eliana explained. “The space is available for people to film, if they need a location, and we’re also looking to do some community programming for the actual people who live nearby— kids movie screenings and things like that— in the near future, once we get more settled in.”
It’s immediately obvious that both Eliana and Mo are comics– not just in how they banter and dish out lines, but in the way they speak about a scene which they’re clearly neck-deep in. “Right now there are two scenes in New York– you’ve got your Caroline’s and your $50 tickets, and then you’ve got the alt scene, you’ve got UCB, a lot of bars, the Pit, the Annoyance and so forth,” Mo explained. “And given our backgrounds, we know what we like and what we don’t like about those places.”
Mo, a UCB vet, lived in Brooklyn some years ago before moving out to LA. He put in some time at the NerdMelt Showroom where he met Eliana, who was working as a producer for the comic Greg Fitzsimmons’ various radio shows. They both moved back to New York City recently. “I have so much more stuff to write about here than I did in California,” Eliana laughed.
The Experiment, as the name implies, is looking to shake things up and get away from what Eliana referred to as the “seven dudes telling jokes,” model. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s a lot of that in the city,” she explained “We want it to be different, that’s why when people come in with a show idea we ask them to give us something besides just a straight-up stand-up lineup– they all either have an angle, or it’s improv, or it’s sketch, or variety.”
Eliana says she aspires to make The Experiment the go-to venue for new material, fresh projects, and especially stuff seen as too out-there for more traditional venues. “These are things people have wanted to try and when they’ve reached out to places the response is, ‘That’s a little… much for us.’ So we’re like ‘Great! Let’s do it here.’”
Though Mo and Eliana’s experiences as comics as clearly making this a comic-centric venue, almost a clubhouse of sort, their respective backgrounds as people who happen to be non-white and non-male also inform how things are done around here.
“My family is from the Middle East and she’s a female comedian who’s had to deal with certain ceilings,” Mo said, nodding toward Eliana. “I think we come in with different perspectives than your typical club owner or typical comedian– we know that we have to work ten times as hard just to get halfway. There’s no bitterness to it, it’s just an acknowledgment of the struggles our peers are facing.”
The Experiment, then, will be an easy-access place for comics like Mo and Eliana.”We’re trying to do more to support females in comedy,” Eliana cited several all-women projects in the works, and many of the current lineup of mics and rotating shows are run by women. “I find that those are the more well-attended shows,” she said.
Mo agreed: “Women aren’t getting their shots at other places, some places are blind to that particular issue and others are a bit more complacent, but with our mics– which we do every day, except for Sundays– only two of them are run by men. All the stand-up mics are run by women and the improv jam is rotating.”
Eliana said her experience as a woman in comedy has been challenging.”We’re used to seeing white dudes in comedy, there are definitely some funny white dudes. I’m not saying there are not. But as a lady comic, there are often one or two lady comics on a show,” she said. “I happen to have made friends with people who book more mindfully and try to make it an even number of men and women on a show.”
Improv, which Eliana left behind for stand-up, was particularly frustrating– groups were overwhelmingly male and she was often cast in less than complex roles. “I was always the girlfriend, or the little sister,” she recalled. “I was always dumb and getting yelled at.”
But, Eliana said she believes things are getting better for women. “I think among anyone who’s chosen comedy as their thing, those people tend to have a high amount of social anxiety. I don’t know if a lot of these men are treating women the way they do because they think women are beneath them, or if it’s because they don’t know how to handle women because they are completely awkward in social situations. The awkwardness makes them really, really good comics,” she said. “And despite what women have stacked against them, there are still women who kick through it– I’ve seen a lot of women who I really admire and they do it graciously, they do great work and they’re not jerks.”
Comedy’s overwhelming whiteness and maleness (and pronounced segregation, for that matter) has been a major concern for a while, but is maybe the most talked about issue in the field right now. But while UCB was recently called out for its “diversity problem,” Mo argued that some major shifts are happening away from the traditional routes to success in comedy, and that women and people of color are at the forefront of this pattern of innovation.
Mo pointed to Colleen Ballinger, a self-made YouTube sensation whose character Miranda Sings sold out Madison Square Garden. “The people who are doing the best stuff right now are women and people of color,” he said. “The biggest comedians on YouTube are women– that’s what women are succeeding at, they are literally taking a sledgehammer and changing the rules of the way you climb up the ladder to entertainment success. You do a minimum of bar shows, if you get into a small room then you get into the big room, and then you do the Comedy Store, and maybe there’s a producer– no, all that has been thrown out the window, thanks to the internet and the people who are figuring that out are the people who have been marginalized in entertainment.”