When The Experiment Comedy Gallery opened last fall, just steps from a fast-changing corner on the Williamsburg waterfront where Broadway meets Kent Avenue, it was a little surprising to hear that a DIY comedy club catering to up-and-coming standups and underrepresented comics was setting up shop in an area that, strangely, seems to be shriveling up as it hurdles toward major development. “Vice isn’t here yet,” joked The Ex’s founder, Mo Fathelbab, when we first met last October. That might have been true, but the luxury developments were definitely there already– and funny thing was, the venue was actually located on the ground floor of one such condo building, Broadway Riverview, which had been around since the start of the Williamsburg condo boom.
Originally constructed in the 1920s, the building was recently described by one listings agency as “a splendid example of early 20th century architectural splendour.” In 2005 a “boutique-building”-style revamp was completed, assuring everything was “lavishly appointed,” and condos went up for sale.
“They’re selling condos before they’re even made!” marveled The Experiment’s artistic director Eliana Horeczko, offering her view of their corner of Williamsburg when we met last year. “Can you imagine?”
As it turned out, those condo dwellers had a hard time “imagining” a comedy venue on their ground floor. But that might have all turned out for the best– now, the Experiment has found a new place that’s much more their DIY speed.
The Experiment’s former stomping grounds on Broadway ia major hotbed for development– the new Vice offices, actually, aren’t too far north; Eliot Spitzer’s three-tower, 850-unit project is underway immediately to the west; and if you haven’t noticed, just beyond that lengthy fence stretching up nearby Kent Avenue is the friggin’ enormous Domino development. It all makes for an incessant pounding of drills, crazy truck traffic, and a feeling of generalized anxiety– even if you’re just passing through on your bike. At the same time, the area manages to feel eerily desolate sometimes– to the point where someone getting rid of last year’s bag full of jewels (blood diamonds are sooo kitsch now) could hit you in the face with their rubbish, killing you instantly, and there’d be no witnesses. That explains why, even though I knew exactly where The Experiment was located, each time I made my way there for a show, I felt like I was going the wrong way. In many ways, the club was the only pulse of life in this dead zone.
In spite of the sorta creepy location, for a time, The Experiment found a way to cram people into their barebones venue with decor befitting a suburban basement where mom sometimes drinks Chardonnay alone in the dark. Actually, there were plenty of “dads with strollers” stopping by but, for the most part, the place was packed with diverse audiences who came in from other parts of Williamsburg– and all over the city, really– to check out the open mics and diverse comedy shows. These included an all-Muslim-comic showcase called Hilarious Muslims, and Affirmative Laughter organized by Elsa Waithe, a well-known Black Lives Matter activist (who recently made the cover of the Post). While the place was definitely DIY, it managed to attract attention from comedy bigwigs and even garnered a troll following when Fathelbab managed to piss off some Donald Trump supporters with his “Donald Trump Special,” which meant free admission for anyone who could prove they were Muslim by reciting the Al-Fatiha, or the first chapter of the Quran.
But just five months after the club opened, Fathelbab took to Facebook and, thanking everyone “who supported the venue from day one,” announced that it would be moving out by the end of March. “I’m so very sorry that I couldn’t succeed in keeping the space in its now old location,” he wrote. “It was a decent run but it was marred with drama since the day I got the keys to the front door. At least that part is done with.”
Unfortunately, the reality was that what made The Experiment great also made them stick out like a sore thumb in an increasingly homogenous neighborhood– but was that the reason why they left? “We started having issues with certain residents who just don’t want a comedy venue at all in the area,” Mo explained. “Then it became an issue with the condo board.”
The building at 20 Broadway houses a mix of condos, retail space, and rentals– studio apartments alone were going for $6,500 a month and, last month, a two-bedroom was filled for $4,800 (according to StreetEasy). Meanwhile, condos (including one sold this year) went for around $1 million. Surprisingly, Fathelbab wasn’t priced out, but says he was pushed out. “We were not welcome at some point,” he said.
The Experiment had signed a lease on the ground-floor commercial unit on Broadway with a management company Mo knew simply by the building’s name, Broadway Riverview (records indicate another name, 81 Broadway Management Corp). Turns out that his rent was going to one of the city’s most influential real estate players, Louis Silverman of G4 Development Group, who developed the property in the early 2000s along with a slew of other Williamsburg buildings. (Silverman also had his hand in a new Italian restaurant called Barano, located just across the street on Broadway.) The management company had a seat on the condo board, so when the residents started to complain, Mo said that the landlord hammered out new rules for the venue like earlier closing times. Mo assumed that his landlords would come to his defense. According to him, that wasn’t the case.
“None of that was in our lease, it was stuff we’d never agreed to,” he explained. “So the cops would be called at six at night because improv shows were happening.”
We reached out to Guy Pickrell, a resident of 20 Broadway for the last eight years and head of the condo board for his side of the story. “The landlord, who is the owner of the [commercial] units, he’s not allowed to serve alcohol in that unit,” Pickrell explained. “We have these bylaws that we decreed 10 years ago, so it was frustrating for many because they thought, well, it’s a comedy club, there’s going to be a bar and all the rest of it. The unit has no soundproofing, and it’s not set up for that kind of thing, certainly in our opinion, anyway.”
Immediately after the Experiment moved in, another resident approached Fathelbab, concerned about what the comedy venue would entail. Pickrell, as the condo board representative, stepped in. “So he and I had a conversation that was really very positive, and [Fathelbab] told me that he had no intention to sell alcohol,” he laughed. “I don’t know how, but he was going to be the first comedy club that I ever heard of that was going to do without it. But of course, that was nonsense– and in the end, it’s fair to honestly say he made no friends in our building. It’s very difficult with the people who live above and have a job, and after living there for ten years find that they can’t sleep after a certain time.”
Mo recalled that another condo owner, a neighbor of Pickrell’s who lived immediately above the club, complained about the club’s clientele. “The guy above us had issues with some of the people being there– mainly, people who are not white,” he explained. “He and I had words, it became a whole thing.”
Pickrell sympathized with Fathelbab somewhat about the complaints made against the club, saying he’s fully aware of what it takes to run a comedy venue, and that he wasn’t against the Experiment per se. “We’ve had this issue with the landlord before, where he hasn’t actually bothered to tell the people moving in– he expects them to read the small print, I guess.” The condo owner pointed to a previous tenant at the 20 Broadway retail space, who seemed “entirely unaware” of the bylaws existence. “So that led to some issues previously with the same unit,” he explained. “That’s why I wanted to make sure that [Mo], before he invested a lot of money in this place that he understood that, really, there were a lot of restrictions on the unit and it potentially wasn’t going to be good for a comedy club.” Pickrell claims that, even after making Mo aware of the restrictions that the club owner’s landlord had agreed to, “He assured me that his business plans included none of these things– but that was patently inaccurate.”
According to Mo, the board began issuing fines for arbitrary and even trumped-up violations and he decided it was time to leave after feeling compelled to do so by the “drama” with the condo board. But Pickrell insisted otherwise. “Our overtures, and the fact that he was serving alcohol even without a license, seemed to count for naught. There were simple, very clear rules, he broke them all– even then, that wasn’t what forced him out,” he said. “The truth behind his departure was that he wasn’t paying his rent, in my understanding, at least that’s what the landlord told us.” (G4 could not be immediately reached for comment.)
Mo, however, denies this. “They’re conflating rent with fines. I didn’t want to pay the fines,” he said. Regardless of how the Experiment ended up in their position, the fact was that 20 Broadway became more stressful than it was worth. After moving out at the end of March, Fathelbab took “a month-long hiatus” before signing on a new spot. The transition was made smoother by Elsa Waithe, who started a GoFundMe and helped raise just over $2,500 for the venue’s relocation. On the campaign website, she praised The Experiment as “a safe haven” for women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups in comedy. “The space has allowed me to grow as a comedian, and allowed me to connect to other comedians in a collaborative way,” she wrote. “This is a story I have heard echoed from others.”
In May, the Experiment reopened at 272 Grand Street, not too far from their first location and still within the Williamsburg area. But aside from proximity, the place has a completely different vibe, one that’s way more fitting of a DIY comedy club.
I stopped by recently for the Zen Boogie Comedy Show (hosted by Irene Fagan Merrow) and almost walked right past the place, and it was definitely not for the same reason I always had trouble finding 20 Broadway. The Experiment is now occupying a clandestine basement unit below Midway Bar– a dive with a pool table, Big Buck Hunter, and cheap drinks. Until recently, the space housed a punk venue called Tiger Lounge, which clearly left some good juju, because the comedy club is thriving in their new location. “You just missed Ilana Glazer,” Mo told me right after I walked inside. Zen Boogie, which happens every third Monday of each month (next show is July 18), is just one of the many showcases happening every night of the week, along with free open mics.
While their first location was marred by conflict, Mo insisted that everything’s squared away at their new spot. “We’re under 75 occupancy and we don’t sell alcohol– we don’t make people pay for it– we’re cool with the bar upstairs, we’re cool with everyone on the block, we don’t even have noise issues.”
The vibe is noticeably a little freer at the Experiment’s second iteration too, making it way more conducive to their DIY ethos, as a place where the most expensive shows are $10 (though most are $5 or less). Plus there are no stress-inducing drink limits– the kind that soil your wallet and pickle your brain, leaving you useless, broke, and therefore unattractive and starved of human affection. Sure, the surroundings are a new level of stripped-down, but that just means there are fewer distractions from what’s happening on stage (in this case, “stage” is a very loose term), and fewer obstructions between you and the performer– figuratively, and literally speaking. All of which makes the Experiment feel way more, dare I say it, punk than it originally let on– even the original murals Mo commissioned are the drippy, gritty kind, not the stuff you’re going to see on the walls of some fancy restaurant. In other words, the body is starting to reflect the brain within.
Stay tuned to the venue’s Facebook page for nightly happenings, and check out The Zen Boogie Comedy Show happening Monday July 18, 9:30 pm at The Experiment Comedy Gallery, 272 Grand Street. Check out the full calendar of shows here.