15 Sep 2014
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The New Place for Laughs

Whether it's to dodge the city commute or for the love of a good venue, local funny people are flocking to the burgeoning comedy scene in Gowanus.

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Last month at , a weekly variety show at , Kristen Schaal explained how a comic builds her career.

“It happens in stages,” she said in a cutesy voice.

Then her co-host Kurt Braunohler chimed in: “Yeah, you start off with inanimate object audiences. Our first show was to just a bag of popcorn.”

“And he was a dick,” Schaal huffed. “He was so f***ing quiet. And I know he can be loud. He was loud earlier.”

Schaal and Braunohler may have been burned by a scroogy bag of popcorn when they started their careers in New York 13 years ago, but nowadays they have no trouble getting a rise out of their (human) audiences.

In addition to juggling a myriad of comedic side projects (Schaal played Mel on “Flight of the Concords” and is a correspondent on “The Daily Show”; Braunohler contributes to a handful of online and network projects), the two have hosted a weekly variety show in Manhattan for six years. In August, they moved Hot Tub to Gowanus.

“The show has had a home at a bunch of different places —The Pit, [Upright Citizens Brigade], Comix, Pianos — but I think Littlefield is the perfect home for us and I think we’re happier here than we have been than any location in Manhattan,” Braunohler said.

Braunohler is not alone in his sentiments. Recently, a deluge of big name comedy acts has settled around Gowanus. Along with Littlefield, there’s , the weekly variety show hosted by comedy troupes M.A.D. and Sidecar at the the occasional sidesplitter at , and a variety of open mic comedy nights hosted at Fifth Avenue bars like .

Another big comedic hub is Union Hall in Park Slope, home to Eugene Mirman’s weekly show , Tyler Fischer and Sharron Paul's ever-popular monthly gig and Greg Barris’ monthly music/art/comedy mash-up, Heart of Darkness.

“It’s home,” Paul said. “It’s the perfect venue.”

No matter where the acts are held, each one has it’s own twisted personality. Hot Tub is one part adorable, two parts raunchy, three parts absurd. Gentrify Brooklyn leans toward the warm, conversational, and witty. Mirman’s gig tends to be nice and sarcastic, a tribute to the bleakness of reality. Cheap Date offers a chance to laugh at the sorry underworld of New York’s dating scene. Barris’ show is imaginative and weirdly intimate.

For the most part, a show’s lineup depends on which of the host’s friends are in town that weekend. Reggie Watts (creator of “F***, Shit Stack”) makes the occassional commute from Williamsburg to Union Hall for his (pretty good) friend Eugene Mirman. When L.A.-based comedian Kumail Nanjiani came to town for the weekend, he hit up Union Hall on Sunday and Littlefield on Monday. In other words, the area’s jokester crowd is incestual, comedically speaking — a set-up that tends to bring big names to small venues. Earlier this year at Gentrify Brooklyn, for instance, Jimmy Fallon was a surprise guest.

“He knew some of the performers who were doing a show that night and halfway through their improv set he jumped onstage with them and started improving, which was pretty wild,” Justin Tyler, a hosts of the show, said.

Tyler, who lives in Carroll Gardens and helped start Gentrify Brooklyn three and half years ago said the neighborhood’s comedic revolution is simply an equation of proximity.

 “So many people are doing comedy live in the neighborhood and they want to have a show near their house so they can get up on stage and work on stuff close to home,” Tyler said. “It’s a point of pride if, on a Saturday, you don’t have to leave Brooklyn.”

Barris, who lives in the East Village and favors Union Hall as a venue, has another explanation for the shift to Brooklyn.

“Where are you going to go in the city for a show?” he said. “I can’t think of one where this is like, ‘Oh this is an ideal venue.’ There isn’t a Littlefield in New York City, there isn’t a Bell House equivalent. Because they’ve sort of disappeared.”

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