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Just for laughs: Comedy in WNY

In early August, the googly eyes of the comedy world were squarely focused on Jamestown.

Festivities surrounding the grand opening of the National Comedy Center museum drew thousands of fans as well as big-name comedians to town to celebrate the history and relevance of comedy as an art form.

But for local aficionados, the museum also represents just one more go-to destination in Western New York’s thriving comedy scene.

Looking for a few laughs on a night out? No matter what your sense of humor, there is a robust list of clubs and theaters that offer standup comedy, improv shows or opportunities for aspiring comedians to try their hand on stage during open mic nights.

With big venues such as KeyBank Center, Shea’s Performing Arts Center, and Seneca Niagara Casino, Western New York attracts some of the nation’s top-grossing touring comedians, such as Amy Schumer, Larry The Cable Guy, Kevin Hart, Jeff Dunham, and Sebastian Maniscalco. The area also attracts household names like Colin Quinn, George Lopez, Mike Birbiglia, and others to its more traditional comedy clubs such as Rob’s Comedy Playhouse and Helium Comedy Club.

“Those guys are killing it right now,” said Rob Lederman, a veteran Buffalo comedian and owner of Rob’s Comedy Playhouse. “People want to see the celebrity. There will always be a market for that.”

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Clubs also now attract YouTube stars, a new generation of performer who builds a following online and draws them out to attend live performances. In the old comedy paradigm, comedians built their following slowly by playing room after room after room. But now, an internet personality can gain thousands of followers in a single day if a bit goes viral.

“These are people that are not even really in comedy. They’re putting content out on their own, but they’re selling more tickets than some guys who have been doing comedy 10 or 15 years,” said Shawn Eckert, general manager at Helium.

“It’s about constantly giving fans what they want, and not what I want,” said Lederman. “That’s the first thing I learned in comedy. You can’t just book the acts you like, you have to book acts that will work for the club.”

Laughs don’t just come from big-name performers. There is a seemingly endless supply of comedians who live locally or come through town to perform — ranging from veteran comics to up-and-coming stars to those just starting out — filling the area’s event calendars with shows nearly every night of the week. Clubs like Nietzsche’s or Babeville have small, intimate rooms ideal for standup and offer comedy shows on specific nights among their roster of entertainment options.

Regardless of who’s performing and at what venue, there are a couple of characteristics particular to comedy in Western New York. One is that Buffalo crowds, often fueled by their affection for alcohol, tend to be rather boisterous.

“Buffalo is a heartier laugh. When you’re in Buffalo and you do a joke, the laughter hits you. Someplace else, they’ll go, ‘That’s funny,’” said Lederman, whispering as he pantomimes an audience member with his hands clasped over his nose and mouth. “As opposed to Buffalo, they’ll be like, ‘Oh my god!’ and banging on the table.”

Just don’t expect to hear a lot of political jokes. Comics say that, as opposed to huge metropolitan areas like New York or Los Angeles where political viewpoints tend to be more monolithic, Buffalo audiences tend to be balanced between left and right. So political material only serves to split the room.

“I’m very liberal — I wear my blue proudly — but Buffalo is pretty conservative,” said Allie Brady, a Buffalo native who has been doing standup for more than four years. “You can be doing a Trump joke and once you say ‘Trump,’ people start cheering [for him, not the joke]. You can do the same joke in New York or Toronto and people love it.”

The opening of the National Comedy Center can only help the region build on its growing standup market.

“It opens the door for more people to be interested in standup comedy,” said Eckert. “I think any additional attention to comedy is nothing but a positive.”

“Comedy has become the rock and roll of this generation,” Lederman said. “You’re cool if you’re Amy Schumer or Jeffrey Ross. But it’s great to never lose sight of Lenny Bruce. I think it will draw awareness to comedy and the history of comedy and keep all of that alive.”

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