Alumni spotlight: Noam Dworman L’87
From the Penn Law Journal Summer 2014 issue.
Did you hear the one about the witty musician who turned a tomb of a room into one of the hottest comedy clubs in New York?
Leave it to Noam Dworman L’87, an enterprising guy who loves to banter with comics almost as much as he loves to fill his venue.
Even if you’ve never stepped foot in Greenwich Village, there’s still a good chance you’re familiar with the iconic marquee of The Comedy Cellar.
In the opening credits of FX’s hit “Louie,” comedian Louis CK can be seen ambling down the steps of the Macdougal Street club, en route to perform a set. The show typically starts with the famed comic pacing around the club’s stage, his shadow traversing the brick wall behind him. For a few minutes, he delivers joke after joke, riffing on everything from the pressures of being a girl to ducks.
With more than a million viewers, each episode of “Louie” gives the Comedy Cellar a level of exposure that most clubs can only dream about. And that’s a rather impressive achievement for a venue that was a relative latecomer to New York’s venerable comedy scene.
The Comedy Cellar opened in 1980, long after venues such as the 1960s-era Improv set the tone. But the Comedy Cellar made comic hay just the same, earning sell-out after sell-out of its 115-seat room as well as a string of accolades including Best Comedy Club from The Village Voice — all thanks to the enterprise of Dworman, who took over the club from his father, Manny, and has guided it to fame and fortune. No surprise given Dworman’s business acumen and entertainment pedigree.
Dworman really isn’t your typical suit and tie business owner. He’s a witty musician who loves comedy, and even though he’s never done stand-up, he genuinely enjoys spending time and trading barbs with comics.
“I’m funny off-stage, but stand-up is much more challenging than just having a good sense of humor,” says Dworman, who has been a comedy fan ever since his childhood, looking up to the likes of Richard Pryor and George Carlin.“I think that stand-up is the most difficult and challenging of the arts. You are exposed, all by yourself on the stage. If you don’t have the audience laughing, you still have to continue.”
The New York native has been entrenched in the entertainment world ever since his formative years. His father was a legendary figure on the Village arts scene who made his name as a club owner and musician. In 1960, he opened Cafe Feenjon, a popular Middle Eastern nightclub which featured music six nights a week.
For the Dworman clan, music always came first. His father, who passed away in 2004, was a musician, and Noam plays guitar, bass, piano, mandolin — even the oud, which is a multi-stringed instrument popular in Middle Eastern music.
With this kind of musical acumen, a natural question begs: Why comedy?
“It was really an accident,” says Dworman of the establishment of The Comedy Cellar. “We were mainly a music club and we had this empty room. It was in the cellar, a small room. And Bill Grundfest, a comedian and friend of Paul Reiser’s who later went on to be the head writer of Mad About You, made an offer to my father to have comedy there where they would split the door and the profits from the bar. That’s how it started.”
Unlike the meteoric success of The Improv and Catch a Rising Star, Dworman says The Cellar was a “minor room” in its early years.
However, after a self-described explosion of popularity that spiked in the late 90s, The Cellar would ultimately become a must-visit for comedy fans.
Every night of the week, comedy fans have the chance to catch at least two shows at The Cellar. On Fridays, there are five shows at the Macdougal Street and Village Underground venues (The Village Underground is a spin-off that opened right around the street last year.) On Saturday there are six shows. Each show features a showcase style, with five comics typically performing. On any given night, the lineup at The Cellar can read like a Who’s Who of the Comedy World. Name any big time comic and chances are they’ve been by Macdougal Street to do a set — from Chris Rock to Ray Romano to Jerry Seinfeld, who filmed part of his 2002 documentary Comedian at the club.
As Dworman notes, despite being surrounded by comedy’s biggest stars on a daily basis, there’s a lot that goes into running The Cellar.
“It’s not glamorous,” says Dworman. “You have to deal with employees. There’s making the efforts to comply with state, city government, and federal government inspections. You have to make sure you’re in constant compliance with the laws. And then there’s answering all of the e-mails sent to the club. I’m involved with every detail of the club. It’s the same as managing any restaurant, except we also have comedy.”
When it comes down to it, Dworman says the hardest part of the job isn’t marketing or customer service or economics. It’s maintaining relationships with the comedians who work his club, such as doing everything possible to help Louis CK when he needs to film his show at The Cellar.
“The biggest challenge is to be a diplomat and produce the best relationship you can with the comedian,” says Dworman.
“It takes a careful mind and a careful mouth. You can never be phony, because they can sniff that out. You have to be gracious.”
When it comes to the competition, Dworman has no shortage of venues he’s up against. From the other New York clubs to music halls and arenas, competing in the comedy business may look daunting to the casual observer. In recent years, a number of clubs have closed across the country, making The Cellar’s continued run of success all the more impressive.
But when asked about his club’s key to success, Dworman says it boils down to necessity and reputation.
“As opposed to music, stand-up requires an audience to practice,” says Dworman.
“Guys like Seinfeld and Louis CK still need to go to clubs. And comedy will always draw.”
Cellar regular Myq Kaplan is one of those comics, someone who will go to the club even when he’s not performing. The Last Comic Standing finalist says that The Cellar is a venue like none other, a by-product of management, comic quality, and consistently great audiences.
“The Comedy Cellar is one of the most prestigious comedy clubs in New York City, the country, and the world, I would say, and deservedly so,” says Kaplan.
“Comics like it because it’s well-run, a great environment for comedy, consistently packed with excellent audiences, and a real fun place to hang with peers, friends, and comedic heroes. They’ve been doing it right for a long time, so it’s a pleasure to perform, watch shows, or just hang out at The Cellar.”
There’s a rather organic quality to The Cellar, says Dworman. He says the room is the right size and has appealing aesthetics, from a low stage to an iconic brick wall, making it the ideal breeding ground for a night of comedy.
Yet there’s one special thing The Cellar offers which no one else can: The Table. In fact, it’s the presence of this table in the upstairs restaurant that many attribute to the Cellar’s level of success, as it draws in big name comics. And, of course, that brings in big crowds.
“The Table has become its own draw,” Dworman says.
A simple looking piece of furniture on the surface, there’s a certain aura to “The Table.” It’s become one of the most well-known parts of the club’s legend. In fact, a podcast named “The Comedy Cellar: Live From the Table” was spawned by this famous gathering spot. And the Comedy Central TV show Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn was inspired by discussions of The Table.
“A comedian will do a spot and immediately make his way over there. When Chris Rock comes in, half the time he performs, half the time he just comes to The Table. Gilbert Gottfried will come by once a week just to go to The Table.”
For a lifelong comedy fan, this would appear to be the dream job. On a daily basis, you get the chance to see the greatest comedians in the world perform at your club. While that’s a thrill, Dworman says he gets an even bigger kick from the opportunity to have conversations with some of the greatest comic minds around.
“By far it’s the interaction with comics,” Dworman says of his favorite part of the job.
“I love hanging out with them. They talk about politics, about things going on in the world, whatever topics are hot. The conversations are refreshingly honest.”
Andrew Clark is a Boston-based freelance writer.