The Venue Review: The Pittsburgh Improv

We’ve talked a lot about the gritty backstage factories where comedy is forged and refined.  But after it’s packaged up and loaded onto the trucks at the distribution center, where does comedy go?  It needs a showroom, a bright floor that will allow the audience to see what comedy can be at its absolute best.

Pittsburgh’s biggest and best comedy stage is the Improv.  Located in Homestead on the banks of the Monongahela river, the Improv is preferred stop for many of the nation’s biggest comedy acts.  On any given weekend you could see a TV star, a Saturday Night Live alum, or a proven road comedian (aka “Drunk”).  I’ve worked with people that I could never have imagined even meeting before starting to do comedy.  Since I’m insecure, I will name a few: Pauly Shore, Jon Lovitz, Jim Breuer, Bill Burr, Billy Gardell and Charlie Murphy.

It’s an awesome venue and stage. Since I started doing open mics there when I was 21, I’ve gathered comedy knowledge and wisdom from some of my childhood idols. -Terry Jones

Perhaps the biggest contribution that the Improv has to offer the comedy scene is a pathway.  I’ve seen literally hundreds of comedians in the past 6 years that have never made it past the stage of an open mic at a dive bar.  The Improv somehow offers a light at the end of that smokey tunnel.  In a lot of ways, getting in the starting line-up of opening and feature comedians at the Improv means that a performer’s skills have reached another level.  It’s like getting called up from Triple A to the big leagues.  When you get booked to work at the Improv, you know that you’ll be performing for over a thousand people over the course of a weekend.  You have to fill out a W-2 form before you get paid at the club, which means one thing: you are officially a professional comedian.

And now a break down of the weekend shows at the Improv by Mike Wysocki:

ThursdayCrowds are usually light.  Its like a run through for the weekend.  Usually a good, more laid back feel.  Nice way to start off the weekend.

FridayEarly shows are packed, lots of old people and parents getting away from their bratty kids.  Late shows are tough for a performer. They start at 10 so the audience is already drunk and tired.  Getting people to pay attention and be quiet and not yawn can be a challenge.   

SaturdayThis is what you live for as a comic.  Saturday night, fired up crowds and the late show at 9 isn’t too late.  Incredible. 

Sunday: Sort of a wind down.  It’s usually for people that weren’t able to make it to the Friday or Saturday shows. 

There’s one thing about the Improv that can annoy comedians (including myself).  Almost every comedian fancies themselves a philosopher in a way.  We believe that by pointing out the stupid, the hypocritical and the incongruent we can somehow make a reverberating ripple on this tainted blue orb we call Earth.  “We can change them!”  The thing about audiences at the Improv is that they rarely give a crap about your “point.”  They don’t want to be told why they should support Green Architecture.  They don’t want to be told about why abortion is immoral.   They just paid $45 for tickets and $20 for a bucket of Heineken because they want to blow off some steam.  So it can be frustrating when you unveil a little piece of fragile artistry to the 300+ audience members and are met with silence. But cut them a break, they’re there to laugh for God’s sake!

It’s a great room when it’s filled and a difficult and intimidating one when it’s not.  You really have to earn it with every audience, but if they like you, then there’s nothing better.  – Bill Crawford

I owe practically every accomplishment in my comedy career to the Improv.  It’s my home club.  It’s the best club.   So we all need to support it.  Let’s fill those seats.

When: Open Mic’s on every other Wednesday.  Weekend shows usually run Thursday-Sunday

Where: Homestead (you can call it the Waterfront if that makes you feel better)

Drinks: Two-drink minimum

Feature: Top touring comedians from stage and screen

Attire: I guess two-levels down from what you think would be appropriate to wear to a Samba Club?  Or one level up from anything you’d wear to your nephew’s birthday party?

Parking: Right by Macy’s under the bridge

Cover Charge: You’re looking at a pretty expensive night.  But you get what you pay for, which is the most top-notch comedy product that the city has to offer.

The Venue Review: The Pleasure Bar

So football season is over, WWE Monday Night Raw is getting stale (they’re pushing Randy Orton…again), and you’re bored.  Where do you go?  Why not try heading down to Bloomfield, Pittsburgh’s Little Italy, for a nice little taste of open-mic comedy?  The Pleasure Bar on Liberty Avenue is the first open mic of the long week for struggling comedians.

It might be my personal favorite mic of the week.  Some of my best jokes have been enormously improved at the Pleasure Bar, either on stage, or in conversation work-shopping with the city’s funniest and most committed young comics. – John Winters

Bloomfield is one of those charming neighborhoods that straddles the line of sketchy and bohemian so well.  The bars are quaint.  The food is excellent.  But maybe don’t park your car 5 blocks away from the main drag.  It draws in a very mixed crowd.  Cool hipsters, blue-collar types, and  the occasional Italian Men’s Bocce League.

Seriously.  I had to perform in front of 50 septuagenarians who had just finished eating a five-course pasta explosion.  Bruno Samartino was supposedly going to be in the audience for that one.  Thank God he wasn’t.  I couldn’t bear to have the man who sold out Madison Square Garden 187 times listen to my jokes about what it’d be like if I went to prison.

Inside the side room of the Pleasure Bar for the Roast of Danny Palumbo

Inside the side room of the Pleasure Bar for the Roast of Danny Palumbo

The audience is sometimes made up of girlfriends and other comics.  But Spring seems to be the best time for Pleasure Bar audiences, college students and such. Aaron Klieber is a great host, way cooler than that F*%% face who hosts Beerhive. The atmosphere at Pbar is fun, loose, and very welcoming (outside of John Winters). – Shannon Norman

Crazies do come out at night and some of them decide to perform. Host Aaron Kleiber has had to wrangle in his fair share of psychos and otherwise incoherent people trying comedy for the first time.  However, that’s what’s great about the Pleasure Bar.  It’s usually your first chance to see someone trying comedy for the first time.  I saw the following comedians for the first time ever at the Pleasure Bar: Shannon Norman, Alex Stypula, John Winters, and Tim Ross.

I think this is something that more people would enjoy seeing.  A comedian being born.  The Pleasure Bar is almost like an incubation room.  It’s a warm environment where comedians can be nourished and fed and sleep sometimes.

When: Mondays at 8:00

Where: Bloomfield

Drinks: Nothing special, just everything.

Feature: Best food at an open-mic in Pittsburgh (tight race with Hambone’s though)

Attire: You’re good.  Don’t worry about it.

Parking: Can be tricky.  You can usually find on on Liberty, but one street back should be enough for an opening.

Cover Charge: Zip

Cone of Ignorance


Last night at the Improv I witnessed a relatively shocking phenomenon, something I haven’t seen in a long time: I saw a great comedian get booed.  Actually booed.

It all started because one group of idiots literally spoiled the entire crowd.  They were drunk, loud, and unbelievably ignorant.  They talked the entire time during the opener’s time and continued on through the feature’s act.  Their disruptive behavior ended up infecting the other audience members as well.  I recalled a Simpsons episode that described a Cone of Ignorance for any student sitting near Bart.



This group of careless morons was at the epicenter.  Needless to say, other audience members fell into the Cone.  And despite solid, quality jokes being told on stage, they just weren’t mentally capable of listening.  Soon enough, their ignorance became vocalized.  Luckily management approached the group several times and they finally left.  But not without trying to prove their point to the manager.



“So you’re just supposed to sit there and be quiet while the comedian is up there talking?  And you’re just supposed to listen??” 



That is an actual quote from a girl in the party that was getting kicked out.

I know the Improv is essentially in the customer service business.  And generally speaking, the customer is always right.  But to be honest, I’m glad those people had a bad experience, because they’re not the type of people you want back at a comedy show.



So to that group of people, I only have this to say:





The Venue Review: The Arcade Comedy Theater



For as long as I can remember, downtown Pittsburgh never had a centrally located comedy club.  There was the Funnybone over in Station Square and the Improv in Homestead.  Yet iconic Pittsburgh streets like Boulevard of the Allies, Penn and Liberty Avenues remained clubless.  Sure there were grand theaters and small stages.  But those were reserved for stuffy productions of Oklahoma and college poetry slams.  No comedy in the bunch.



Now there is the Arcade Comedy Theater.  Located on 8th and Liberty, the new club has already garnered a lot of attention from the Pittsburgh Press.  It’s part of the overall revival of the Theater District and is a welcome addition to the rotation of comedy stages.  The collective vision of Jethro and Kristy Nolen, Mike Rubino, Abby Fudor and Randy Kirk was to provide an interactive platform for audiences to experience forms of theatrical comedy, from proven standards to off-beat styles.  Their opening weekend featured YouTube Sensation Pittsburgh Dad, Improv troupe Player One, touring magician Lee Terbosic, and stand up comedy from Sean Collier, Gene Collier, and me.



It’s an intimate room.  It feels entirely different from a comedy club.  The Arcade has that “you never know what you might see” feel to it. – Lee Terbosic

The space of the Arcade has a unique vintage feel.  With old tin ceilings, low lighting and bring-your-own-booze policy as the backdrop, it elicits images of speakeasies and flag-pole sitting.  However, The Arcade’s 20’s style architecture is contrasted by its Atari inspired brand of interior decorating.  The bright accents of the décor, the posters of old Nintendo games and the 8-bit soundtrack that plays before and after the show off provide the details necessary to make it a memorable spot.

When: Weekends

Where: Downtown Pittsburgh (8th and Liberty)

Drinks: BYO-freaking-B!!

Feature: Variety show feel.  Slanted towards Improv and Sketch

Attire: Middle Class Portland

Parking: Smithfield and Liberty

Cover Charge: $5-20 depending on the act.  I can’t stress this enough though.  It’s BYOB.  You’d spend twice that amount if you decided to go to a bar instead.

The Venue Review: The Corner Cafe


When one thinks of the SouthSide of Pittsburgh, one’s thoughts immediately go to beer-hungry droves of repressed Duquesne students dragging their self-respect through the gutters of their parents nightmares (deep breath).   Nevertheless, it’s easily the city’s most bumping scene for alcohol, independent music shows, and gyro consumption.  But up 18th street, right as the Southside starts to blend into Mt. Oliver, sits the Corner Cafe.

I think the room at the corner may provide for one of the best atmospheres for an audience to see comedy in the city. The room is intimate and separate from the bar allowing people who actually want to sit down and enjoy a show to do so without the distractions of people who are only there to get their drink on. – Ray Zawodni

To put it in movie terms, the Corner Cafe is like the barn that Rocky Balboa trains in during the 4th movie.  When you walk in, you expect to see a bunch of coal miners quietly sharing a drink after a double-shift.  Past the pool table, you’ll find one of the best set up rooms on the Pittsburgh Comedy scene.  The room is narrow, has low ceilings, and shines a bright spotlight on the small stage.  It’s a gritty, smokey training ground for comedians strengthening their set lists.  Many of my favorite jokes have been born at the Corner Cafe.

I like the fact that 15-20 is a great crowd.  – Tom Kupiec

Let’s be honest, getting audience members to drive up the Southside Slopes is not the easiest task in the world.  However if even 15 actual audience members show up, it can be an unbelievable show.  Plus the Corner is probably the closest thing to the Comedy Cellar that Pittsburgh has to offer.  Big local names like Jim Krenn and Gene Collier have been known to pop in for a set.  I was lucky enough to be on a show at the Corner when CBS star and Pittsburgh native Billy Gardell dropped in for a warm-up set prior to his Comedy Central special taping.  My friends Terry Jones and Tim Dimond have recorded their respective headlining sets there too.

For me, the bottom line is that the Corner Cafe is truly a place where freedom of speech reigns supreme.  It’s dark, brimming with jokes, and beautifully anonymous.  When you come to a show, you know you’ll be hearing some real talk and some raw emotion.

When: Every Friday night at 8:30

Where: Southside Slopes 18th Street

Drinks: Cheap as all hell.

Feature: Blue Collar Authenticity

Attire: Jaromir Jagr jersey and Wranglers

Parking: 18th Street

Cover Charge: $5 donation