Laughing Matters

The DC Improv celebrates 20 years of nurturing comedy

Front row, from left: Judah Friedlander, Dave Chappelle, Louis C.K., Ellen DeGeneres, Chris Rock; Back row, from left: Cedric the Entertainer, Lewis Black, Jim Gaffigan, Kathy Griffin, Patton Oswalt, Wanda Sykes, George Lopez, David Cross.

From the outside, the DC Improv looks like any other downtown office building. Head down the stairs, however, and you’re transported back to the ’90s. Neon pink lights hang from the ceiling. Bulky old TVs sit on pillars around the room. The stage — which has hosted such comedy luminaries as Dave Chappelle, Louis C.K., Wanda Sykes and Jerry Seinfeld over the years — is in front of a brick wall, the definitive backdrop of standup since time immemorial.

“We know how old-school we are,” says Allyson Jaffe, the club’s manager. “We joke about it.”

Jokes are a comedy club’s lifeblood, of course. But since the 350-seat club opened in 1992, the Improv has meant much more than that. As the club celebrates its 20th year this summer with a slate of special performances by comics including Jim Gaffigan, Bill Burr, Brian and Dennis Regan (performing Thursday) and Mike Birbiglia (closing out the festivities with five shows Aug. 7-9) — the Improv’s devotees have their own theories on the secret behind its staying power.

“There are a good amount of good comedy clubs,” says comedian Todd Glass, who played the Improv for the first time in 1992 and has returned nearly every year since. “There are a good amount of very good clubs. Then, there are a few that are elite: That’s the DC Improv.”

There are Improvs in other cities (D.C.’s is an independent franchise). But the big names who’ve performed at this one over the years agree: The DC Improv just gets it right, from the way the staff treats performers to its willingness to experiment.

There’s also the ceiling.

“This is going to sound bizarre, but it has a low ceiling. Low ceilings are very good for comedy,” says comic Brian Regan, who opened for Ellen DeGeneres during the Improv’s grand opening week in ’92. “I like to perform there because, well, I’m really not very good at all, but the audience is fooled. Whatever little laughter there is bounces all over the place.”

Regan’s a big enough name now that he regularly headlines large theaters. In fact, most of the acts on the anniversary bill could (and do) easily sell out larger D.C. venues. But they’re there because they love the Improv, and it’s loved them.

Bill Burr, seen performing at an anniversary show at the DC Improv on July 10, says his first show there was a career milestone.

“The DC Improv was one of my favorite comedy road rooms when I did clubs,” says Gaffigan, who recorded two albums there, in an email. “It was also the first ‘A’ comedy room I headlined.” For Burr, too, headlining there was a major career milestone. “It was sort of a comedy bucket list thing,” he says. “‘I performed at the DC Improv.’”

The club has always distinguished itself as a booster of up-and-coming talent. No one knows that better than Mike Birbiglia, who worked there as a doorman and house emcee in the late ’90s while studying at Georgetown University. Birbiglia has since become a contributor to “This American Life,” and his film “Sleepwalk With Me” (co-penned with Ira Glass) opens next month.

“Being a doorman at the DC Improv was like going to comedy college,” Birbiglia says. “And not an average one. The best comedy college, because they book hands-down the best comedy shows in the country.”

The club has long had a rep for supporting local comics. In 2003, manager Jaffe started a proper comedy school at the Improv to give aspiring comics a taste of the craft. Virginia-based comic Erin Jackson enrolled in the club’s first stand-up class, starting with a one-day seminar and doing an open-mic night a month later. Within a few years, she was headlining the main stage.

“They pushed me to do things way before I thought I was ready,” Jackson says.

Comedians “are loyal,” says Philadelphia-based comic Chris Coccia, who teaches the club’s stand-up classes. “They’re like puppies. Treat them right at the beginning and they will always be there.”

The same goes for the patrons — which, in this economy, are tough for any business to keep. In the decades since the Improv opened, other D.C. comedy venues have come and gone, including newcomer Riot Act Comedy Theater, which opened last August and folded in June. The Improv isn’t entirely recession-proof itself, either: The club cut Tuesdays from the schedule about five years ago to save money.

“We’ve been here for 20 years and there’s a reason. I can’t give everything away,” Jaffe laughs. “People trust us now. People will still come here just because of the name ‘DC Improv.’ Which is everything we work for.”

The audience at Bill Burr’s anniversary performance July 10.

To that end, the Improv’s been trying new things: The club recently hosted its first podcast taping, a recording of Greg Proops’ “The Smartest Man in the World.”

“We’re learning, and we’re trying to listen to what people want,” Jaffe says. “Sometimes we hit a home run, sometimes [we don’t].”

Jaffe started as a waitress at the club in 1998 and is now a part-owner. She says working there for the past decade and a half has been a dream job. “I love watching people laugh,” she says. “I see people walk in, and they’ve had the worst day, there’s a scowl on their face. And when they leave, it’s gone. To see that transformation is so important.”

The ceiling is part of that, Jaffe says.

“The acoustics of sound are that laughter travels up,” Jaffe says. “With the low ceilings, you may be laughing just because that guy’s laugh over there is great. It’s a vibe and energy that’s coming from the setting.”

At the anniversary show Bill Burr played earlier this month, the comic worked out some new material to a capacity crowd. It was a loose, raw performance — and, at one point, Burr threw his arm into the air and accidentally knocked out a ceiling tile.

“Twenty [expletive] years and they can’t get a real ceiling!” he cracked. There was huge laugh. “They like to keep things original here.”

Cool School

Anyone is welcome to take classes at the DC Improv’s comedy school, but improv instructor Shawn Westfall says one particular D.C. profession is represented more than others. “I generally get a lot of lawyers,” Westfall says. “The lawyers will tell you, ‘My life is miserable, I’m working ungodly hours, I need to leave the office two hours a week and laugh.’”

Allyson Jaffe, the club’s manager and the principal of the comedy school, started the school in 2003 because she “really appreciates people who just want to laugh.” Westfall’s been teaching improv there for nine years; comedian Chris Coccia leads the stand-up classes.

For Westfall, the most rewarding aspect of teaching is seeing people come together. “When those barriers come down and a public school teacher is hanging out with a senior lobbyist at some major firm … That’s when I’m most grateful as an instructor.”

You can register for classes at Dcimprov.com.

In Memory

Tragedy struck the DC Improv family when majority owner Mark Anderson went missing in May. A month later, he was found dead in a hotel room in Arizona. Anderson opened the Improv in 1992, and his loss is a dark cloud over the venue’s 20th anniversary. The cause of death is still unknown, but he had been suffering from paranoia, according to the Washington City Paper. “He really took care of people who loved comedy,” says club manager Allyson Jaffe.

Don’t Miss These Shows

The DC Improv is booked throughout most of 2012, and shows often sell out in advance, so plan ahead.

Aug. 3 & 4: “Saturday Night Live” writer and rising stand-up comic John Mulaney visits the club fresh off his first Comedy Central special, “New in Town.”

Sept. 6-9: Tommy Davidson started his stand-up career in Washington and has been an Improv regular since.

Oct. 11-13: J.B. Smoove, aka Leon Black from “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” always brings the ruckus live.

Nov. 22 & 23: Donnell Rawlings was a regular on “Chappelle’s Show” and also had a notable stint on “The Wire.”

Nov. 29-Dec. 2: Dave Attell has been known to drop in for surprise sets at the Improv when he’s in town; this time he headlines six shows.

DC Improv, 1140 Connecticut Ave. NW; see Dcimprov.com for a full list of shows; 202-296-7008. (Farragut North)
Rudi Greenberg is Express' Weekend Pass editor and comedy columnist.
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