I knew things weren’t going well for Riot Act Comedy Theater when I showed up an hour before showtime to see Ali Wong two weeks ago. For 15 minutes, my girlfriend and I were the only people in the building who didn’t work there. The room would eventually fill in, but it wasn’t close to a sellout. And if Riot Act was to continue surviving, sellouts were what it needed — if not more.
“The business model wasn’t working out,” says Peter Bayne, the venue’s general manager. So it’s with much disappointment, Bayne says, that Riot Act will close Saturday, less than a year after opening. It will reopen July 9 as Penn Social. The rebranding will transform the Penn Quarter space from comedy theater to — essentially — a bar. The stage and open-mic night are sticking around, but the showroom will now host DJs, bands, karaoke and dancing.
Does this mean Washington and comedy don’t mix? Not at all. Bayne says comedy shows sold well, and comics wanted to play there. (Also of note: DC Improv is celebrating its 20th birthday this summer, so it’s not like D.C. doesn’t have a sense of humor.) The problem: When there was no comedy at Riot Act, there was no one there. And that’s just bad for business.