It’s been a tough few months for the Brooklyn comedy scene. The city has is cracking down on DIY venues in the wake of Oakland’s Ghost Ship fire, world events are throwing a wrench into comedy as a whole (or so the think pieces say) and now our fair borough is saying farewell (for now, at least) to two of its best spaces for new, experimental comedy: Over the Eight and the Annoyance Theatre. With that in mind, we step back and take stock in the past, present and future of Brooklyn’s comedy scene.
Over the past few years, Brooklyn has become quite the hub for comedy. Locally-made web series like Broad City and High Maintenance are major, full-length television shows and local comedians like Sasheer Zamata, Julio Torres and Jo Firestone are making their way to shows like The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live. Meanwhile, back home, two comedy venues, Over the Eight and the Annoyance, popped up in Williamsburg in 2013 and ’14 respectively and quickly became new homes for young comedians getting their start in the borough.
Over the Eight, which was primarily a bar, hosted mostly stand-up and, because shows were cheap and there was a full calendar to fill, became a go-to space for new, experimental comedy. The Annoyance, on the other hand, is an extension of a long-running Chicago theater and comedy school and, in addition to stand-up, showcased improv and sketch, with regular shows like The Holy Fuck Comedy Hour, Lake Homo High and Cartoon Monsoon. As the two Brooklyn venues with the most consistently comedy-centric line-ups, Over the Eight and the Annoyance became the epicenter of the scene.
Mary Houlihan, a comedian and regular at both venues, said, “When I hear comedians 10 years older than me talk about Rafifi, that’s the way I felt about Over The Eight. When they talk about the early days of UCB it sounds like they’re talking about the Annoyance.”
Over the Eight closed its doors at the end of last year and the Annoyance, while not disappearing altogether, is losing its current physical location at the end of March. The latter will continue offering classes and is on the prowl for a new performance space, but any way you shake it, these are significant setbacks for the Brooklyn comedy community. Comedian Sam Taggart, of the Annoyance’s Lake Homo High, said, “It’s definitely a bummer that these places are closing at the same time. They were both bastions of experimental and exciting comedy and it will be hard to recreate that. I want to believe that it’s the nature of these things that places come and go.”
So what now? New York City real estate is certainly a fickle beast and it’s not entirely surprising that as the cheap apartments, restaurants and bars move out of Williamsburg, so too go the spaces for comedy, music and art. Patti Smith may think New York is just over it, but the last generation of comedians centered around the Lower East Side, and not a lot of artists can afford to live there anymore, so maybe we’re waiting for the scene to decide on a new hub. Said Houlihan, “Ten years ago I feel like a lot of these kinds of venues were in LES, then that area got expensive and everything moved across the river to Williamsburg, now the same thing has happened there and DIY venues are opening deeper into Bushwick & Ridgewood. Maybe eventually we will be performing out on a barge in the Atlantic.”
Plus, barges aside, Brooklyn does have a fair share of comedy-friendly and comedy-adjacent if not comedy-dedicated spaces still standing. Houlihan and Taggart co-host a stand-up show with Julio Torres and Joe Rumrill at Throne Watches in Greenpoint, the Annoyance should eventually have a new location, places like Union Hall, the Bell House and Littlefield have long been comedy destinations and venues like Shea Stadium, Pine Box Rock Shop, Legion Bar and Starr Bar frequently host stand-ups shows.
Even if the rent situation is dire, Brooklyn’s comedy scene is still alive and well, so it ought to only be a matter of time before it finds some new physical homes. Annoyance performer and staff member Marybess Pritchett said of the theater’s fate, “I have high hopes for the future, because this band of lovable, talented, beautiful weirdos won’t be down for long.”
Houlihan, likewise optimistic, said, “It’s all about the people, not the physical space. I’ll miss those spaces but pretty soon there’s gonna be a new place that has that clubhouse/home base feeling.”