America's Best Comedy Clubs
Radio and television may have brought mainstream comedy to the masses, with I Love Lucy and Milton Berle paving the way for Carol Burnett and Saturday Night Live. Yet it’s the unpredictability and adrenaline-fueled energy of in-person performance that continues to spur it forward. Why else would the likes of Tina Fey and Jay Leno still perform regularly to sharpen their skills and test their material?
It’s in comedy clubs, with nothing but a microphone and brick wall, that careers soar on applause or die by heckles, and sticky subjects get addressed in a humorous way.
Trailblazing performances at Chicago’s The Second City gave comics like Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Sam Kinison a stage to tackle race, religion, and politics with an irreverent spin that wasn’t yet allowed on the airwaves.
Times have changed, but stand-up comedy’s next wave continues its gig-by-gig push of the envelope with often unfiltered, hilarious results you’d be hard-pressed to find on an HBO special.
From a surprising ab workout in Nashville to the mainstays of New York and Los Angeles, the following comedy clubs are surefire places to get your giggle on.
The Second City, Chicago
Comedy and Chicago go hand in hand thanks to The Second City. From its December 1959 opening in Old Town, it’s been the benchmark for improv as we know it—and a rite of passage for aspiring comics. John Belushi and Gilda Radner cut their teeth here, and veteran alumni like Tina Fey still grace the stage today. Although the brand has expanded with touring ensembles and training centers in Toronto and Hollywood, experiencing the cutting edge of sketch comedy on its original cabaret stage can’t be beat.
The Improv, Los Angeles
At Hollywood’s most legendary comedy club, surprise appearances from names like Dane Cook and Steve Byrne are almost expected. There’s a mixture of improvisation, both experimental and produced, as well as stand-up acts most nights of the week. The iconic brick-backed main room is for the headliners—an up-and-coming Jay Leno once helped paint the ceiling. Next door is the Lab, and quite often, this is the place to be. With nothing to lose but pride, comics here leave it all on the stage, no holds barred. hollywood.improv.com
For three decades Zanies has been providing Nashville with an alternative to the honky-tonk. Located in the trendily gritty neighborhood of 12 South, the corner building has an old-school ’80s vibe and fills the nearly 300 seats for nightly acts and two-drink minimums. Nashville themes often get worked into the acts, endearing the club to many locals. Marc Maron (of the popular WTF podcast), for one, has riffed on the city’s famous hot chicken. nashville.zanies.com
Upright Citizens Brigade, New York City
Having brought “Chicago-style” long-form sketch comedy to New York in 1996, the UCB is now an institution, delivering some of the country’s most innovative writing nightly. It also happens to be one of the city’s most affordable entertainment options. Tickets to shows at its 152-seat theater in Chelsea top out at $15. Often they’re free, as for Asssscat 3000, a 15-year tradition, made famous by Amy Poehler, that brings in celebrity guests and improv veterans for spur-of-the-moment, one-night-only acts. ucbtheatre.com
Stand Up Live, Phoenix
This downtown Phoenix club consistently draws top talent from across the country, notably from popular TV comedies like 30 Rock and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Stand Up Live has a theater-style stage combined with an intimate comedy-club atmosphere. The energy of the audience is always up, making the experience that much more vibrant. standuplive.com
iO Theatre, Chicago
The ImprovOlympic (iO) launched as a venue for long-form improvisational comedy in 1981. It’s best known for having created the “Harold,” a long-form improvisational sketch in which two teams compete for laughs—and they still do at comedy clubs nationwide. Today there are about 25 Harold teams at the iO, some of which have been performing together for years. There is a smaller cabaret-style theater downstairs and a more traditional, larger space in the Del Close Theater upstairs. ioimprov.com
Atlanta’s longest-standing comedy club has hosted a number of Comedy Central’s Top 100. It’s a reliable place to see fresh talent on the rise, alongside veteran comics, most likely on the same night. Legends who have graced the stage include Tim Allen, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Chris Tucker, and Jerry Seinfeld. The truly daring can attempt to get a laugh from audiences during Punchline’s popular open-mic nights. punchline.com
Carolines on Broadway, New York
First opened in Chelsea in 1981, followed by a stint in New York’s historic South Street Seaport, Carolines’s growing popularity prompted yet another move—to its current 300-seat Times Square theater—in 1991. It hosts live comedy seven nights a week, 365 days a year. In addition to booking top comedians like Kathy Griffin, Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld, and Dave Chappelle, the club is also a venue for high-profile fund-raising events and benefits. carolines.com
Improv Asylum, Boston
Located in the basement of a CVS Pharmacy in the North End, the Improv Asylum is classic Boston—sarcastic, off-the-cuff, raw comedy. Locals Paul D’Amato, Chet Harding, and Norm Laviolette, who got their start as an improv troupe at the Hard Rock Café, took a chance on the idea that a Second City–style venue had a place in Beantown. They opened the Asylum in 1998, and it’s proven to be a hit, offering both live improv and sketch comedy with a consistently talented cast. improvasylum.com
Comedy Union, Los Angeles
Owner Enss Mitchell is the passionate driving force behind this L.A. club, one of the few venues that caters to African American stand-up comics. Bill Bellamy, D. L. Hughley, Sherri Shepherd, Chris Rock, and Damon Wayans have all taken the stage, as well as others made famous by HBO’s Def Comedy Jam. The 180-seat venue allows for an intimate show with guaranteed laughs. thecomedyunion.com
The Comedy & Magic Club, Hermosa Beach, CA
In-the-know L.A. residents head south to Hermosa Beach for shows at this club, where Jay Leno has tested material for years on Sunday nights—note card by note card—to gauge audience response. The best material ends up in future Tonight Show monologues. Ray Romano, Jerry Seinfeld, and other big hitters have performed here as well, along with rising talents on showcase nights that feature 10 acts for $10. comedyandmagicclub.com
Comedy Attic, Bloomington, IN
Without any professional background in comedy, Dayna and Jared Thompson surprised the naysayers when they spawned Bloomington, Indiana's first and only comedy club in 2008. They were supported by the community and have since brought in household names like Mad About You’s Paul Reiser. Open-mic nights are a weekly ritual. comedyattic.com
Esther’s Follies, Austin, TX
For a traditional experience, look to Austin’s Cap City Comedy, which brings in headliners like Kevin Nealon regularly. True keep-Austin-weird locals, however, will point you to Esther’s Follies. It’s become a local legend for vaudeville-style comedy, with clever writing and irreverent, witty takes on current events. esthersfollies.com
Gotham Comedy Club, New York
Many stand-up comedy clubs focus on the act rather than ambience, but Gotham owner Chris Mazzilli, a Fashion Institute of Technology grad, wanted to create an upscale space. The result is a 10,000-square-foot theater that draws inspiration from the Art Deco style of the 1920s, with warm red hues on the inside and, notably, Gotham Yellow–painted hallways. (You may recognize the club as the venue where Last Comic Standing auditions take place, or from Jerry Seinfeld’s 2002 film Comedian.) Talent is consistently some of the best in the country, such as Lewis Black, Dave Chappelle, Colin Quinn, and Chris Rock. gothamcomedyclub.com
Comedy Works, Denver
Since 1981, this intimate downtown club in historic Larimer Square (est. 1981) has a roster that reads like a who’s who of comedy: Jerry Seinfeld, Roseanne Barr, Ellen DeGeneres, Dennis Miller, Jamie Foxx, Lewis Black, and Joan Rivers, to name-drop a few. The venue has a reputation for spotting new talent, having launched the careers of many fixtures on Comedy Central, the late-night talk-show circuit, and the Last Comic Standing stage. comedyworks.com