When stand-up comedy is mentioned, certain geographic places come to mind — New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, among a few others. Rarely is South Jersey on the list, but the fact remains that as far back as anyone can remember, comedy has been a part of the local nightlife landscape. This has always been true in Atlantic City, where big time stars such as Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Drew Carey are regulars at spots like Boardwalk Hall and Borgata’s Event Center. Now small-town clubs and theaters, where local and rising comedians battle it out for laughs every week, are really making a name for themselves.
One factor that keeps South Jersey’s comedy scene relevant is that it’s constantly changing in one way or another.
Recently, Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa has shaken things up by recruiting the help of Chris and Steve Mazzilli of Gotham — one of the most famous comedy clubs in New York City — who will to assist in programming talent for the venue. While this move may seem odd to some, especially considering Borgata Comedy Club has been more than successful since its opening more than a decade ago, Borgata’s Vice President of Marketing Mike Woodside doesn’t see it that way.
“We are constantly evolving and improving all aspects of our property, and the comedy club is no different. We see this programming partnership as a great opportunity to bring in, fresh talent to perform alongside some of our customers favorite familiar joke tellers,” he says.
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It seems that the formula that worked for so many years will mostly stay the same, but the addition of the Mazzillis will merely enhance an already stellar product.
“Leveraging the relationships that Gotham’s Chris Mazzilli and Steve Mazzilli have with both established as well as up-and-coming comedians will only serve to bolster the comedy club’s roster of talent,” Woodside says. “For almost 15 years, the comedy club has been a consistent source for nightly entertainment in Atlantic City and we are excited in the ability to enhance that attraction even further.”
He is certainly right about one thing — Borgata Comedy Club has been nothing if not consistent, managing to feature around 300 live comedy shows per year, with many selling out on a regular basis.
Borgata is not the only game in town. In fact, a crowd seems to be forming. The Showboat Hotel recently added a weekly comedy show on Saturday nights, and over the last few years, a venue known as Atlantic City Comedy Club has popped up in various spots around town. Originally at The Playground, and most recently at Tropicana, the Atlantic City Comedy Club brings top-notch live stand up back to the Boardwalk.
“We own the New York Comedy Club and originally considered licensing out the name,” says Emilio Savone, one of the owners of Atlantic City Comedy Club. “But then we thought, ‘Atlantic City has its own kind of persona, so why don’t we create the Atlantic City Comedy Club?’”
And as luck would have it, its current spot at Tropicana has a history of laughs built right into the walls, as it is the former site of The Comedy Stop, a legendary room that hosted live comedy for more than 30 years before closing up shop in 2015. The space is now shared between Kiss Kiss Nightclub and the Atlantic City Comedy Club.
“It’s perfect for comedy, but at the same time it’s a really unique space,” Savone says. “The comics we deal with from New York, L.A. and all over are really excited to do it because it has that kind of ‘VMAs’ (Video Music Awards) feel to it. It’s like you are playing a ballroom or something,”
A lot of people might imagine that at a casino comedy show the seats are filled by a lot of comps and folks who would otherwise not be at a comedy club, but Savone quickly corrects that notion.
“Ninety percent of the people who come to our shows are there specifically for the comedy,” he insists.
And while the competition alone between multiple clubs in Atlantic City may create enough of a buzz to fill seats, there is more to creating a great night of comedy than just selling tickets.
“It doesn’t even have to be sold out,” Savone notes. “I’ve been to shows where there are 20 people in the room and sometimes those shows are the best because everyone is together with the same energy. When the crowd is looking to laugh at everything and the comic feels free to say whatever they choose to say with everyone understanding, that makes for the best show. It’s all about the audience and the comic — if those two universes connect, it’s going to make for an unbelievable show.”
When it comes to putting on great comedy shows, Atlantic City may be the big fish in South Jersey, but as the saying goes, there are other fish in the sea. Each year, from November through April, Willow Creek Winery in West Cape May hosts a sold-out monthly event called “Comedy UnCorked,” which features a three-course wine-paired dinner plus live standup from some of New York’s top comics. And in recent years, South Jersey theaters such as The Levoy in Millville and Hammonton’s Eagle Theater have begin bringing in both local and nationally touring comedians on a regular basis, proving that stand-up is not just for the city folk.
When Kevin Hurley was given the green light to put on comedy shows seasonally at Hammonton’s Eagle Theatre, he came at it with a unique approach. Hurley, who himself is a well known standup in the area, wanted to make it about more than just who was on the marquee.
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“It wasn’t going to be about the names,” Hurley says. “I really wanted it to be a brand. I said, ‘This is going to be a brand of comedy and people are going to start coming for that brand.’”
And so they did. Initially it was just one show per quarter, held on a Saturday, but when those shows stared selling out it was clear that live comedy in Hammonton was working even better than expected. So they added a second late show to the mix, according to Hurley, who not only books the comics but hosts each show himself.
As for the type of comedy they do, Hurley keeps it varied.
“What I really try to do is to give the audience a variety of comedy. So I’ll give them a prop comic, a ventriloquist, a really high-energy comic, someone who is great with one liners … I really just try and give them as much variety as I can.”
Hurley’s plan has been a success, and he doesn’t mind sharing his secrets.
“A great comedy show should be no more than an hour and a half long, and if the show starts at a 50 it should end at 100. I really like a steady stream of funnier, funnier, funnier. You really want to leave them wanting more.”