DO YOU need a good laugh? We mean a big laugh. Not a mild chuckle or a little tee-hee, but a full-out, gut-busting, knee-slapping, side-splitting, tears-in-your-eyes, complete-loss-of-all-bodily-functions laugh. If that's what you really need, then check out the new Improv Comedy Club that opened its doors at the Power Plant Live! in Baltimore just two weeks ago.
It joins four other comedy clubs in the Baltimore area and a sister club in Washington.
What sets the Improv apart from the other clubs in town is the level of talent of the comics. Because most of these performers have been on stage for years, and nearly all have appeared on late-night talk shows, they have a polish and sophistication that you just won't find in comedians at other clubs.
Take the inaugural act: Kevin Pollack. It seemed as if he were telling funny stories to a close group of friends and not a room full of strangers. And when the occasional joke didn't seem very funny, Pollack handled it with wit and grace instead of embarrassing, awkward silence.
Pollack, who got his big break as an actor in Barry Levinson's set-in-Baltimore movie Avalon, also does great impersonations. His bits on Christopher Walken explaining the "birds and the bees" to an 8-year-old, William Shatner auditioning for Star Trek and Arnold Schwarzenegger getting down on the dance floor at a hip nightclub were hilarious.
The Baltimore club is one of three new Improvs that opened last month; the other two are in Ontario, Canada, and West Palm Beach, Fla. All total there are 13 Improvs, and there are plans to open five more in the coming year, says Tony Baldino, president of Comedy Club Inc., the company that owns the Improvs.
The first Improv opened in New York City in 1963. Budd Friedman, the founder, imagined it as an informal, after-hours place where aspiring entertainers could perform for an audience and each other. The club quickly grew in popularity, featuring performers such as Richard Pryor and Bette Midler.
As Friedman opened more Improvs across the country, the clubs' profile grew ever higher. If you had cable television in the 1980s, you might have seen the show An Evening at the Improv on the Arts & Entertainment channel.
Suddenly, comedy was hot and comedy clubs were opening up in bars, restaurants and basements everywhere, including Baltimore. Here there were several small clubs and one large one -- Slapstix, which was located in the now-defunct Brokerage, in the exact same spot where the Improv is now. Slapstix attracted many national performers -- and the HBO and Showtime television networks, which taped shows there.
"Comedy clubs were very hot, but then [in the 1990s] things started to cool off," Baldino says. "There was an over-expansion, and there wasn't enough good talent to keep them all open."
Several Improvs were closed, and little clubs everywhere were shut down. Slapstix closed when the Brokerage failed in the mid-1990s. At the time of the club's demise, big-name comic talent had fallen off, and the club was relying more and more on open-mike events and performances by noncomedians.
Now, Baldino says, the era of the comedian is back. "Look at the stars of television and movies today. Almost all of them came out of the comedy clubs," he says.
With the debut of the Improv, top-flight comedy is back in Baltimore, and the comedians don't have to serve as waiters and waitresses -- as they did in the chain's early days.
The fact that the Improvs were bought three years ago by restaurateur Al Copeland, of Popeye's Chicken and Copeland's New Orleans Restaurant fame, has helped the chain, Baldino says. "It has improved the quality of the food and the service."
Indeed, during one of Pollack's shows, there appeared to be a server for every two or three tables, and service was very efficient. The food was delivered fast and tasted fresh. Dishes include prime rib, chicken tequila pasta and nachos. (No, fried chicken and biscuits are not on the menu.)
So what makes the Improv so special as a comedy club? "We were the first, and I'd like to think we're the best," Baldino says. "The quality and level of the entertainers are better. Every headliner who appears on the Improv stage, at the minimum, has appeared on Leno or Letterman," he says.
Even though there's an Improv less than an hour away in Washington, Baltimore is not going to be treated as a second-tier club. "You'll see that the same comedians will play both clubs," Baldino adds.
And there's more for this year. "Expect to see some [really] big names in comedy at the Improv," Baldino says. Such as? "Top talent." So name some names. "Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock."
Start lining up for your tickets now.
Following are vital stats on the new Improv as well as a guide to the area's other major comedy clubs.
The Improv Baltimore
Power Plant Live! 6 Market Place. 410-727-8500. www.improv.com
Show times vary depending on the performer. Most shows are Wednesdays to Sundays, with earlier show times on weekdays and two shows on Fridays and three shows on Saturdays. Ticket prices also vary, with higher ticket prices on weekends. So far, prices have ranged from $12 to $25. Two-drink minimum. Full dinner served before the first show only. Appetizers, salads and sandwiches only at later shows. No smoking allowed.
Who's up next: Pablo Francisco from Comedy Central, tonight through Sunday; David Alan Grier from In Living Color and D.A.G., Jan. 18-20; Sheryl Underwood, from Def Comedy Jam, Jan. 24-27; David Cross from HBO's Mr. Show sketch-comedy series, Jan. 30-Feb. 2.
Winchester's Comedy Club
102 Water St. 410-576-8558.
Show times Thursdays at 9 p.m., Fridays at 9:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Cover charge is $5 on Thursdays and $10 on Fridays and Saturdays. Two-drink minimum. Light-fare menu. Smoking allowed.
Winchester's is the only club in town with a night for amateur comics looking to try out new material. Thursday is open-mike night; the shows draw 12 to 20 comics.
Aspiring comics who want to take part in a show need to come to the club at 8 p.m. and sign up. First timers are welcome, and it's OK if you bring notes on stage or if you or someone else tapes your performance.
Because the bulk of the audience is made up of other area comics, the crowd is usually very forgiving if your performance bombs.
On weekends, local and regional comics perform.
There's a bar and a restaurant (Shamrock Pub) downstairs from the comedy club, and Winchester's usually offers munchies like nachos and chicken nuggets during weekend shows.
Who's up next: Mike Storck, Mike Payne and Dorian Grey (emcee), tomorrow and Saturday; Kelly Terranova, Sam Beamon and Neil (emcee), Jan. 18-19; Bernard Leach, Big Ben Kennedy and Eric Myers, Jan. 25-26; five comedians Feb. 1; Bill King, Brian Carem and Mike Cookson (emcee), Feb. 2.
Comedy Factory Outlet
36 Light St. (above Burke's restaurant). 410-752-4189.
Show times are 8:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets are $12. One-drink minimum. Smoking allowed.
The Comedy Factory is Baltimore's oldest comedy club. The place has been making folks laugh for 32 years, and the end does not seem to be in sight.
The club features local and regional performers, many of whom have gone on to achieve national recognition. Check out the lobby walls -- they're lined with autographed pictures of past performers. You'll likely see some faces you know.
The club's cozy-style seating has some drawbacks. The club packs as many people as possible into the small room, and a cigarette hater could be unlucky enough to have to sit next to someone puffing away.
However, groups of people can reserve a table or a bank of tables together and form their own little no-smoking area. A group can be as small as two people.
If you'd like dinner, you can dine at Burke's downstairs before or after the show.
Who's up next: Eric Myers, Steve West and Big Al, tomorrow-Saturday; Coy Lanscone, Ron Browne and Rod Reyes, Jan. 18-19; Buttaman, Meshelle Foreman-Shields and Koli Tengella, Jan. 25-26; Strawberry, Bernard Leach and Miss Gayle, Feb. 1-2.
The Improv Washington
1140 Connecticut Ave. N.W. (between L and M streets), Washington. 202-296-7008.
Shows are 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays and 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets vary, depending on the performer, but generally are $15 on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays and $17 on Fridays and Saturdays. Two-drink minimum. No smoking allowed.
A full dinner is served before the first show on all days and before the first and second on Saturdays. Appetizers, salads and sandwiches only at other shows.
Before the Improv in Baltimore opened, this was the closest place to go to see national comics. Now that the clubs are sharing acts, you only have to go to D.C. to see an act you missed here. Or, you can see a performer in D.C. before he or she comes to Baltimore -- if you can't wait.
Who's up next: Kathleen Madigan, tomorrow-Sunday; Robert Schimmel, Jan. 17-20; Will Durst, Jan. 22-27.
Jokes on Us
312 Main St., Laurel. 301-490-1993.
Show times are 8:30 p.m. Thursdays and Sundays and 8:30 p.m. and 10:45 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets are $10. Two-item minimum (food or drinks). No smoking allowed.
This club was formerly known as the Comedy Connection but has been under new ownership as Jokes on Us for the past two years.
Located on the site of a former movie theater, Jokes on Us puts on one of the biggest shows around, with a warm-up guy, three opening acts and a headliner. The club also offers a full menu of entrees, sandwiches and salads. If you're a fan of the Def Comedy Jam productions, in particular the stuff that's "too raw for TV," then this is the place for you.
Patrons who sit in the front may be picked on and mildly embarrassed, as was the case at a recent show. We won't go into details, but let's just say it involved a blindfold and a cucumber. (Don't ask me how I get talked into these things.)
If humiliation isn't your thing, ask the usher to seat you in the back. He or she will comply.
Starting Feb. 10, the club will hold open-mike nights on Sundays for comics, poets, singers and other performers. Through early March, the open-mike nights will feature a contest, with the winner getting the chance to be the opening act for national comedian John Witherspoon, who appears March 22-24.
Who's up next: T-Rexx, Stacey Carver, Jay Phillips, tomorrow-Saturday; Sommore from the "Queens of Comedy," Jan. 25-27.
Tracy's at the Bowman
9306 Harford Road, Carney. 410-665-8600.
Show times are 9:15 p.m. Fridays and 8:30 p.m. and 10:45 p.m. Saturdays. Tickets are $8. Two-drink minimum.
Tracy's, which has been open for more than a decade, features mostly local talent; regional performers are showcased now and then.
The club, which seats 170, is located downstairs from the Bowman restaurant and doubles as the restaurant's banquet room on its off nights. Thanks to a little expertly applied dim lighting, the club management makes the place look like a club and not a banquet facility. You can get a cozy little cocktail table for two or reserve a group of tables if you have a large crowd.
While the Bowman attracts a middle-aged and older crowd, Tracy's patrons are mostly in their 20s and 30s. (Note: You must be of legal drinking age to go into Tracy's.)
Many patrons like to have dinner at the Bowman before attending a comedy show. It makes a nice date.
Who's up next: Bill Bendon and Pat O'Donnel, tomorrow-Saturday; Mickey Cauchella and Alex House, Jan. 18-19; Gemini, Jan. 25-26.
If you think you can heckle a comic, think again. All of the comedy clubs in this roundup have a strict no-heckling policy. Comics are performers, club managers point out, and as you wouldn't shout at an actor on a stage reciting Shakespeare, you shouldn't yell at a comic while he or she is working. Some clubs will eject you from the premises if you harass a comic.
Phones and pagers
Turn them off in the club. You should know better. If you don't turn off your phone, you might have happen to you what happened to one woman recently at the Comedy Factory Outlet. The comic took the phone away from her and told the caller that he was the woman's "other boyfriend" and that the two of them were having wild sex right then and there. He didn't explain why there was an audience there, though.
Some comics like to have fun with audience members. Usually, it's all in good fun and no one's feelings are really hurt. However, if the thought of getting picked on mortifies you, don't choose a seat in the front row or two. If you're at a club where ushers seat you, just say you want to sit away from the front. You'll probably be just fine from about row 3 on back.
At many comedy cubs, the comic gets most or all of the cover charges at the door, so the club makes its money on the drinks (and to a lesser extent, the food) you buy during the show. That's why most clubs have a one- or two-drink minimum. That doesn't mean that you have to buy alcohol, though. You can certainly have a soda or cup of coffee if you choose, but expect to pay anywhere from $2 to $4.50 for that cola or coffee.