Noam Dworman on Stand-Up Comedy and Staying Open-Minded (Ep. 185)

The owner of the Comedy Cellar shares his views on the evolving comedy scene.

Tyler sat down at Comedy Cellar with owner Noam Dworman to talk about the ever-changing stand-up comedy scene, including the perfect room temperature for stand-up, whether comedy can still shock us, the effect on YouTube and TikTok, the transformation of jokes into bits, the importance of tight seating, why he doesn’t charge higher prices for his shows, the differences between the LA and NYC scenes, whether good looks are an obstacle to success, the oldest comic act he still finds funny, how comedians have changed since he started running the Comedy Cellar in 2003, and what government regulations drive him crazy. They also talk about how 9/11 got Noam into trouble, his early career in music, the most underrated guitarist, why live music is dead in NYC, and what his plans are for expansion.

Watch the full conversation

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app to be notified when a new episode releases.

Recorded March 15th, 2023.

Read the full transcript

TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today, I’m here with my very good friend Noam Dworman in the Comedy Cellar. Noam is owner, impresario, and CEO of Comedy Cellar — three places in New York, one in Las Vegas — commonly considered America’s leading comedy club. Noam, welcome.

NOAM DWORMAN: Hello, Tyler. Thank you very much for having me.

COWEN: What is the perfect room temperature for comedy?

DWORMAN: Ah, that’s a great question. The originator of the Comedy Cellar, named Bill Grundfest — this was a very important issue for him. He felt that if it got warm, this had a serious effect on how the comedians went over. I think a little bit colder than comfortable is what is best — 70, maybe, something like that.

COWEN: So, it’s like how stores often feel people buy more when it’s cold?

DWORMAN: Yes. The problem is that the kind of air conditioning systems that we have, you take what you can get. In a very, very hot day, they underperform, and then the thermostats, as you know, they’re slow. They don’t keep things at a perfect temperature, so it hovers up and down around things, but we try to keep it cool.

COWEN: What’s the biggest thing about audiences laughing at comedy that you do not understand?

DWORMAN: Well, what’s interesting is, always, that the entire audience — or most of the audience — at the same instant in time seems to react the same way, to know whether something is funny in a way that nobody can explain. This will happen even if it’s the same comedian telling the same joke four days in a row. I will find myself laughing harder at the same joke, just as the entire room is laughing harder.

I could go to the video, and it’s very difficult to pinpoint what he’s doing differently, but there’s something on a micro level that they do differently, and everybody perceives it the same way at the same time, and that’s the magic of it all.

I don’t know if that’s a direct answer to your question, but that’s what it makes me think of. I don’t know how to explain that.

COWEN: There’s something about human synchronization of the audience in there. If you have to extrapolate that to broader social situations, what do you conclude?

DWORMAN: People pick up on very slight cues in an instinctual level — kind of analogous to pheromones, I guess — that they can’t account for. They don’t know they’re doing it. It probably affects who seems like a likable person, unlikable, who you trust. There’s a million different ways these things present themselves, but it’s real. It’s very real. I would say some people are oblivious to these clues, and they probably suffer for that during their lives.

COWEN: Circa 2023, can comedy still shock us? Simply using the F-word, trying to be like Lenny Bruce — it’s all a big bore, right? Is there shock value left in comedy?

DWORMAN: Not funny shock value. At some point, I’ve been expecting that somebody will channel Lenny Bruce and start defiantly using the N word again, or something like that, to make a deep point, and at some point, may get away with it. No, usually, things that are shocking now are trite and not that funny.

COWEN: A reader suggests to me that people don’t tell jokes very much anymore, but they watch YouTube or TikTok for humor. How does that affect comedians?

DWORMAN: What that makes me think of is that at some point, comedians started referring to their bits as jokes, and that happened gradually. I remember waking up and realizing, “Well, that’s not what a joke is.” A joke is a setup and a punch line. A joke isn’t one of your descriptions — that is a funny thing. That’s right. The setup–punch line of a joke is rare. Old people do them sometimes. What’s considered jokes today are comedy bits, and people don’t tell each other comedy bits. I think you’re right — fewer and fewer people tell each other jokes.

COWEN: Why aren’t jokes funny anymore? I don’t ever want to hear jokes. If someone walked into the room, sat at the table, “I’m going to tell you a joke,” I’d be like, tune out. Or maybe this is anthropologically interesting, but funny is the last thing I would expect from them.

DWORMAN: You know what? I travel in different circles than you do. A lot of comedians at the table will tell jokes, and these guys are very good at telling them sometimes, so I enjoy jokes. My father told a million jokes. They were funny to me, but in your egghead circles, maybe they’re not good joke tellers. I don’t know. [laughs]

COWEN: How has social media changed comedy?

DWORMAN: Well, it came to the rescue in a certain way, because just as wokeness put a cloud over everything, social media allowed some of the most successful comics working today to distribute themselves directly to their audience and find their audience. I think this includes even Joe Rogan, to some extent. And there’s no gatekeepers anymore. People like Andrew Schulz, Chris Distefano, and Tim Dillon. It’s given comedy a lifeline in a certain way.

It’s changed everything, not just comedy, but our business. Years ago, I had a music club that was hugely successful, the Café Wha?. We had lines around the block to get in. It was a huge local New York thing. If we’d had social media, the sky would have been the limit.

We used to have to stamp postcards if we had an event and send out 100. It was expensive. Now you can announce something to a billion people. It’s rippled through everything, including the ability of comedians to present themselves directly to the audience in a very meritocratic way. You can’t argue so much with who rises to the top when people are forwarding things they find funny.

COWEN: But say in the NBA, some people charge that dunks, layups, spectacular 3-point shots have replaced watching actual games. You just pull out bits, and you watch highlights. Is comedy becoming just a thing of highlights? And is that, in the longer run, good for comedy, bad for comedy?

DWORMAN: It’s taking everybody’s attention span on everything. Yes, I would say it has done that, although our club has always been a showcase club as opposed to a headlining club, so we’ve always opted for shorter bits. I’ve always found it hard to sit through an hour of somebody’s comedy, unless it was a classic Richard Pryor or a thing like that. I think you’re right. I’m overthinking it. Yes, everybody’s attention span is shorter on everything, and that’s forced comedians to —

Well, you know what? Having said that, still, the real kings, like Louis C.K. and Chappelle and Chris Rock — they really still do take their time with their bits. They spin out long things, and they’re still on top. They really are, but they’re the geniuses.

COWEN: If you take a top YouTuber and put that person on stage at a comedy club like the Comedy Cellar, how does that person fare?

DWORMAN: Very badly.

COWEN: Why? What’s the difference?

DWORMAN: It goes back to what we were talking about before. It’s not as easy as it looks. When Twitter first started, there was a very famous tweeter. I can’t remember his name now. He had a huge number of followings for that era, and he was funny. He was very funny on Twitter, and he would do some shows, and it was just tumbleweeds and crickets. Just crickets. It’s not that easy. There’s timing; there’s a charisma.

COWEN: But isn’t YouTube harder in a way? Because you’ve got to pretend there’s a live audience there, so it takes all the more effort, energy, dynamism. Is it that they overshoot or that they come off flat? What exactly happens?

DWORMAN: I think YouTube is just different. I’ve never done it. I don’t know that it’s harder or easier, but I know that there are certain people who just can fill a room. I’ll give you an example. Chappelle — he has a talent. He can just talk for three hours. Doesn’t have to be hitting punch lines. And people will just sit there and listen to him. It’s hypnotic. He’s magnetic. I can’t account for that.

It wouldn’t work on YouTube. I don’t think anybody would sit and watch him on YouTube. The only other person I know who has that is maybe Howard Stern. Somehow, he can just talk and talk and talk, and people will listen. It’s just a different talent, I think.

COWEN: On Twitter, why are just ordinary people so often funnier than the comedians?

DWORMAN: That’s a great question, because this frustrates comics no end, and they won’t talk about it. For instance, I’m pretty funny. If I’m at the comedian table and I say something that’s funny, there’s a large number of comedians who will not laugh because it makes them uncomfortable to see a civilian be funny, because it’s a civilian.

COWEN: You’re a civilian? You’re the boss. [laughs]

DWORMAN: Well, boss, but a civilian in the sense that I’m not supposed to be the talent. A lot of people are extremely funny in person, as funny as stand-up comics. What they don’t have is whatever it is that’s driving stand-up. Well, they might not have a few things. They’re not comfortable on stage, they may not be charismatic, and they’re not compelled to be in front of an audience, getting laughs.

This is something the comedians love. My father used to talk about it. They want to be on stage. They want to be the center of attention. It’s not just about being funny. There’s a need that they have for this that the average funny person doesn’t have. I can be funny, but I don’t have the urge to be on stage being funny. Matter of fact, I’m scared of that.

COWEN: I don’t follow any comedians. I sit there, I read Twitter, and I giggle. There’s maybe a person who’s funny once every four years, but the funniest thing they say becomes viral on Twitter. How do comedians compete against hundreds of millions of people who are mostly unfunny, but they have one funny moment every now and then, and then it gets elevated to the top?

DWORMAN: You’re asking me questions about things that I’ve actually thought about, even recently. I don’t know the answer to that exactly. I’ve been wondering how is it that some of these Comedy Cellar comedians are on top, even though they’re not actually funnier, especially since you’re only getting the cream of the crop of these tweets. I guess somehow they are. That’s all I can tell you. Somehow people who are at the top of this field —

Now, there’s a lot of overachievers in this profession. It’s not like the NBA. If you want to be in the NBA, you’ve got to be in the top one-tenth of basketball players in the country, or it’s immediately obvious.

You can scratch out and work hard and put together a good 15 minutes, so there are a lot of overachievers working in comedy. The real super talent, the real gems, like the Chappelles, like the Louis C.K.s — they really are on another level, and the world sees that. I don’t know if that’s a good answer or not.

COWEN: Why are there so few great comedy movies today? And TV shows, for that matter. It used to be top TV shows were comedies — not all of them — Seinfeld the clearest example. Now for a long time, HBO, dramas. What happened?

DWORMAN: The obvious answer that most people would say is because you can’t make those jokes anymore. Most of the classic comedies had jokes which would be considered off-limits today.

COWEN: But they’re not mostly that politically incorrect. Seinfeld is less politically incorrect than Curb Your Enthusiasm, but there’s not a Seinfeld of today, is there? In movies, you can go pretty far out. Most of the funny movies from the past, like Bringing Up Baby — it’s pretty funny. It’s not politically incorrect at all.

DWORMAN: [laughs] It’s coming around, that kind of comedy. I don’t know, Tyler. Do you have a thought on that?

COWEN: We seem to be getting funny bits in different ways, and they’re more condensed, and they come at a higher information density, and we can pull them off the internet or TikTok whenever we want. It seems that sates us, and we enjoy the feeling of control over comedy, which you don’t quite get when you’re watching, say, a hundred-minute film. That would be my hypothesis.

DWORMAN: Does that mean that there are movies that have been made which are funny and would deserve the success of a classic comedy, they’re just not getting appreciated?

COWEN: No, they don’t get made.

DWORMAN: They don’t get made at all.

COWEN: Maybe some of them are made for TV, but even there, it all seems less funny to me.

But it could also be audiences are themselves less funny. They’re more depressed, they’re more neurotic. We see some of that in the data, at least for young people. I suspect that’s not the main reason, but part of it.

DWORMAN: I don’t know. Sometimes there isn’t a reason. Sometimes there’s just a golden age. Let’s compare it to music. Why is music a little bit stagnant now? Maybe that’s just the ebb and flow of where it’s at, and we’re trying to correlate it to something, but it has nothing to do with that. Maybe it’s just that the great talents are doing other things now, or a lot of the jokes have been told. I don’t know, but there are definitely golden ages of every art form.

COWEN: But comedy is still in a golden age; it’s just not in movies and television.

DWORMAN: But not in movies.

COWEN: How do you think it changed comedy to be moved away from general outlets? It used to be there’d be a vaudeville show. You would see something on a showboat, in a saloon, a circus, and parts of it would be funny, but sometimes you’d just be watching the dancing bear. Whereas now, today, people go to a Comedy Club in capital letters. Did that evolution matter?

DWORMAN: I don’t think it’s better. I know that a lot of comedians became a little snobby about that. For instance, in the Village Underground, we have a band that brings the comedians on and off the stage. I don’t know if you’ve been to the Underground.

COWEN: No, not yet.

DWORMAN: When I first introduced it, I really introduced it because I had to let some musicians go when I was changing the club over, so I tried to include them. Related to what you’re saying, the Black comics who came up in much more raucous rooms and rooms which were not dedicated — they immediately embraced this. They liked it; they liked the energy. The more clever White comics — and “clever” is in scare quotes — were very resistant to it at first because this was not purist.

In retrospect, most of them have come to me and said, “No, I was wrong. The music is great.” We even allowed the band a little feature thing.

I think it’s not an improvement. I think that a mix of things is better. Catch a Rising Star, which was considered to be the greatest of the New York comedy clubs back in the ’80s — they actually did have music acts, and the Improv had music acts at one time. Now, it’s true that if it’s too much, it can be difficult to settle the room back down to comedy, so there are practical reasons. But I think, in general, this snobbery of the art form, as opposed to just being entertaining to an audience — I’m on the side of entertainment. I would love to see a vaudeville show.

COWEN: Here’s a very difficult question that I’ve never heard a really good answer to. If you take broadly American comedy and then broadly British comedy, and you had to boil down the difference to as small a number of dimensions as possible, what would that be? You’re laughing at me, but I’m not funny.


DWORMAN: I’m laughing at you because you should know more about this than I do.

COWEN: No, I don’t. You have British comics in, right?

DWORMAN: Yes, we have British comics in. They’re less politically correct. They’re more word-oriented, like Jimmy Carr, but I don’t know the difference between British stand-up comedy — I don’t know enough about it. I would assume it’s similar to the difference between Monty Python movies and Caddy Shack. There’s just a different sensibility about it. The British comics that I see are a self-selected bunch of comedians who come to the Comedy Cellar.

COWEN: To America, yes, sure.

DWORMAN: And for the Comedy Cellar. They’re friends of Louis, they’re friends of somebody. Somehow, they’ve gotten in the door, and they’ve decided for themselves that this is a good audience for them. So, I don’t know the answer, but I enjoy British comedy.

COWEN: I think of the Americans as more explicitly presenting themselves in your face as entertainers. The British comics start off by positioning their class relative to yours in some way. That’s one of the fundamental differences.

DWORMAN: When Ricky Gervais did those famous — was it the Golden Globes? Was that particularly British, would you say? Was there something about that that an American comic wouldn’t have done?

COWEN: I didn’t see it.

DWORMAN: Oh, you didn’t see it?


DWORMAN: It was so funny. I mean, he just eviscerated everybody. I don’t know if that’s because he felt more latitude because he’s not from this country — he’s British — whatever it is. It seemed different than an American comic would have done. It was different than the way Michelle Wolf tried to do the same thing for their correspondents’ dinner.

COWEN: If I think of the earlier history of comedy, I see a lot of comedy double acts. Laurel and Hardy, George and Gracie, Abbott and Costello, Burns and Allen— those have mostly vanished. What happened? Is the straight man or woman out of fashion? Is it too slow when you have two people, and we need the higher information density of comedy?

DWORMAN: I don’t know. Those acts came up not in comedy rooms, as you say. Usually, they’d be part of a bill, sometimes one of them sang, or they would do radio plays, so they had to be able to do a plot. I’m trying to think of reasons why it would be that. We’ve had some comedy duos over the years at the Comedy Cellar. Very few. Some of them were very funny, but they eventually went their separate ways from each other. I think the vehicles that are being used now are just not conducive to a comedy team like they once were.

COWEN: Is it a Simon and Garfunkel problem, like someone thinks he’s too good for the group?

DWORMAN: Well, that’s what happened with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. I remember my father telling me nobody thought Dean Martin would last. Everybody assumed he wouldn’t, but it turned out he did.

I don’t know if there’s a rule of thumb. Every one of these scenarios might be unique in its own way, but definitely the idea that the radio was a central way of presenting things in those days — I think that probably dictated that a duo was a smart thing to have. Because you wanted to have a conversation on the radio and a plot. Abbott and Costello had plots.

COWEN: And they were in movies with plots.


COWEN: Who’s the oldest comedian — oldest in the sense of going back in history — that you can watch today on YouTube, or listen to, and still laugh?

DWORMAN: It’s funny. Comedy doesn’t age well, right?

COWEN: Right.

DWORMAN: It’s not like music. It’s amazing how it doesn’t age well. I find old Don Rickles still funny sometimes, but I find all old George Carlin — I will still find the Class Clown album funny. I thought that the Judd Apatow documentary had a lot of footage of Carlin back in the ’60s. I still found that funny.

COWEN: But Cheech and Chong — they’re not funny anymore.

DWORMAN: I haven’t listened to it since I was in high school.

COWEN: That’s endogenous.

DWORMAN: I probably — no, because all the weed jokes and whatever. No, it would seem very, very dated. It would have to.

COWEN: Jack Benny — is he still funny?

DWORMAN: Yes, I think Jack Benny is still funny. He’s still funny in some of the old clips. I haven’t heard Jack Benny’s stand-up. Bob Hope is not still funny.


DWORMAN: I don’t remember thinking Bob Hope was funny back then.

COWEN: Not ever. Even when I was a kid, I was like, “Who is this guy?”

DWORMAN: Old Woody Allen stand-up is funny, for sure. I played some old Bill Cosby stuff for my kids. I think this was before Bill Cosby went out of fashion, and they loved it. Now, they’re kids.

COWEN: And they didn’t know the backstory.

DWORMAN: They didn’t know the backstory. We loved Bill Cosby as kids. I don’t know if you’re —

COWEN: To me, it was never funny. It was too boring mainstream. My dad used to always tell me, “Bill Cosby is a creep.” And he would say, “Someday you’ll agree with me.”

DWORMAN: That’s amazing. How did he know?

COWEN: There were two people he would say were creeps: Bill Cosby and Woody Allen. He had a remarkable intuition for human character.

DWORMAN: Well, this goes back to what we were talking about at the beginning about these cues.

COWEN: That’s right.

DWORMAN: It’s amazing.

COWEN: He never met either one, of course.

DWORMAN: Now, he didn’t say something about a hundred other people?

COWEN: No, no. Those were the two that he signaled out and demonized.

DWORMAN: That’s remarkable.

COWEN: Yes. Bob Newhart — was he funny? It’s so low-key to me. I tried listening to some to prep for this conversation. It’s like funny for square people in 1963 or something, but to me it wasn’t funny.

DWORMAN: No, I don’t find it that funny. I went back and not so long ago listened and watched the Richard Pryor movie, where he does the Monkey and Leon Spinks and that stuff, and I still found that funny. But it’s rare. Comedy does not age well, and I don’t know why.

I will tell you this. It’s not stand-up comedy, but Chaplin — because we play Chaplin all the time in the restaurant — there are nights when the entire restaurant will be laughing at Chaplin.

COWEN: It still captivates me. I’m not sure I’m laughing, but it’s very powerful, I think, to this day.

DWORMAN: The end of City Lights, where he holds her hand, and she realizes that he’s a homeless guy or a bum, but she thought he was this rich man. Anyway, I’m trying to encapsulate him but it’s too complicated. And you’ll see multiple people with tears in their eyes at the end of this Chaplin movie in the restaurant.

COWEN: What accounts for that, in your view?

DWORMAN: Genius. There’s no other way. He was —

COWEN: He spanned Europe and America. He was not quite at home anywhere. Outsider, a little tramp, refugee.

DWORMAN: I don’t know. We’ve tried Buster Keaton. We’ve tried Laurel and Hardy. They did a lot of silent movies before they did talk. We’ve tried sampling all the greats of the silent era, and none of them seem to attract attention from the patrons other than Chaplin. Also, he’s acrobatic. There are roller skating scenes and boxing scenes and trapeze scenes and amazing stuff.

COWEN: W.C Fields, The Bank Dick, I thought still was funny.

DWORMAN: Yes, W.C Fields is funny and way ahead of his time. Actually, it wasn’t my idea, but the name Fat Black Pussycat, which is one of our rooms, is named after the bar in the movie Bank Dick. I think it might just be called the Fat Cat in that movie.

COWEN: What about comedy across borders? Forget about the Anglosphere. Brits are funny. Canadians, of course, are funny, but people from Israel, France, wherever, Germany. If comedy doesn’t age well across time, how does it, for you, age across borders?

DWORMAN: Apparently people like American comedy all over the world. Americans are not so keen on comedians from other countries. That’s it. When we have comedians come here from other countries, I don’t think anybody has done that well. Gad Elmaleh did pretty well for a while.

COWEN: They’re too culturally specific? Or they’re just not funny? How do you account for the difference?

DWORMAN: It has something to do with the power of American culture. American culture has been integrated by all the other countries in the world somehow. They’ve just grown up with it, and they get it. They get us; we don’t get them. That’s my best guess at it.

COWEN: You think they’re quite funny for their local audiences?

DWORMAN: They clearly are. They clearly are.

COWEN: Now, how many years have you been running the club?

DWORMAN: Since 2003. Is that thirty years? Twenty years.

COWEN: Over those years, across time, comedians to you — are they nicer? Are they meaner? How have they changed as a group or class of people? None of them will be listening to this podcast, so you can say what you really think.

DWORMAN: How have they changed over time?

COWEN: How have they changed? They’re more aggressive? They’re quieter?

DWORMAN: They are less aggressive. They are more careful. They’re less bro‑y, which is considered a bad thing, but the bros were fun. There was a raucous bro atmosphere, like the Bill Burr types. A lot of these people are famous now, but they’re grandfathered in. A young Bill Burr would have a tough time. People would look at him like, “Dude, you need to chill out. You can’t say that stuff anymore.” They’ve changed in that way, but in many ways they’re the same. They’re still smarter than most people. They’re still less easy to offend. They’re still much better company. They’re still much better conversations, much less boring small talk.

Comedians only like to hang out with comedians for these reasons, and they die a thousand deaths when they have to go to a dinner with people who are not comedians. They really don’t like it, because they cut out all the nonsense. They’re very, very honest and very, very direct. It’s coming to me as I’m answering you. They’ll share very personal details with each other in a way that most people won’t. Even people they don’t know that well. This is just part of their culture and part of their ethic, to be very, very honest. That’s a very captivating conversation to be in.

COWEN: How often do they marry each other?

DWORMAN: Not that often.

COWEN: Don’t they end up unhappy, then?

DWORMAN: Tom Papa is married to his wife, Cynthia, and they’ve been married for a long time and very happy. There are some couples — they usually break up. Listen, comedians — it’s not about marrying other female comedians. Male comedians are notoriously bad at love.

COWEN: Why is that?

DWORMAN: One might say it’s because a lot of them are damaged in some way, and that’s what makes them funny. It could be the lifestyle. I don’t know. They’re not like my law school friends, who are all happily married for a long time, with children. The comedians — they get divorced a lot, or they don’t get married at all.

COWEN: So, as a group of people, you think they’re less happy than, say, your lawyer friends?

DWORMAN: Less happy? That’s a good question. There’s a lot of depression. There are a lot of psychotropic drugs. Is that the phrase? A lot of mood drugs being taken by comedians, but if you read the paper, this is common throughout American culture. I don’t know if it’s more or they’re just, again, more open about it, because comedians will tell you, “I’m taking this, I’m taking that.”

I would have to say they’re not less happy because they love their work, and they can’t wait to go to work. My father used to tell me that most people live their whole lives for the weekend. They can’t stand going to work, and those people, I have trouble believing are happier than comedians.

And I have a job similar to this, where my whole profession is on my own terms. If I’m interested in computers, I can make that work for my profession. If I have music, whatever it was I wanted to do, this is happiness. So, unless they are chemically depressed people, as some people are, I think comedians are probably happier than most people.

COWEN: If there’s a truly beautiful woman, can she do stand-up comedy, or are the looks an obstacle?

DWORMAN: Oh, yes, absolutely. Whitney Cummings is very, very funny. I think she’s beautiful. She was a model. I know what you’re saying, but I don’t think it would be an obstacle. Yes, it’s true there haven’t been that many truly beautiful women doing stand-up comedy. I would not say that that’s the reason.

COWEN: Does the comedy have to change?

DWORMAN: It might. I think so much of this defies these rules of thumb. I think that when somebody comes along who has something original about them, something about their take on things, something about the way they speak — whatever it is, and it’s real — they will become big regardless of what it is. Again, it’s somebody with a super musical talent like Django Reinhardt, they’re missing fingers, they figure out how to play with their toes. When you have real talent, you will make it.

The problem is always that that’s the top 5 percent, whatever you want to say. Then there is the more mediocre category of people who are successful in stand-up comedy. In that group, then, you could maybe attribute these kinds of things that you’re talking about. Among the people with super talent, I don’t think it matters what they look like. I don’t think any of these things hold them back.

COWEN: If you do stand-up comedy for decades at a high level — not the Louis C.K. and Chris Rock level, but you’re successful and appear in your club all the time — how does that change a person? But not so famous that everyone on the street knows who they are.

DWORMAN: How does doing stand-up comedy change a person?

COWEN: For 25 years, yes.

DWORMAN: Well, first of all, it makes it harder for them to socialize. I hear this story all the time about comedians when they go to Thanksgiving dinner with their family, and all of a sudden, the entire place gets silent. Like, “Did he just say . . .” Because you get used to being in an atmosphere where you could say whatever you want.

I think probably, because I know this in my life — and again, getting used to essentially being your own boss, you get used to that. Then it just becomes very, very hard to ever consider going back into the structured life that most people expect is going to be their lives from the time they’re in school — 9:00 to 5:00, whatever it is. At some point, I think, if you do it for too long, you would probably kill yourself rather than go back.

I’ve had that thought myself. If I had to go back to . . . I never practiced law, but if I had to take a job as a lawyer — and I’m not just saying this to be dramatic — I think I might kill myself. I can’t even imagine, at my age, having to start going to work at nine o’clock, having a boss, having to answer for mistakes that I made, having the pressure of having to get it right, otherwise somebody’s life is impacted. I just got too used to being able to do what I want when I want to do it.

Comedians have to get gigs, but essentially, they can do what they want when they want to do it. They don’t have to get up in the morning, and I think, at some point, you just become so used to that, there’s no going back.

COWEN: I’ve known a few people who casually — they’re not comics, but they do improv comedy at local clubs a few times, and they think this will help them master social situations or give talks. Is that naïve? Or is there actually some benefit to trying that?

DWORMAN: John Podhoretz at Commentary — he apparently took improv classes for that reason. I know that public speaking is apparently the no. 1 phobia. I’ve read that, so I suppose getting used to being in front of an audience in some way would be helpful, but I think the law of diminishing returns probably kicks in pretty quick. It’s probably good to do a little bit. I don’t think it’s going to help you much to do it for a long time, but I don’t know.

COWEN: If there’s a young comedian appearing at Comedy Cellar for the first time, you can see they’re very nervous, do you say anything? Can you help them? What do you do?

DWORMAN: What I try to do is put them at ease if I can. They’re sometimes watching you when you audition them. My booker Estee does this way more often, and we speak about it. We try to laugh, try not to let them look out and see a stone face, try in some way.

Now, I know sometimes it’s common that the people auditioning people — I don’t know if it’s a power trip or whatever it is — they don’t do that. They’ll purposely not show any emotion to the person auditioning, which I think is counterproductive because you’re trying to find out how good they are. Why would you not want to do as much as you can to bring the best out of them? I try to bring the best out of people as much as I can. This was the same thing when I was auditioning musicians. But it’s hard because when they’re nervous, they’re really nervous. It’s hard.

COWEN: And just telling them “Don’t be nervous” is counterproductive?

DWORMAN: I don’t know if it’s counterproductive. I don’t think it works. Like when I was very nervous to do this interview, you could have said anything you wanted to me. It would have gone in one ear and out the other.

COWEN: I didn’t say anything to you.


DWORMAN: It wouldn’t have helped.

COWEN: We just talked about other stuff. We talked about the Beach Boys.

DWORMAN: Yes, taking my mind off it.

COWEN: How is New York City stand-up comedy different from LA comedy?

DWORMAN: Well, they say — and I don’t know; I’m repeating the only stuff I’ve heard — that New York stand-up comedy is more battle tested, is quicker and funnier and more highly regarded. That’s within the stand-up community. I would also say that there’s a lot more celebrities at the LA clubs — people like Joe Rogan — as opposed to here where they’re drop-ins. They’re on the lineups there. It’s much more difficult, much less stage time for an up-and-coming comic in LA. That’s what I’m told.

Part of the reason I was nervous about this interview is because I don’t think anybody realizes how uninformed I am in a certain way about anything that happens outside my little kingdom here — that sounds arrogant, but my little environment. I’m focused on everything that happens around me, and a huge amount of that has nothing to do with comedy. It’s about customers being happy and people being friendly and the hummus being made right and whatever it is, so I don’t know that much about LA comedy.

COWEN: How does Las Vegas comedy fit into the picture? And there, you have a club, right?

DWORMAN: Yes. Vegas audiences are . . . You’ll have more conservatives, more Trump supporters. It’s riskier to have a too political comic there who will start offending the Trump supporters, and whatever it is. Other than that, I’ve found to my surprise — or not to my surprise, but to the surprise of other people — that audiences are the same. That the people who are funny, are funny in Vegas just like they are in New York.

Hacks will do a little bit better in Vegas than they will in New York because more people in New York realize that they’re hearing something that’s not original. But funny is funny. People say maybe you can’t send somebody out too Jew-y or too whatever. No, doesn’t matter at all.

COWEN: How important is the seating arrangement for a good comedy show? Do you think long and hard, how close together should the seats be? How far away? Looking down, looking up? What’s the deal?

DWORMAN: The most important thing is that everybody should be a little bit closer than they want to be. The claustrophobia of the room, I think, is extremely important. It is not good to have people spread out. We do get complaints from time to time that the seats were too tight. It’s the one complaint I will not address in terms of making changes in the room because I know that it helps.

COWEN: Why does claustrophobia make the comics funnier?

DWORMAN: It’s just the intenseness, I guess.

COWEN: The synchronization is stronger within the audience?

DWORMAN: Definitely the laughs are louder, first of all. You are enjoying it with your friends in a closer, physical way. There’s just an intenseness to it. My answer may not be very eloquent, but obviously, anybody can just picture, as you spread people out, you can just intuitively understand, well, that’s just not going to work. You have to be close together.

COWEN: Louis C.K. once said that in the 1990s, the Comedy Cellar often was empty and there was hardly any audience. Why was that? What happened?

DWORMAN: Oh, boy, was it. First of all, weeknights at comedy clubs, in general, were basically empty. Comedy was not the popular thing that it is today, but the Comedy Cellar — even then, we were the newcomer and the low club on the totem pole. The Improv, the Catch a Rising Star, Carolines — these were the go-to clubs.

It was so slow that my father used to have the waitresses take off their aprons and all sit in the room, pretend to be customers so that if somebody would come to the door, they wouldn’t think they were the only customer. We went through all sorts of things to try to seed the room. The weekends were always busy because people want to go out on the weekends. It was very tough.

Actually, those were good old days, in a way, because the comedians had much less pressure on them in those days, so they would take chances. There would be hilarious improvised things. I just sent a whole wall full of VHS tapes to a digitizing place in Boston. They actually came to pick it up. It’s going to cost a lot of money, but I’ll have a lot of that period on video.

COWEN: You own the IP?

DWORMAN: No, I don’t.

COWEN: You don’t.

DWORMAN: The comedians own it. But I will then share it with them, and to the extent that they want to, have it released or given to a museum someday. There will be clips there of people like Louis C.K. performing to five people, and it’ll be a different aspect of Louis C.K. than anybody has ever seen. It’s fascinating, like seeing the Beatles in the Cavern Club or something.

COWEN: If you were not the top club back then — and please feel free to be immodest — and you are the top club right now, what is it the Comedy Cellar did in the meantime to get you to be the top club?

DWORMAN: That’s a good question. What I think it is, is that we were the most dedicated. Yes, it’s uncomfortable for me to talk this way, but this is what I believe. We were completely dedicated always, always, always to doing things the right way in terms of having the best comedians and treating the customers the way we wanted to be treated ourselves.

To this day, it’s an obsession with me. It’s harder and harder to keep that mentality as we’re so busy among the staff who become complacent, whatever it is. I regard this as a big challenge and a very important challenge that I have to overcome. It was the way we treated the comedians. My grandmother was a very warm host. My father was an extremely warm host.

COWEN: They ran the club before you did, right?

DWORMAN: Not my grandmother, but just like a Dworman family tradition. My father knew how to take care of people, treat them nicely. He was a performer himself. He understood the stage from a performer’s point of view.

I’ll give you a perfect example. To this day, every comedy club has a check spot, which is during the last comedians, they give out the check. Now, the comedians hate this because how can you pay attention to the comic while you are figuring out your check? From day one, my father said, “We’re never going to have a check spot. I don’t care what it takes. I don’t care if it takes longer to turn over the room. I don’t care if we lose a show. We are not going to have a performer having to compete with paying a check, especially if he’s talking. Music is bad enough.”

This was something he dug in on. To this day, our competitors have check spots, even their last shows, where there is no time constraint. Why? I cannot account for that. From that, you can extrapolate many things that they’re probably doing wrong because they don’t have their priorities straight.

COWEN: Why don’t you charge a higher price for Saturday nights? More people want to go, right?

DWORMAN: Dude, I just found out today that the New York Comedy Club is charging $38 plus a $5 ticket fee. Why would there be a ticket fee? It’s just a rip-off, and an $18 minimum. You’re talking about almost twice as expensive as we are. It just seems too much to me. Doesn’t it seem too much? Who wants to pay that much money?

COWEN: It sounds like a bargain compared to a lot of alternatives. Try going to see the Knicks. Now, that’s comedy of its own sort, but —

DWORMAN: I don’t know. I have to take a look at raising my prices. I had no idea. I didn’t mention this to you. You didn’t know. I just saw this today.

COWEN: I didn’t know this.

DWORMAN: $38. Also, I went to a piano bar called The Nines. A drink is $26, and our cover charge on a Saturday night is $26. Maybe I’m out of touch, and I do have to raise the prices in some way, but it’s always better to be full. It’s always better for people to think that they got their money’s worth. The longevity can’t be measured for that kind of philosophy, and you only know you’ve blown it when it’s too late. You only know you’ve raised your prices when it’s too late.

What I do keep track of in terms of metrics for my business is not how much money we take in. It’s how many people we turn away every week. I know if I see that number dropping, now I have to react to that. It’s all related to each other.

COWEN: Now, Estee is your gatekeeper for comedy talent. What makes her so good at that job?

DWORMAN: [laughs] I always say it was my father’s genius to hire a booker who didn’t speak English. Listen, she gets mad when I say this, but I’m going to be very honest. Knowing who the good comics are is not the challenge. It is obvious to anybody who the good comics are. You could not speak the language, be in the room, and know who the funny comics are. You hear the laughter, you see the audience.

However, she is tremendously good at other things. She is a Jewish mother. She takes care of them. You’re going to make me cry. She’s extremely loyal. This woman bleeds Comedy Cellar blue more than me. She worries about the club more than me.

She broke her rib a few weeks ago, in terrible pain. I said, “Estee, how are you doing?” She goes, “I’m in terrible pain.” I said, “You need to stay home. Stay home as long as you need.” She goes, “I’m at work.” I said, “What are you doing at work?” She knows she’s going to get paid. This is dedication. You cannot find this anywhere. People see that in her, and they respond to it. The most famous people in the world — Judd Apatow, John Mayer — they’re texting with Estee. They go out to dinner with Estee. They adore her. That is the magic that she brings to it.

When Trump used to talk about the deep state, it always rang true to me because every boss has a deep state in his business. For instance, I have a general manager. I’m not talking about my general manager. A customer’s complaining. Now, the general manager doesn’t want to let me know about the customer complaint because in some way this reflects on her management of the place. So immediately, the incentives are all bad.

That’s why it’s always better for your customer to ask for the owner because the owner is the only one who really, really cares. Estee is completely loyal. There is zero deep state with Estee. This, as a boss, is something you may never have. When you do have it, it’s priceless. I cannot tell you the sense of ease I have that I can speak with her totally candidly, totally frankly about any comedian, about anything in the world, and I know it stays between us. She’ll never ever let it on it. It’s an amazing thing.

COWEN: How is it that you notice when the level of the light in the club is dimmed ever so slightly?

DWORMAN: I just notice. My father had it. I have it. I can walk into a room and I notice it immediately. People I’ve trained who were there every day don’t notice. I’m like, “Don’t you see the . . .” “Oh, yes, you’re right, boss. I didn’t see that.” It’s a talent. I’ll cop to it. It’s a talent.

COWEN: What’s the craziest government regulation Comedy Cellar has to follow?

DWORMAN: The dumbest thing — it’s not huge to me — is that when they raise the minimum wage, they raise it for tipped employees rather than the people who are working hard in the kitchen, let’s say. Now our servers, I think, finally caught up with everybody. Our servers make, as a waitering job, quite a bit of money. Some of them can make $100,000 a year. They would pay me to work here. I’m not suggesting they do.

The regulations really didn’t take care of for a while . . . As I said, I think the minimum wage may have caught up now. They did not take care of the people who were really laboring hard at low wages. I thought that was a tremendous mistake.

The sum total of the regulations is crazy. It’s death by a thousand cuts. We wanted to move a wall downstairs to expand the kitchen by, I don’t know, seven feet. This was something we could have done without even closing.

In order to comply with the law, we were closed for six or seven months. You have to get the landmark commissioner. One thing after another, after another, after another. We can’t put in a bathroom because then we’d have to renovate the bathrooms downstairs and don’t have room for it. There are so many things.

We’re very, very fortunate because we’re established and we’re successful, but you wonder how it is that a new business can overcome these costs. When my father started his first place, he was a cab driver. The notion that a cab driver could aspire to opening a restaurant in the Village now — it’s impossible. You couldn’t do it.

COWEN: Coleman Hughes says I should ask you for your 9/11 story.

DWORMAN: Oh my God.

COWEN: He gave me help. I spied on you.

DWORMAN: Did he really?

COWEN: Of course he did.

DWORMAN: Well, this is not a flattering story at all.


COWEN: I don’t know that. I guess I will.

DWORMAN: I’ll try to do it short. When I was younger — not anymore. Listen, I was a musician. I’m not proud of it, but I caroused. I was not faithful to girlfriends. Whatever. I’m just copping to it. I can’t believe, because I texted Coleman today. He’s like, “It’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it.” Then the only bad question was from him.


DWORMAN: Yes. I had decided that the only way you could have an affair — I wasn’t married, God forbid — was that you and the woman had to be the only two people who know about it. I had this girlfriend. I said, “We’re going to go to Washington, DC.” I didn’t tell anybody. I can’t believe you’re doing this. I was in a hotel, and my cell phone is ringing and ringing and ringing, and I don’t want to answer it.

Finally, I answer it. It was someone working in the office, calling on behalf of my father. “Where are you? Your father’s going — ” I said, “I’m in DC.” Then I spoke to my father’s wife. “I’m in DC.” They’re like, “Don’t you understand what’s happened?” I had no idea. “Turn on the TV.” I turned on the TV, it was 9/11. The World Trade Center has fallen down. I said, “Well, I’m in DC.” That’s all I say. Then my girlfriend, now my wife — my wife knows the story. Her mother — I’m really trying to condense the story — shows up to the Olive Tree —

COWEN: That’s the attached restaurant, for listeners who don’t know.

DWORMAN: — looking for her daughter. She sees my stepmother, and she says, “Have you seen Juanita and Ava?” She says, “It’s okay. They’re in DC.” My wife’s mother says, “She’s not in DC. I just saw her two hours ago.” Then it dawned. I got busted on 9/11. I just remember you couldn’t get back into Manhattan, and it was burning. I was like, “I hope it burns and burns and burns.” I just kept putting it off and putting it off. It was the most horrible thing.

I will tell you an interesting aspect to that story. This story has been written up in a book, by the way, if anyone wants to get the long version of it. When we went out into DC that day, there was nobody at the White House. We began to walk down the path, realizing we could walk into the building, like January 6th.


DWORMAN: Then I got scared. I say, “You know what? This is probably not something we should do.” I chickened out and went the other way. It was before cell phones had cameras. It was like I Am Legend or something. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. I just happened to be there, and I couldn’t capture it, but deserted, like you could just walk right into the government buildings. It was crazy.

COWEN: Is there an alternate universe where you become a professional musician, a guitarist?

DWORMAN: Yes, there is. I would say that I was a very good musician in high school. I was hired as an accompanist for a classical oud player. I played Carnegie Hall and a number of important rooms of that type. I was recommended to study with Segovia. I was considered to be a —

COWEN: A lute player?

DWORMAN: A lute player? Oud, oud.

COWEN: Okay. Oud. Yes, sure.

DWORMAN: Which is, “la oute” is oud. The oud was a forerunner of the lute. Then I had a whole career playing music. I was pretty successful at it. I was good, not a genius musically. I play with some people who I could never play like they can play, but I was always the leader. I always became the leader in any situation, even with musicians who were better than me in certain ways. It’s related to knowing when the lights are up and down.

There was something about my sensibility musically — I will say this about myself — which was unique to me and very good. That’s why, to this day, I still play with the very, very best musicians in the world, who will come down and hang out in the Olive Tree.

COWEN: And you’re playing electric guitar then?

DWORMAN: I play a nylon electric guitar, but as a band leader, more than anything else, that was really something that I was just naturally good at.

COWEN: The old Burt Bacharach song, “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” — what are the chords?

DWORMAN: Oh, I know this. C, C major 7, C7. I could tell you all the chords.

COWEN: For all the songs by anyone? Coleman says you can.

DWORMAN: Coleman? No, not all the songs, not by anyone. I’m pretty good at it. I don’t have perfect pitch. People with perfect pitch are always better at it. I’m not as good as this guy, Nick Cassarino, who plays with me. He will have a higher batting average. I’m not a genius, I’m not, but I’m very good.

You hear old Beatle records — Paul McCartney is making mistakes. Music has so many different aspects that go into it in terms of what it means to be a great musician. There are artistic aspects to it. There are strategic aspects to it. There are sensitivity aspects to it. There are all sorts of things.

COWEN: Beach Boys, “I Get Around” — what makes it a great song?

DWORMAN: First of all, that introduction — it’s so fresh. There’s a barbershop kind of sound with this rock music. As a kid, I can remember vividly the first time I heard it. I’d never heard anything like it. That’s always impressive to me, when something comes out of nowhere and you can’t even trace it as a progression of what came before it. That’s what those Beach Boys songs were like to me.

That’s like the first time I heard “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” These kinds of things, I’m not exactly unique. The first time I heard “Teen Spirit,” the Nirvana song — there’s just something about . . . Again, I’m saying this, but everybody says that.

COWEN: First time I heard “Strawberry Fields Forever” — maybe I was 10 — I couldn’t believe it.

DWORMAN: “I Get Around” has that. Now, “I Get Around” is very sophisticated harmonically. It’s got a key change. He goes down a step afterwards, and I think he finishes where he started. You can’t say enough about Brian Wilson, right? This guy’s a real genius.

COWEN: Who’s the most underrated guitarist in your view?

DWORMAN: The guitar players who are not fancy, like Paul McCartney, whose touch is magical. You can tell it’s him immediately. Like Paul Simon. James Taylor gets more credit, but is also not understood to be the genius that he is because he basically invented an entire style. Nobody plays like him, nobody sounds like him, and nobody played like that before him. Willie Nelson’s soloing.

I know that people like Miles Davis. They get it because it’s so simple; it’s all phrasing. It’s something that anybody would think they could do, but they can’t quite do it like him. It’s like Sinatra singing. Nobody gets that, but yet, everybody can’t believe how good he is. He’s not singing like Ella Fitzgerald. He’s not singing like Tony Bennett. It’s almost approachable. You’d think you could almost sing like Sinatra, but you can’t.

The guitar players like that — I’ve listed some of them — those are the people I really admire. I never did enjoy the fancy guitar players like the guitar gods because that’s not really my approach to music. I’m more song-oriented. I like the songs. I even like the solos that are not necessarily improvised.

COWEN: The fact that you mastered the oud, which is unusual — how has that shaped your understanding of rock and roll in popular music? What is it that you see differently?

DWORMAN: Well, I’ll broaden out that answer because I don’t think I mastered the oud. I can play it.

COWEN: But you played it well.

DWORMAN: Yes. I was very, very lucky. I wish my father was alive for you to meet him. I had very, very broad influences in my home and a total lack of snobbery about anything. Actually, this is why I take to you in a way. I think you have that too. Anything that was considered to be great within its culture — the greatest Arabic music, the greatest whatever it was — it was assumed that it was upon me to learn why it was great.

You can do that. You bury yourself in it. You’ll always have an accent at it, in some way, but at some point, you get used to it, and then you begin to be able to discern the good from the bad. Then somehow, that becomes part of your vocabulary and how you play. That just happens. You can’t really plan that.

In some way, having all these influences made me unique in a certain way as a musician, but unique just in everything that I do, I like to think, because I try to be very, very open-minded. The answer meanders a little bit, but I do think these things are connected. It’s an idea that’s not limited to music. It’s just an approach to the world, and you’re the best example I know of this.

COWEN: Thank you. The Greenwich Village live music scene — does that have a future? Aren’t the rents too high? Too many tourists come here. Will it all just become stupid?

DWORMAN: I think it’s done. When I started a music club in ’88, everybody had live music. There was live music everywhere, not just on Bleecker Street, but throughout the city. A few things happened at the same time. First of all, fewer and fewer people play the kind of music which is practical for live venues. There’s much more electronic and hip-hop and whatever it is, number one. Number two, rents got higher and landlords don’t want noise and neighbors don’t want noise, and it’s almost impossible to control the noise.

DJs became super popular on their own, and DJs are way cheaper and more predictable in what they’re going to do. You hire some live band — you don’t know what they’re going to play or if they’ll show up. There are so many reasons that live music . . .

When I was a kid, MacDougal Street was . . . Now, this was during the folk-rock era, when the Lovin’ Spoonful was around the corner, and Dylan was . . . MacDougal Street was so busy, you couldn’t even walk down the street. The cars had to go at a tiny pace. It was a flood of people. You could see this a little bit in the movie The President’s Analyst. I don’t know if you ever saw it.


DWORMAN: There are clips of the Village in those days. Then it has just decayed ever since then. I think live music — I don’t think it’s coming back.

COWEN: Anywhere in New York?

DWORMAN: I don’t think so. I shouldn’t say never, but my Monday night live music that I do with Coleman — it’s pretty popular, but it’s very small. I couldn’t even imagine succeeding at a live music club now. You can do it with famous acts, but the non-famous live music club, no. I think that’s partly why comedy has gotten busier, too. Comedy, in certain ways, replaced music as a thing people go to do.

COWEN: Final question. What will you do next?

DWORMAN: Well, we just closed on the biggest thing I’ve ever done, which is a new building on Third Street. It was the former McDonald’s. I want to open a room that hopefully will be the flagship room. It should be a very, very intimate, 200-seat theater-ish kind of place with a mezzanine. I’m doing that also largely because I have kids, and I want to have enough that they don’t have to fight over it. I’ve seen so many families torn apart fighting over estates and things like that.

I’m trying to keep having fun. Again, one of the things I admire about you, and I think as I get to know you, and I’m more comfortable speaking with you — but I think that we’re similar only in the sense that I think you’re trying to live life on your own terms and do exactly what you want to do and enjoy exactly what you want to do when you want to do it. That has really been the joy of my life. So far, that’s what I’m trying to do. Now I have kids. That’s a huge joy in my life.

I don’t know exactly what I’ll do next after that. It’ll be whatever I want to do that I’m interested in at the time to enjoy myself. That’s really the way it’s been all along.

COWEN: Noam Dworman of Comedy Cellar, thank you very much.

DWORMAN: Thank you, Tyler. Thank you very much.