The Comedy Cellar – 2018 Village Awardee

The Comedy Cellar is one of the most iconic comedy clubs in the world if not THE most iconic. This family-owned business is also one of GVSHP’s 2018 Village Awardees.

Since 1982, The Comedy Cellar has been the testing ground for some of the world’s leading comics. Luminaries have performed and gotten their starts here and continue to drop in today and practice their new routines. Owner Noam Dworman also owns the Village Underground, the Olive Tree Cafe, and the Fat Black Pussycat. But it all started back in the early 1970s, when you could be a cab driver and aspire to open a venue in a bustling neighborhood like Greenwich Village. Noam’s father Menachem (Manny) did just that.

Spike Lee with Manny. Image via The Comedy Cellar.

Manny’s first coffee house, Feenjon’s, was on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Commerce Street. This was the beginning of what would become Greenwich Village legend. Noam recounts the exciting backdrop of his childhood:

“That period, ’62, ’67, ’69 — MacDougal was mobbed.  Bob Dylan was there, it was the center of the Universe. Just to drive from Washington Square to Minetta Lane took twenty-five minutes. My father used to express to me, ‘I love going to work.’ I grew up in a house where you were supposed to enjoy doing what you are doing.”

Manny’s friend Bob Engelheart ran the kitchen and Manny booked acts such as young Jose Feliciano and Bob Dylan. The coffee shop morphed into an Israeli Middle Eastern Nightclub. The whole operation moved to MacDougal Street and expanded, taking over what is now The Comedy Cellar, Olive Tree Café, and Café Wha. The Village Underground and the Fat Black Pussycat were added to the roster in later years.

In 1981 comedian Bill Grundfest approached Manny with the idea to do comedy. Among the first crop of comedians to come his way were Jon Stewart, Gilbert Gottfried, and Bill Maher. Noam recalls tough times, “I remember my father saying, ‘I think we are just one snowstorm away from the end.’ Ninety-five percent of the time we were struggling financially.”  Manny passed away in 2002 and Noam had to make tough decisions on where to focus his energies. In doing so he had to let Café Wha go.

Many credit Estee Adoram for The Comedy Cellar’s success. She has been booking talent for the Dwormans since 1984. As the gatekeeper for The Comedy Callar, her reputation in the field of comedy is unmatched.

Jon Stewart at The Comedy Cellar in 2000. Image via The Comedy Cellar

But Manny’s touch is still alive in his venues, from the original slate top tables, to the stained glass windows bearing his name at the Comedy Cellar, to the stained glass windows decorating the Olive Tree Café, salvaged from an ice cream parlor. Also decorating the walls are intricate drawings of patrons made by Noam’s mother, lending a cozy, homey feel to the place.

Longtime employee Muhammed Taweel gets a little emotional remembering Menachem. He has been with the outfit for thirty-nine years. This is not unusual. Many staff members have also been working there for many years or decades, providing a comfortable, family feeling for the employees, the artists who perform and relax there, and for the admiring patrons.

Noam and Muhammed sitting at the original slate tables where they reminisce about Menachem with great love and admiration.

After periods of success and struggles, the Comedy Cellar is now enjoying an amazing upswing. Noam noted, “Like the music of the 60s and 70s, we are experiencing a golden age of comedic talent.  And not just comedians, but leading minds hanging out, an intellectual environment, a wonderful scene, it’s a joy to hang out here… the most talented people in the world, hanging out.”  Noam is referring to weekly debates with luminaries such as Alan Dershowitz, on topics such as The Russian Probe, Feminism, and the future of America. Other notables who enjoy hanging out as well as performing include Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Michelle Wolff, and Judd Apatow, who Noam says calls the place “magical, just like being at summer camp.” Business is good.  Comedy Central just picked up eight episodes of material culled together from weekly tapings at The Comedy Cellar.

Read more about the 2018 Awardees here, and RSVP for the event on June 6th.

Read an oral history of The Comedy Cellar in Vanity Fair here.

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