In the mid-1990s, the Comedy Cellar was in a slump. One night there was just a single person in the audience — a tourist from the Netherlands who barely spoke English.
Comedian Gregg Rogell was set to go on, but when he saw how empty the room was, he decided to skip telling jokes on stage altogether. Instead, he sat down with the tourist and had a conversation for 20 minutes.
That was his set.
Today, the Greenwich Village hot spot is one of the most well-known comedy venues in the world, hosting names such as Kevin Hart and Dave Chappelle and turning away 1,000 people on an average Saturday night before the pandemic. Its history is detailed in the book “Don’t Applaud. Either Laugh or Don’t. (At the Comedy Cellar)” (Scribe), out now, by Andrew Hankinson.
“It was like a long, slow overnight sensation,” the Cellar’s current owner, Noam Dworman, tells The Post.
Located on a MacDougal Street block whose bohemian cool long ago gave way to trashy NYU bong stores and cheap pizza, the dark, subterranean venue certainly doesn’t look like much. It’s also small compared to many other clubs, with a capacity of around just 150.
Once a music venue owned by Dworman’s father, Manny, who died in 2004, the Cellar’s comedy roots started in 1981, when a comedian named Bill Grundfest walked in and asked if he could start using the room for his standup act.
“I walked past a couple of times because I just kept looking at this dank staircase and, ‘Oh, it’s just so icky,’ ” says Grundfest in the book. “But then I said to myself, ‘Places that aren’t icky, you’re not going to be able to get.’ ”
Grundfest (who later wrote for the 1992 sitcom “Mad About You”) set out to create a “warm and welcoming” atmosphere for the comedians performing there.
“When you’re in the uptown clubs, you had to be on your A game. You had to hit it every single time,” Hankinson tells The Post. “At the Comedy Cellar, comedians had more leeway. They could try jokes that might not succeed.”
Those who ran the club, and its longtime booker, Estee Adoram, also felt strongly that the comedians should be allowed to say whatever they liked. They didn’t censor the acts — though that sometimes meant taking heat from offended patrons.
“We would have to take flak at the door sometimes from customers that weren’t happy with what the comedians said,” Manny Dworman’s widow, Ava Harel, says in the book. “We’d say nicely, you know, ‘We understand, but that’s the art of comedy.’ ”
Then in the mid-1990s, interest in stand-up comedy dwindled, and several clubs went bust, including landmark venue Catch A Rising Star. The Cellar hung on, but comedians like Rogell were forced to perform for a single audience member — if they were lucky.
“On more than one occasion I had to literally start the show with no audience,” comedian Mike Royce says in the book.
One factor that helped the Cellar rise out of the slump was its MC, Lewis Schaffer, who was adept at standing outside the club and steering passersby into it.
Then, in the early 1990s, comedian Nick DiPaolo asked Manny if he would set aside a table in the Olive Tree Cafe upstairs (which he also owned) to serve as a greenroom for the comedians. This became known as the famous “comedians’ table,” where comics could gather, trade views and bust balls.
That table helped establish the Comedy Cellar as a clubhouse for comedians. Comics like Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld started dropping by, and regulars like Jim Norton and Bill Burr plugged the club while appearing as guests on radio’s “The Opie & Anthony Show.” The Cellar was also featured in the 2002 Jerry Seinfeld documentary “Comedian.”
The Cellar got yet another boost when it was featured heavily in the 2010 FX series “Louie,” starring Louis CK, then one of the world’s most respected comedians.
“We saw a lot of people coming in, a lot of people filming themselves doing the same opening that Louis did in his show,” Dworman says in the book. “The greatest comic in the world had given his stamp of approval for this small club.”
Major comedians attracted famous audience members to the club, including Katy Perry, Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro, and suddenly Noam Dworman had money to expand. He now also runs nearby spots Village Underground and Fat Black Pussycat.
Although the Comedy Cellar was hit hard during the pandemic (“We took a tremendous financial hit,” Dworman says), it survived mainly through Paycheck Protection Program loans.
Also, “My landlord was very reasonable with me, so we weren’t on the verge of being evicted,” Dworman adds.
The Cellar reopened in April, and Chris Rock, Dave Attell, Ray Romano and Amy Schumer have already dropped by.
No surprise, Dworman says that now, “Business is at capacity.”