Baltimore's Comedy Factory is one of the only places in the city where being doubled over doesn't mean you've been shot.
That's a good start.
This tiny and somewhat hidden venue, located above Burke's Caf?? on the corner of Pratt and Light Streets is small on glitz and big on laughs. The waiting area outside the theatre is cramped before a show, and you probably won't recognize the faces of most of the comedians whose promo shots line the walls. The theatre is filled with cheap restaurant chairs and folding tables, and the stage is more like a platform in front of the classic brick wall backdrop.
But for a college student, or simply anyone who's out to have a great time on a weekend evening, it's just the thing.
Now in it eighth week of new ownership, the Comedy Factory, formerly a Def Jam club, is trying to steer towards more conventional comedy. "We're taking it in more of mainstream direction with more mass appeal," says General Manager Daniel Tracey.
Despite its more narrow appeal in the past, the venue has had its share of big names since its inception in 1985, including Robin Williams and Chris Rock. But even with Tracey's new mission, big names aren't really what the Comedy Factory is all about. You probably won't see such huge headliners on a usual weekend evening.
"I think that for national headliners, [Baltimore is seen as] a stop between [New York City and Washington, D.C], but there are a lot of local comics that have come out of Baltimore," says Tracey. "Baltimore has a great scene."
According to Tracey, Dave Chappelle, star of Comedy Central's hit Chappelle's Show and movies such as Half Baked, used to MC at the Comedy Factory every weekend. Blaine Capatch, host of Comedy Central's Beat the Geeks, is also a native Baltimorean who has performed there. The King of Queens co-star Patton Oswalt regularly performed in Baltimore early in his career, and Lewis Black of The Daily Show is also originally from Charm City.
Tracey, who has a show on 98 Rock, makes the decisions on booking performers for the club. Each show features three comedians including an MC, a feature act and a headliner.
"MCs are typically people that are just getting started -- it's almost like an audition process," explains Tracey. "That's the way you get your foot in the door in the triage of becoming a headliner."
MCs typically perform for 10 minutes and introduce the feature acts, who perform for 20 minutes, and the headliners, who perform for 40 minutes. While headliners are actively sought by the club, MCs and feature acts have to court the powers that be.
"A feature act has been around for a while -- not quite a headliner but doing really good," says Tracey. Typically, feature acts send in audition tapes or DVDs to the Comedy Factory, and Tracey reviews them. He admits that the three major criteria used in judging these performances are professionalism, mass appeal and relate-ability.
"If it's somebody talking about L.A., it's probably not going to work here," he says. "I think I'm pretty well in tune with what people in Baltimore find funny."
As far as headliners are concerned, Tracey looks for many of the same qualities, but the standards as far as experience are higher.
"Most of our headliners have minimum Comedy Central exposure, if not movies," he says. "With the headliners we put in, we haven't had any complaints since we've been open."
And although Tracey tries to find mass appeal, he realizes that he can't please everyone. "It's a risk," he admits. "It's kind of like a movie -- you may go and not like it. I try to have acts that everybody will like."
Shows at the Comedy Factory are held on Fridays at 8:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 10:30 p.m. Cover charge usually runs at about $15, and there is a two drink minimum.
As is the general policy for most clubs, you must be 18 years of age to get in and 21 to drink. Beers and mixed drinkers run at around the same price as a bar in downtown Baltimore.
"You can come here every weekend if you want to, and you're not spending $300 every time you walk in the door," says Tracey. "You can come in just like it's your favorite bar and watch a show."
"Our mission is to provide Baltimore with a place where they can go on a weekend night and have a great time," says Tracey. "Laughter in my opinion in one of the best medicines out there -- you can forget about all the worries in your life without spending an arm and a leg."