Why stand-up comedy is theatre: Stand-up comedians on Broadway, famous comedy theatres, and comedy shows to see in New York
Thanks to Netflix, we have comedy at our fingertips 24/7. If you missed John Mulaney at Radio City Music Hall, Mike Birbiglia on Broadway, or Hannah Gadsby at Soho Playhouse, you can stream their sets whenever you want. But there’s no thrill like seeing a comedy show live and laughing together with your fellow audience members in real time.
Comedy and theatre are a lot alike. In fact, we’d argue that stand-up is just another genre of theatre, like plays or musicals. For starters, your favorite comedy specials and Broadway shows all take place on a stage in front of an audience. Plus, comedy is live entertainment with a story (or multiple), complete with twists and turns and ups and downs that keep you engaged the whole time.
Some comedy shows even pull out all the stops by adding costumes, sets, props, and even music. Think of comedy like a “based-on-a-true-story” show. But rather than being based on a somber event, like a musical such as Come From Away, stand-up comedy is based on true stories that will leave you cracking up.
Still don’t believe us that comedy is theatre? Read on to discover the theatrical origins of some of your favorite comedy specials, Broadway shows that have starred comedians, and the best theatres where you can catch comedy acts. You’ll discover just how much overlap there is between the genres. So whether you think you like one more than the other or are a fan of both, you’ll find something to love and laugh about at these shows.
Famous stand-up comedy theatre shows
Stand-up comedy involves live performance, creating a character (even if that character is the writer/performer), and storytelling. Sounds like theatre to us! Some stand-up shows lean especially toward the theatrical, as they focus on one central story or theme, or they include theatrical elements like props and impersonations of other characters. Here are a few you might recognize.
Hannah Gadsby: Nanette
Before Nanette was a Netflix sensation, Hannah Gadsby’s solo comedy show (in which she, ironically, claims to be giving up comedy) was a niche critical hit at the Soho Playhouse. Nanette was also her New York debut show, and the one that got the Tasmanian native’s name on the U.S. map. Gadsby subverted expectations of both theatre and comedy by mostly getting rid of gut-busting humor and instead sharing the tension and fear she experiences as a lesbian and gender-nonconforming woman, and how that influences her dark brand of comedy.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge: Fleabag
Soho Playhouse was home to the U.S. premiere of another hit theatrical comedy: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. Other actors joined for the BBC TV adaptation, but when Waller-Bridge performed the show live, she was all on her own, telling the story of “an oversexed, emotionally unfiltered, and self-obsessed woman who suddenly finds herself with nothing to lose.” She came up with the idea when she had to create a 10-minute segment to perform at a stand-up storytelling event, and the rest is history!
Jacqueline Novak: Get On Your Knees
Jacqueline Novak’s Get on Your Knees — a show about the semantics of, and her experiences with, oral sex — sounds like a bit of a hard sell, but her fresh, feminist brand of comedy made the show a smash hit upon its premiere. Like hit Broadway shows whose New York runs must eventually end, Get on Your Knees took to the road after leaving the Cherry Lane Theatre, and her theatrical, farcical set is now coming to cities across North America.
Colin Quinn: Eight shows and counting
Colin Quinn has built his career on comedic stage shows — the Brooklyn native has premiered eight of them either on or off Broadway. They include Irish Wake, My Two Cents, Long Story Short, Unconstitutional, The New York Story, Red State Blue State, The Wrong Side of History, and The Last Best Hope, all of which deal with politics, American history, and Quinn’s New York upbringing. You’ve probably seen at least one while scrolling through Netflix or HBO, as four were filmed and streamed. His HBO special, Colin Quinn & Friends: A Parking Lot Comedy Show, took a page from the digital theatre of 2020 and filmed at a Brooklyn drive-in movie theatre!
Mike Birbiglia: The New One
Solo comedy also hit the big stage when Mike Birbiglia made his first and only Broadway appearance in The New One. He wrote and starred in the show about how he prepared, physically and emotionally, to become a parent. With a busy, colorful set modeled after a kid’s playroom — a rug on the floor, a stool, tons of plushy toys strewn around the stage — there’s no denying that The New One was full-fledged theatre. (Birbiglia is also a fixture in the theatrical stand-up comedy world, with shows like Sleepwalk with Me and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.)
Comedians who have appeared in theatre
So much theatre is comedic, so it’s no wonder that Broadway and Off-Broadway shows cast comedians all the time. Since comedians often play characters in sketches, skits, and stand-up sets (as slightly dramatized versions of themselves), they can naturally hop between comedy and theatre. Here are some performers who have put their comedy chops to use in non-stand-up theatre shows. Did you catch any of them?
John Mulaney and Nick Kroll: Oh, Hello!
Oh, Hello! originated as a comedy act, in which John Mulaney and Nick Kroll performed as George St. Geegland and Gil Kaizon, respectively, on shows like Kroll Show on Comedy Central, Late Night with Seth Meyers, Conan, and more. After honing their characters — two old, eccentric, misinformed, and slightly creepy Upper West Side men — at various venues since 2008, the pair adapted Oh, Hello! into a play. It premiered at the Cherry Lane Theatre, went on tour, and had a 15-week Broadway engagement.
Cecily Strong: The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe
Fellow funny woman Lily Tomlin made The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe iconic (Jane Wagner wrote the show for her, after all) when she originated its sole role — er, 12 roles. Tomlin pivots between many characters across space and time as one of those, the “bag lady” Trudy, is explaining a woman’s history of Earth to aliens. The play was just revived at The Shed, this time with SNL comic Cecily Strong making her New York stage debut in the role. Strong, who’s known for her impressions of Broadway stars and leads the musical TV show Schmigadoon!, is a perfect example of how comedy and theatre collide.
Amy Schumer and Keegan-Michael Key: Meteor Shower
Meteor Shower featured a cast and creative team full of out-of-this-world comedians. For one, multi-award-winning actor/comedian Steve Martin wrote the show, an absurdist comedy set at two couples’ dinner party. The four-person cast included two famous comedians: Amy Schumer and Keegan-Michael Key (who would later go on to onscreen theatre projects like Schmigadoon! and The Prom film), both making their Broadway debuts. Schumer even got a Tony nomination!
Lea DeLaria and Rachel Dratch: POTUS
The news of Rachel Dratch’s Broadway debut was anything but a (Debbie) downer. And since the comedian’s most recent SNL appearances have involved her doing political comedy as Amy Klobuchar, it’s fitting that her debut is in POTUS, a new farce about seven women who have to wrangle a troublemaking president. Alongside her is Lea DeLaria, who is both a comedy veteran and Broadway veteran: She appeared in shows like On the Town and The Rocky Horror Show before gaining her Orange is the New Black fame.
Stand-up comedy shows to see in New York now
New York is the city that never sleeps, and it’s the city that always laughs (contrary to what you might think when you pass a New Yorker on the street). There’s comedy around every corner. To help get you started, check out these comedy shows playing in New York right now, and get tickets on TodayTix.
Alison Leiby: Oh God, A Show About Abortion
Named the best political comedy of 2021 by The New York Times, Alison Leiby’s stand-up comedy set was born of her experience exercising her reproductive rights. During one summer that “started with a bang” and ended with an abortion, Leiby dealt with a lot of minutae she’d never thought about, like picking the right outfit and facing the CVS fertility aisle. She’s performed Oh God, A Show About Abortion all across New York City, and now she’s settling into the Cherry Lane Theatre for a run through June 4.
Alex Edelman: Just For Us
When Alex Edelman brought this comedy show to the Cherry Lane Theatre, it felt like a treat just for us New Yorkers to see him perform in such an intimate space. But he’s actually been making a splash with this show since 2018! Like Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, the premise doesn’t seem comedic at first: Edelman recounts how he infiltrated a neo-Nazi meetup after receiving hate from them online. However, unlike in Nanette, Edelman leans fully into gut-busting comedy. The show is playing a second New York engagement at the Soho Playhouse, and a third at the Greenwich House Theater starting in June.
All Star Stand Up
All Star Stand Up brings you face-to-face with some of your favorite comedians from the screen. The series brings in a rotating lineup of comedians that have appeared on HBO, Comedy Central, Last Comic Standing, and more. There are also plenty of up-and-coming comedians featured, so you could see the star of the next hit Netflix special before the rest of the world. If you’re looking for an evening of fairly traditional stand-up, this series is for you.
Improv 4 Kids Live
Comedy is for all ages! Little kids love to laugh, so if you’re looking for some family-friendly comedy, check out Improv 4 Kids Live. The show is designed like a traditional improv sketch comedy show: The audience members get to suggest topics for skits, songs, and scenes, and the performers bring them to life. But since the kids get to make the suggestions, you can be assured that all the comedy is appropriate for children of all ages.
Katsura Sunshine’s Rakugo
Katsura Sunshine blends Eastern and Western styles of comedy in his show, inspired by a 400-year-old tradition of Japanese comic storytelling. It’s like stand-up, but Sunshine performs kneeling on the floor in a kimono, with a fan and hand towel as props, and regales the audience with hilarious stories to rival any other comedy act.
Eight is Never Enough
Eight is Never Enough is a shining example of comedy as theatre. The show combines Broadway-themed humor with improv. Like any other live show, no two performances are exactly the same. But this one calls to mind Broadway hits like freestyle love supreme in that the audience provides suggestions for skits and bits, and you could even be picked as a volunteer to go on stage and join the fun.
Vern & Friends
The Vern improv troupe has been creating musicals on the spot for eight years, and they continued doing so even during the pandemic. Now they’re back in person with plenty of special guests, lots of spontaneous showtunes, and all the singing, dancing, and showbiz energy you could ask for in a musical. Broadway’s not the only place to catch an entertaining musical comedy!
The Cage Match
Billed as “improv to save the future,” The Cage Match is a comedy battle set 100 years in the future. It’s 2121, and two improv comedy teams try to develop the best comedy weapon. Your votes decide the winner of the battle — and the fate of the world.
Musical lovers will enjoy Shitzprobe, where a Broadway guest star improvises a musical on the spot. Just because your favorite Broadway star isn’t in a show right now doesn’t mean you can’t see them sing and perform live. And where else can you suggest topics for them to sing about?
Your Love, Our Musical
Have a date night like no other at Your Love, Our Musical. One couple is chosen from the live audience, they share the details of their love story with the audience and the show’s hosts, and then they get to sit back and watch a musical version of their story created on the spot. The in-house musicians create fully original scores on the spot in all types of genres, so you’ll get a laugh while hearing some totally unique music.
Velvet Brooklyn hosts a weekly comedy show called The Setup in its Instagram-worthy lounge. Come for the exposed brick and red velvet seats, stay for the rotating lineup of comics. Five to six comedians perform short stand-up sets at each show, which lasts 90 minutes in total.
Where to see stand-up comedy in New York
There are too many comedy venues in New York to count, especially considering that so many of New York’s theatres, from Radio City Music Hall to Broadway’s Cort Theatre to small Off-Broadway spaces, have played host to stand-up comedy shows at one point or another. Check out these venues with shows you can get tickets for on TodayTix. Keep an eye on them — you might find your next comedy fix, but you might also be among the first to see a future hit comedy act.
Cherry Lane Theatre
The cozy Cherry Lane Theatre, which has hosted plays, musicals, comedy, and everything in between, has become New York’s latest stand-up theatre spot. Since Jacqueline Novak made a splash with Get On Your Knees there, the Cherry Lane has hosted Neal Brennan’s Unacceptable, Alex Edelman’s Just For Us, and more.
Want to see the next hit Netflix special up close and personal? Go to Soho Playhouse, one of New York’s oldest Off-Broadway theatres. The building and its small, dim performance area are unassuming, but the tiny space can fit a whole lot of talent. Popular shows like Nanette and Fleabag made their U.S. debuts here, and the venue is currently home to an encore engagement of Alex Edelman’s Just For Us.
Broadway Comedy Club
Broadway Comedy Club is perfect for audiences who don’t just want to see the comedy, but get involved. Recurring improv shows like Eight is Never Enough and Improv 4 Kids Live take live suggestions from the audience, so you can go back again and again and never see the same routine twice. The club’s All Star Stand Up series also features a rotating lineup of stand-up comics, but you just get to sit back, watch, and laugh.
The Players Theatre
The Players Theatre has it all: musicals, plays, and of course, comedy. The venue plays host to troupes like Rufus Khan, a short-form improv comedy group, and Late Night Hump, whose shows follow one man whose travels through multiple dimensions are guided by the audience. There are also shows like Bragging Rights, a comedy-show-meets-roast battle where two teams of comedians duke it out to become sketch comedy champions.
Tucked away in Chelsea, Asylum NYC is the best comedy spot you haven’t gotten to yet. The comedy club is currently hosting three shows: Vern & Friends, Shitzprobe, and The Cage Match, each with its own spin on improv. All of them, though, involve audience input. Don’t just see a show — join the show! Asylum also hosts sketch comedy and stand-up, too, so look out for even more shows for every kind of comedy fan.