In the warmly lit back room of Clinton Hall – a bar tucked away in the Belmont neighborhood of the Bronx — Ben Asher stands on stage, mic in-hand with a small personal joke book placed on a nearby stool.
“Every year. People magazine. Sexiest Man Alive. Well, shouldn’t this year’s winner first have to kill the previous year’s sexiest man alive – Right? How is that possible? That doesn’t make sense. He’s still alive!” Asher jokes as the audience chuckles in between bites of nachos and swigs of beer.
Asher is the producer and fellow comic of Arthur Avenue Comedy – a weekly stand-up show that performs every Wednesday night at Clinton Hall, where they serve food, drinks and belly laughs. And this year, along with the Bronx Brewery, they will be the borough’s first-ever representatives in the 18-year history of the New York Comedy Festival.
Founded in 2004 by industry giant Caroline Hirsch, of the world-famous and eponymous comedy club Caroline’s on Broadway, the New York Comedy Festival is one week of laughs where more than 200 comics and 50-plus venues are featured on the lineup — it runs from Nov. 7-13.
Caroline’s on Broadway — celebrating its 40th anniversary — produces the festival and is also credited with boosting the career of comics like Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reubens aka Peewee Herman.
“I don’t know if I’m responsible for them being big stars, but I hired them when nobody knew them,” said Hirsch.
When asked why the festival has never featured a Bronx location prior to this year, Hirsch said, “Sometimes everything just works out perfectly and other times we struggle to find venues that can handle what we do.”
But thanks to Asher’s hard work and perseverance, the Bronx will finally be part of the star-studded event. Asher launched Arthur Avenue Comedy this February after being approached by Clinton Hall owner and New York City restaurateur Aristotle Hatzigeorgiou, while he was performing a set at Slate NY in Chelsea.
“It’s [one of] the only comedy shows that always provides all of the performers it showcases with long set times, allowing them to flex their comedy muscles on stage and really hit their stride,” Asher told the Bronx Times. Whereas most comedy sets are 8-10 minutes long, each Arthur Avenue Comedy set runs about 20 minutes.
In addition to providing a venue for comics to strut their stuff, Asher works to “book a show that looks like New York City,” he said, referencing the multi-national diversity of the Big Apple.
And diversity is a big part of what draws comics to NYC.
“It’s way more diverse than where I’m from and that’s what I really love,” said Stephon Hightower, who ventured from St. Louis, Missouri, to the Bronx nearly four years ago.
Hightower and his partner Ishmael Gaynor are the co-creators of Top Borough Comedy, which performs out of the patio of the Bronx Brewery in Port Morris. “The Bronx has become my second home and the people are very welcoming,” Hightower added. “I feel like the adopted son.”
It takes courage and thick skin to get on stage in an attempt to make people laugh – not an easy task and sometimes, a thankless one, as comic Misha Han can attest to. “I’m Chinese which means growing up my parents had a problem with pronouncing American phrases – like, ‘I love you’ and ‘I’m so proud of you doing stand-up comedy,’” Han, who is part of the Arthur Avenue Comedy lineup for the festival, told his cackling audience at one of his many sets.
Han’s act is racially charged and sometimes self-deprecating as he uses stereotypes to quell the dissonance of audience members – “I feel for a lot of audiences that I’m the first Asian person that they ever meet,” said Han, whose humor serves as a way to “kind of make a good first impression.”
And in a time where daunting news and headlines seem to weigh heavy — especially in the Bronx — a laugh may just be the medicine the doctor ordered.
As part of the New York Comedy Festival, Arthur Avenue Comedy at Clinton Hall and Top Borough Comedy at the Bronx Brewery will be featured on Nov. 9 and Nov. 10, respectively. Tickets can be purchased here.
This story was updated at 5:53 p.m. on Nov. 7.
Reach ET Rodriguez at [email protected]. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes