April 15, 2024
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April 15, 2024
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Trying to Fill a Comedy Desert in Upper Manhattan

There are more than 70 comedy clubs throughout Manhattan. The vast majority of them are located below 57th Street, making the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side comedy deserts.

For 36 years, Stand Up NY has been trying to fill the gap by recently packing the club on West 78th Street with theme nights.

At a comedy show on August 31, Stand Up NY packed the 110-seat house on a Wednesday night with a show billed as “Speaking Falafel” featuring Israeli immigrant comedians performing comedy in English.

Dani Zoldan, the owner of Stand Up NY, bought the club 13 years ago when he was 27 years old with “my best friend, Gabe (Waldman), who did stand-up when we were in high school together,” according to Zoldan. Within 10 months of Zoldan and Waldman taking over the club and providing a professional makeover, revenue tripled. An additional owner, former hedge fund manager James Altucher, has joined the duo in their venture.

Zoldan was a yeshiva student at Yeshiva University High School for Boys/MTA (the Marsha Stern Talmudic Academy) in Washington Heights on the Upper West Side while living on 18th Street between Broadway and Fifth Avenue. Zoldan does not do stand-up comedy. He says he just loves being around comedians.

“When I was in my mid-teens, I used to walk down Fifth Avenue and go to the Comedy Cellar on MacDougal Street,” Zoldan recalled for The Jewish Link. “I had my fake ID in hand that I bought on Eighth Street. I used to love going to The Comedy Cellar and seeing Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Dave Chapelle and Ray Romano. I was rubbing shoulders with everybody. I used to show up there almost every weekend. I love the atmosphere, the environment of being in a comedy club. It wasn’t only about the comedy. I just loved the people, the real people. It was a very authentic experience. People are there to laugh and forget about their problems. You can go there and whatever you’re going through in your life whether it’s divorce or doing poorly in school or grappling with financial issues, health issues or you’re down about something. I never did stand up. I don’t think I ever will. I have no interest.”

Zoldan found a way to survive the past two years during the pandemic when patrons did not want to or could not sit indoors for any length of time.

“During COVID, a lot of spaces opened up. We were closed for 13 months during COVID and we produced over 500 shows in parks,” Zoldan said. “We took over parks in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens. We did shows in churches, on rooftops, subways, everywhere except here. If I asked a comic to do a show in a park three years ago, I would get turned down. Now, if we say we’re doing a show at Sheep Meadow in Central Park, they’re game.”

Zoldan is also rolling out a new concept in comedy shows.

“We have a brand called Stand Up NY Presents where we do pop-up shows around the tri-state area,” Zoldan revealed. “We do a show twice a month in TriBeCa. We do shows at synagogues. We do shows at private member clubs. I had a recent meeting with The Circle Line cruises. They want to use one of their boats for a show.”

Zoldan is also bringing his brand into synagogues and vice versa. He opens up his club for performers to entertain Jewish audiences, including members of The Carlebach Shul located on West 79th Street.

“We do a show for The Carlebach Shul every December. Not all the comedians are Jewish but they need to be clean. We’re very good at curating the appropriate talent. We have a database of comics, a roster of 500 comics,” Zoldan revealed. “We pretty much know, if Carlebach Shul wants to do an event here, we know which 10 comics to reach out to and we’re hoping five of them would be available. We know who the comics are. We have their information. We built the roster of 500 by hearing through the grapevine who the better comics are. You hear from other comics and you see videos on social media.”

Zoldan treats the Upper West Side as a small town. He stays close to where he lives and gives back to the community with charity events but realizes there are costs he must cover. Patrons should plan on spending approximately $50 per night per person.

“We also do a lot of corporate events. It’s a hustle. It’s constantly trying to build our own. We have our overhead. We have our rent. We have our staff plus the inventory. We charge $25 for admission plus a two-drink minimum, which is approximately $12 a drink. We’re always trying to have shows that bring in talent because talent draws an audience. We pay the comedians about $50 to $100 a night, even for a weekend spot. It’s not a lot. Sometimes we do door deals with the comics. If a comic is a big draw and they can bring in a lot of people, we’ll give them a percentage of the admission ticket.”

A recent major comedy event in Brooklyn on the famed Coney Island Boardwalk, The Chosen Comedy Festival, brought in more than 4,000 people.

“I’m so happy it turned out well. It was a risky event. The space was massive. The comics were happy. It could have gone either way. I’m happy Modi and Elon (Gold) trusted me and they had a great experience,” Zoldan said.

A similar comedy festival is being planned for Miami at the end of December, Los Angeles in February and Israel in May, and back in Brooklyn next summer, Zoldan said.

Two of the comedians at the “Speaking Falafel” comedy show spoke with The Jewish Link about their efforts to have a successful career in comedy.

Barak Ziv has been performing comedy for approximately six years. The 42-year-old animator and graphics artist was born in Holon, Israel, and lives in Harlem with his girlfriend. His comedy is focused on dark one-liners and observational humor similar to that of Steven Wright, he said. Ziv speaks with a thick Israeli accent.

“My accent doesn’t interfere with the jokes,” he said. “I just have to slow down my speech a little bit when I’m on stage. In the beginning, I didn’t know what I was doing, I just went up on stage and fumbled around a lot. Looked at my notes. It wasn’t funny. It took a while with a lot of heartache and failures to get to jokes that worked. I just look at silly things on the street that makes me laugh and I come up with my own stupid things.”

Some the jokes Ziv told at the “Speaking Falafel” comedy show included:

I had a brilliant business idea… a farm to table petting zoo.

I had a friend who has been to rehab so many times… I think he’s addicted to rehab.

I’ve lived in New York City … ever since I moved here.

I used to follow my dream… until she took out a restraining order.

When one door closes another one opens… which is how I got the restraining order.

Erik Angel, a stage name, was the host of the comedy night. It was his inspiration to call the evening “Speaking Falafel.” Angel’s real name is Dotan Malach. He was born in Petah Tikvah, located in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. He released two music albums and was a journalist for many years before turning to comedy. He has been living in the United States for five years and resides near the comedy club with his wife.

“I love to collaborate,” Angel said. “I was a theater actor in Israel. I do improvisational comedy usually. I think I’m a very angry, energetic, edgy Jew trying to express myself in a second language. I’m not a mean comedian. I also don’t pick on people in the audience too much because it could be very threatening for the person in the audience. I’m sensitive about that. I work clean. I’m not a vulgar comedian. I do a lot of Jewish and Jewish-Muslim rooms.”

In March 2019 Malach created “Comedy for Peace,” a project that brings together Muslim and Jewish stand-up comedians for an inspiring, funny and unforgettable evening.

“We did more than 40 shows since we started. We moved to Zoom during the pandemic. We have toured universities. We have been back on the road since October of last year. We’re bringing communities together,” Malach told The Jewish Link. “People are afraid. It’s not an Israel–Palestine show and it’s a clean show. I have a video on TikTok about why Jews and Muslims have to be friends. We end it with a Q and A session. We’re just trying to do good.”

As for advice for up-and-coming comedians, Ziv and Malach had different takes.

“Don’t do it,” Malach said. “You’re doing this business only if you have to do it. You’re passionate for that. It’s not exactly logical… to run from day to day from different stages and to work our craft. If you’re already there and your heart is there, like I feel mine is, I recommend you to find you. There is only one you. That way you can be the most special you can be. Find yourself, write about yourself, deal with yourself, think about it.”

“Get used to rejection a lot. Build a thick skin because there will be a lot of rejection along the way and to remember it’s not personal,” Ziv said. “There are a lot of people trying to do comedy. Just try your best. If an audience member is a little drunk it’s okay but if they’re too drunk it could ruin the show.”

Another comedian on stage at both the Coney Island performance and the “Speaking Falafel” event was Modi, a 52-year-old Tel Aviv native. When approached at both venues, he declined to be interviewed for this article. His last name is Rosenfeld.

Modi moved to Woodmere, Nassau County, with his family when he was 7 years old. He graduated from Hewlett High School in 1988 and Boston University in 1992, majoring in psychology and minoring in voice. Modi studied cantorial music at Yeshiva University’s Belz School of Music and continues to sing as a hobby at the Sixth Street Community Synagogue, a Modern Orthodox shul in the East Village section of Manhattan. He was a Wall Street international banker for Merrill Lynch before entering comedy.

Modi claims Don Rickles, Jackie Mason, George Carlin and Louis CK as inspirations for his comedy. He is known for his comedic timing tied to the late, great comedian and actor Alan King. Modi was honored by the City of New York through a proclamation declaring June 26, 2018, “Mordechai ‘Modi’ Rosenfeld Day.”

One of his jokes went like this: Jambalaya (chicken or pork, sausage, crawfish or shrimp, onion, bell peppers, celery and rice) is cholent with everything that’s not kosher.

By Marc Gronich

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