Philadelphians love to laugh — no really, we do — but compared to other cities, there’s a scarcity of comedy clubs here. Why? Not even the pros know.
“My biggest fan base is in Philadelphia,” says veteran comic and SiriusXM star Jim Norton. “They’re crazy there. Philadelphia comedy fans are absolute maniacs. Why there aren’t more comedy clubs there is a mystery to me.”
Tonight the scene in Philly takes a big leap forward with the grand opening of Punch Line in Fishtown.
Located across from the Fillmore, the 300-seat space follows the same, next-gen idea as the luxe new entertainment venue also operated by Live Nation: Don’t rush the customer in and out. Just like the Fillmore encourages the audience to have dinner before the show and drinks afterward, so does Punch Line with its built-in bar and a restaurant (the menu features gourmet pizza, burgers, salads and apps).
But comedy is still the main event.
“There is no other comedy town like Philly,” says Live Nation president of comedy Geof Wills. “Whenever we’ve had a show at the Tower Theater or the Merriam or in Camden, it’s done very well…it makes so much sense to open Punch Line in Philadelphia.”
The name “Punch Line” is fitting for a Philly club, since local stand-up crowds have been known for being a little rough.
Wills himself witnessed what is perhaps the most infamous comedy event in the Delaware Valley’s history. When Opie & Anthony’s “Travelling Virus Comedy Tour” played Camden a decade ago, local comic Dom Irrera was brutally heckled by the alcohol-addled audience — as were other humorists.
“I remember telling Tracy Morgan that he didn’t have to do his full set since it was such a bad environment,” Will says. “He did 12 minutes instead of 20. But after Dom Irrera got it from the crowd, Bill Burr put on one of the most amazing performances.”
Burr savaged the Camden crowd with a brilliant extemporaneous salvo — and then got a well-deserved standing ovation.
“It helped him turn the corner from a career standpoint. It was incredible,” Wills says. “And it happened just across the river from where Punch Line is. There are so many comedians who are amazing in Philadelphia. It’s a great place for comedy. Look at what comics came out of Philadelphia.”
David Brenner, Kevin Hart, Tina Fey and Bob Saget are just a few of the humor stars born and raised in the region.
“I think Philadelphia makes a certain impact on you when you grow up in that area. Philadelphia comics tell stories in a certain way,” says Saget, a native of Abington. And then there are the audiences. “They can be unbelievably great…or rough.”
Four years ago, a heckler was ejected from the fourth row during Saget’s show at the Keswick.
“He was just relentless,” Saget remembers. “But once he was gone, it was a great show. Fans from Philadelphia are passionate about sports and entertainment.”
That palpable passion is what Live Nation to open Punch Line, the concert company’s fourth comedy room in the country, and first outside California.
“The audience is there for a nice comedy room with great lineups. We’re going to make every night they come out to the venue a memorable one,” Wills says.
“We would like to make people happy,” he adds. “We want to make them comfortable. There’s an outdoor patio and a great bar and vibe. Why do it another way? It’s about having a great venue but it’s also about having quality entertainment.”
During Punch Line’s soft-opening this week, Dave Chappelle brought the house down. Other comics slated to perform over the summer include Bill Bellamy (‘Last Comic Standing,’ Russell Simmons’ ‘Def Comedy Jam’), Robert Kelly (‘Louie’), Marlon Wayans (‘White Chicks’ and ‘Scary Movie’) and Nikki Glaser (Comedy Central’s ‘Not Safe With Nikki Glaser’).
Is there a dream comic Wills would love to book?
“I would love it if Kevin Hart would agree to perform at Punch Line,” Wills said. “That would be an incredible event. The last show I did with him was at [Lincoln Financial Field].”
Hart’s August 2015 show at the Linc set a precedent: It was the first-ever comedy show booked at an NFL stadium. The event was a sell-out, and Hart performed in front of more than 53,000 fans.
That’s quite a difference from the capacity at Punch Line.
“It might be too pie in the sky to hope he can play Punch Line, but it can’t hurt to ask,” Wills says. “Kevin is unique and he’s also a machine. [He’s] promoting movies, but he’s a Philly boy. Maybe he’ll play. How great would that be? The Philly guy playing the Philly club for a city that can’t get enough comedy.”