The world knows Seattle as a great music city, thanks to Nirvana, Macklemore and a slew of other well-known bands, but can it also be known for comedy?
Maybe, now that we have an A-list room.
In June, Parlor Live opened in downtown Seattle, marking the first time in decades this city has had a brand-new comedy club. Though quality venues exist on the Eastside, until now, the 33-year-old Comedy Underground, in Pioneer Square, has stood as the only club dedicated to the genre that has endured
“Seattle isn’t there yet, but it has the potential for a strong scene … having more than one club will definitely help,” said Seattle comedian Derek Sheen.
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Parlor Live is a major new venue and its owner is optimistic, even though some say Seattle audiences aren’t ideal for comedy. The Emerald City doesn’t have the showbiz machinery of New York or Los Angeles. But there is a rich local history with the genre and a vibrant local scene. Competition may improve it, giving local comics more options and encouraging the best ones to stay here, rather than leaving town for bigger markets.
Parlor Live may help keep them here. Situated in the heart of the Westlake shopping district, near the corner of Sixth Avenue and Pine Street (previous home of a Fox Sports Grill), the swanky new venue is owned by Steven Olson, a former dentist from Phoenix. Olson also owns the club’s flagship location in Bellevue, opened for billiards in 2005 and comedy in 2008. According to Parlor Live’s publicist, the new venture is a $4 million project. It occupies two floors, with an upstairs lounge that can accommodate 75, a downstairs restaurant for 250 and a main showroom for 400.
The place has an upscale vibe (think high heels and sport jackets in place of jeans and sneakers) and food and drinks beyond the usual domestic macro lager and fried fare. During a visit earlier this month, a huge wall of TVs was showing World Cup games. The main showroom has a booming sound system and state of the art lighting and offers VIP seating in booths at the rear of the room or table seating around the stage. Some seats don’t face the action directly, but TV monitors supplement the view.
Olson’s success in Bellevue gave him the incentive to take on Seattle. With a 10-year lease and an option for 10 more, it appears he’s optimistic about his prospects.
“We felt like there wasn’t a lot of frequency or variety of stand-up acts coming to Seattle at the time, and when they did, it was periodic shows at a casino or theater,” said the club’s marketing director Boone Helm.
If Parlor Live does attract patrons, it won’t be hard for comics to win them over, according to Ron Reid, producer of the Seattle International Comedy Competition.
“They’re kind of marshmallows here,” said Reid of Seattle audiences. “They are easily pleased. I don’t know why that is, but they seem to be not very demanding. I don’t think their expectations are very high.”
Jonathan Fox, manager of the Comedy Underground, sees it a bit differently.
“The audiences here are as intelligent as exist,” said Fox, “but they also have that Seattle laid-back trait that allows a performer to get through their entire routine without being interrupted by some sanctimonious patron who just has to express out loud their preconceived opinion about what’s being said. You’ll get that in New York and San Francisco.”
Though Seattle can’t compare with the bigger coastal cities, there has been a comedy scene here since the early ’80s. Comics like Jerry Seinfeld and Marc Maron performed at the Comedy Underground in their early years.
“Seattle was one of the first places where there was an audience specifically there to see me,” Seinfeld told a Seattle Times reporter in 2007.
Mitch Hedberg, who won the Seattle Internal Comedy Competition in 1997, also honed his stand-up act while living in Seattle. (Hedberg, who later appeared on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” unfortunately died in 2005 of a drug overdose.)
Hari Kondabolu, another transplant, is probably the best known current comic Seattle can claim. Kondabolu, who now lives in Brooklyn, recently did stand up on an episode of “Conan” and has a well-received new album out on Olympia’s Kill Rock Stars.
Bumbershoot also brings in great comedians every year, and the Seattle Theatre Group, which produces shows at the Paramount, Moore and Neptune Theatres, regularly features top stars like Aziz Ansari, Dave Chappelle and Kathy Griffin.
There’s a thriving underground scene, too, at places like the Rendezvous, in Belltown; Jai Thai and Scratch Deli on Capitol Hill; and Naked City Brewery & Taphouse in Greenwood, among others. In these and other venues you’ll find such comics as Gabriel Rutledge, who uses his family as fodder, and Emmett Montgomery, whose bizarre brand of storytelling draws regular crowds.
But will Parlor Live do in the very clubs that support the underground? That doesn’t seem to worry Fox.
“Competition is good, of course,” he said. “It forces one to work harder, which benefits the customer.”
It’s still too early to know if there’s room in the Seattle market to support more comedy clubs.
“I really don’t think there’s a huge amount of money to be made in a comedy club situation,” said Reid. “Most of them are restaurants/bars and, as you know, that’s a difficult business, whether it’s comedy, music or fine dining.”
It’s a tough business for the men and women on stage, too. Many up and coming comedians — Justin Rupple and Joel McHale for example — move to Los Angeles to further their careers.
“I really love my city, but it can be frustrating as a comedian,” said Sheen, who has opened on the road for Patton Oswalt. “There is no industry here, not a lot of club work for locals. I find myself going outside of the city to build an audience. (But) there are some very talented people here, and I think it’s overdue for a ‘punk’-like explosion.”
Parlor Live may be just the ticket.
Andrew Rivers, a comedian who has been performing locally and nationally for six years, thinks so.
“If we have more clubs, more stages, a better scene, comics can afford to stay here a while,” he said.
Jeff Albertson: 206-464-2304 or firstname.lastname@example.org