Higher density can mean increased foot traffic for shows, but construction disruption is no joke.
Seattle comedian Tyler Smith has felt the effect of the city’s rapid economic boom firsthand; his rent has doubled in the last few years.
“I do feel like the higher cost of living is going to force a lot of artists to move out [of the city],” Smith said. “Artists are the early birds of gentrification. They move to a neighborhood and make it cool and make it livable and then rents start going up because it’s a desirable neighborhood.”
Smith, who produces “The Dope Show” comedy night at venues such as Parlor Live in Bellevue, isn’t alone. Seattle is now the nation’s fastest-growing city. It added 20,000 new residents between 2015 and 2016, and rents are up 57 percent in the last six years. The average renter is now paying $1,749 a month.
What effect has this rapid growth, economic boom and rising cost of living had on Seattle’s comedy scene?
For some, it’s been positive.
“We are on track to have our busiest summer yet, which is usually the slower time of year for comedy,” said Erin Ingle, comedian and producer of Punchline Comedy Shows held in the back bar at Jai Thai restaurant on Capitol Hill. “Whether that’s because we have more residents in the Capitol Hill area or because the show is gaining traction, for whatever reason, we have more attendance now than we had last summer and the summer before.”
Neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and Pioneer Square have grown with a glut of new residential and commercial development that creates more foot traffic for businesses like comedy clubs.
For example, the opening of Weyerhaeuser’s new office in Pioneer Square in the fall of 2016 brought 700 new employees to the neighborhood. The influx has contributed to more people coming into the Comedy Underground club, according to manager Chris Moran.
Moran has noted an increase in turnout during the week, with 25 to 50 patrons attending Wednesday shows, but the weekend attendance hasn’t changed much.
“During the week, they get off work and they want to do something not far from work,” Moran said. “There’s limited parking during the weekends; we rarely get people from outside the city during the week. We rely on walk-ups and people in the neighborhood.”
Ingle also cited the opening of the Capitol Hill Link light rail station last year as a factor in Jai Thai’s increased turnout.
“The light rail has been a boon for us; it drops off a block away from us,” Ingle said. “That has had a positive effect on foot traffic.”
The addition of new residents, many of whom have moved to Seattle for high-paying tech jobs, has also changed the dynamic of the crowd, according to Moran.
“We’ve been getting a more diverse audience, and it seems to correspond with the influx of new tech employees,” Moran said.
Angela Dennison, a partner at Laughs Comedy Club in the University District, echoed that sentiment.
“Every time we get a phone call, it’s a different area code. We get phone calls from all over, but they’re transplants,” Dennison said. “I don’t know if they’ve been here 10 years or a year.”
State of the arts
Ingle’s target audience, on the other hand, is not necessarily the tech crowd.
“Most of our audiences are 21 to 35 years old. They seem more to me like college students who don’t have a lot of money to throw around and our shows appeal to them because we don’t charge a cover,” Ingle said. “People can come get free entertainment and there is no drink or item minimum. I think we have a definite fan base with a less moneyed population.”
While the city’s construction boom can bring more potential customers in time, it’s not always a benefit to business.
One challenge for Laughs is that the business next door, Dante’s bar, is slated to be demolished and replaced with 52 new apartments, according to Dennison.
“It’s going to be a construction site on top of us and by the time they get moved in, it will be three to four years from now, which starts to be the end of our lease,” Dennison said. “If I had a 15-year lease, I’d say it was awesome.”
Meanwhile, in February, the Seattle City Council approved an upzone that will allow buildings to climb to 320 feet on some blocks near the University District light-rail station opening in 2021, which could lead to even more construction in the neighborhood.
Despite an uncertain future, Dennison remains confident.
“The city always seems to rebuild and find spots for comedy … we’re resilient,” she said. “[Comedy] will survive whether we’re here or somewhere else.”