There’s a table in the back corner of the Greenwich Village staple, Olive Tree Cafe, that’s marked, “Comedy Cellar Comedians Only.” A bold statement from a plain and unassuming dark brown wooden table. But if that table could talk, its words would be profane, fiery, brilliant, poignant, hilarious – and could probably do killer impressions of some of the best comedians in modern times.
Co-founded in 1982, by the late Manny Dworman and Bill Grundfest, the Comedy Cellar quickly became the stomping grounds for some of today’s biggest comedy stars like Louis C.K., Chris Rock, Ray Romano, Colin Quinn and Jon Stewart when they were still scrounging for stage time. The young, scrappy comics would climb the stairs from the Cellar basement to the connected Olive Tree Cafe after working their latest material onstage, and gather around the private table in the back to debate, argue, and burn each other over politics, philosophy and the day’s headlines for hours late into the night.
Dworman was a political fanatic and presided over the debates, often going head-to-head with Stewart. As the ritual became more and more entrenched, Dworman was struck by how naturally entertaining and insightful it was to hear exceptional comedic minds debate pressing topics and big ideas. That’s when he came up with the idea for the Comedy Cellar political debate series.
“When the comedian table really became hot, politics were taking up most of what was going on at the table,” says Noam Dworman, Manny’s son and current owner of the Comedy Cellar. “My father wanted to do some real debates.”
After several attempts, for one reason or another, the concept never got off the ground, and Dworman passed away in 2004. It wasn’t until last August when a former Huffington Post reporter named Stephen Calabria contacted Noam for an interview about Louis C.K.’s favorite comedy club, the Comedy Cellar, that the political debate series took on new life.
Stephen was a huge comedy nerd with an obsession with the club and the history behind it. “I first heard of the Comedy Cellar when I was living in Beijing four years ago,” Calabria tells Laughspin. “And for me it was always this mystical, magical place, and the first time I lived in New York I never set foot here on purpose, out of respect and I was terrified. I mean, this is too big a place for someone like me to come into.”
But he sucked it up and did the interview, and somehow several hours afterwards he and Noam ended up tangentially talking about everything from politics to family. A friendship was formed, and Stephen soon became a permanent fixture at the Comedy Cellar.
Noam told Calabria about his father’s political debate series idea from 15 years ago, and mentioned his father had always wanted to do a debate about Israel. So when famed attorney and author Alan Dershowitz made headlines by announcing he would would debate anyone, anytime, anywhere about the Iran Nuclear Deal, Noam told Stephen the timing was perfect. “I said, ‘Stephen, this would be a great way to get these debates started,’” Noam tells Laughspin. “‘Why don’t you contact him and tell him we’ll organize a debate?’”
With the new title of Comedy Cellar producer, Stephen did just that, and The Underground Debate Series became a thing. The show features one moderator and four panelists that are a mix of academics, comics, journalists, and media personalities who offer two opposing views on a topical issue. They’ve done four debates so far, each of them packing the large house of the Comedy Cellar’s additional location, The Village Underground. They’ve discussed topics like “Is Terrorism a Threat to the American Way of Life?” and “Is America in Decline?” and featured guests like Colin Quinn, Ann Coulter, Alan Dershowitz, and Fred Kaplan.
“My father would have been very very happy about it, so that definitely comes into my mind all the time,” Noam says. “The idea that [the debate series] would appeal to the audience that generally comes to a comedy club, he felt it would and I felt it would too, so I was happy for the vindication, happy not to have a flop.”
Noam said he’s very proud of the Comedy Cellar’s take on the debate format. “Normally, the standard of intellectual honesty would be that you present your opponent’s view in the strongest way it can be presented and then you take it apart, and there are some people who actually do that,” Noam said. “But for the most part, what people will do is present the worst version of their opponent’s argument and then they’ll take that apart and they’ll look very persuasive. The debate is the opposite of the echo chamber. That’s how you can judge whether somebody’s logic holds water.”
Calabria said the audience definitely lets the panel know if their logic holds water, sometimes getting wildly and raucously involved, especially during the heated “Is American Conservatism Hostile to Women?” debate that escalated to a bomb-throwing shout-fest between conservative pundit Ann Coulter and liberal CNN political commentator Sally Kohn.
“By the end of the debate, every answer from every panelist was being met with cheers and boos, and I’ve never seen the room like that before, it was great it was so much fun,” Calabria said. “We were all blown away because I had faith in that debate, but by no means was I expecting that level of emotion.”
The series has two more debates slated for the rest of the year, including the next one “Is There Clear Evidence of Racism in Law Enforcement?: Debating Police Violence Amid Rising Social Tension” on Tuesday, October 25 at the Village Underground.
“There’s certain points at every debate where I go “‘Yes! That’s it right there!’” Calabria said. “I think Americans are hungering for something beyond right versus left and loud barking from every person they see on TV who’s commenting about politics, I think they want more and that’s what we’re trying to provide.”