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How Bill Grundfest Founded Comedy Cellar

Producing legendary comedians like Jon Stewart, Dave Chappelle, Bill Maher, and more...
Brett Friedman

The Company  

Comedy Cellar is the world’s most influential and creative comedy club with three performance spaces in New York and one in Las Vegas that launched the careers of many of the world’s leading comedians of the past 39 years. Much of the credit for its current success goes to current ownership (Noam Dworman) and management (Estee Adoram).

The Big Idea 

Can you start a comedy club in Greenwich Village with no money when there are three dominant incumbents uptown?

The Hypothesis

This is impossible.

The Experiment

Use radical kindness to curate the best audience and the best comedians.

Bill found an underused, undervalued space and presented the owner with a win-win/no-way-for-him-to-lose value proposition.

He created an impulse purchase mentality for passing pedestrians to find what would be the only comedy club in the village, thereby reducing the cost of customer acquisition to zero and not requiring the necessary capital to buy street traffic.(e.g. signs for great comedians with ticket prices significantly less than competitors).

He curated an ideal audience of polite, smart, non-heckling, non-drunk college grads and tourists for a hand-picked collection of the highest quality comedians by kindly removing any drunkards or hecklers and ensuring they told their friends never to come to Comedy Cellar.

Bonus: the perfectly calm crowds allowed comedians to experiment with jokes, altering their delivery, tone, phrasing, and so on. That non-heckled experimentation is what allowed comics to rapidly learn what worked. The secret to every great comics success is iteration. Feedback provided by laughs.

On top of all that, Bill paid employees as much as he could while charging audiences as little as he could, even when he had no money. If he could give the audience the feeling that they were understood and cared about, he'd get repeat business; "Repeat business is the cheapest and best business."

So he treated the audience with authentic kindness no matter what, often handing out free meals, tickets, etc.In turn, the audience was more relaxed, so they would laugh more, enjoy more, then tell their friends about the incredibly fun and affordable experience at Comedy Cellar.

Bill's kindness would start with the first reservation phone call. He'd greet customers unfailingly welcoming with genuine gratitude that each individual was there, shaking everybody’s hand to thank them for coming at the end of each show and asking for feedback so they might improve even the small details of their nights. In NYC of all places!

The Results

Meteoric success of the Comedy Cellar. Commercially: it began with one room and three shows a week; now there are four rooms including in Vegas, and over forty shows a week after 39 years running strong.

Creatively: Launched the careers of many of the most important comics of the last 39 years including Ray Romano, Chris Rock, Rita Rudner, Amy Schumer, and many others.

The Applications

Let radical kindness drive your every move. Kindness is free and it gets you business. Focus on win-win-win with brilliant teammates and de-risking your value proposition.

Team leaders should also be players; They should roll up their sleeves and do the jobs ‘beneath’ them e.g. answer the phone for reservations or go on stage to get a feel for the crowd to understand how to offer guidance on dealing with tough customers with real empathy. You’ll become a better manager and earn your employees’ respect.

Overpaying ensures the quality of your product and is the greatest ROI a company can get. Undercharging customers leads to longevity.

But overall, if you want to increase productivity and innovation, you can’t buy it with money, you buy it with love.

The Team

Bill Grundfest is the founder of Comedy Cellar, as well as a Golden Globe winner and 3x Emmy nominee screenwriter & producer based in LA

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