The Funny Factor
Book names Pasadena’s Ice House As one of America’s top five comedy clubs
By Carl Kozlowski 08/28/2014
There are hundreds of comedy clubs across America, but only five of them have been scientifically proven to be great.
Pasadena’s Ice House is one of them.
Famous for being the nation’s oldest continuously running comedy club and heralded as the location where more comedy CDs have been recorded than any other location, the Ice House was also named one of the five best comedy clubs in the nation (and the only California club on the list) by the new book “The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny,” co-authored by Professor Peter McGraw, PhD, and Denver-based reporter Joel Warner,
“The thing we published about good comedy rooms in the United States came out of work in HURL, otherwise known as the Humor Research Lab,” explains McGraw, who directs the lab and its 10-person team at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where they scientifically analyze humor, its antecedents and its consequences.
“The conversations [co-author Joel Warner] and I were having about how you could use science to decide what would enhance or hurt an audience’s reaction to comedy led us to actually contact some comedians we know to nominate the top five clubs,” said McGraw.
The other four clubs on the list are The Comedy Cellar in New York City, Zanies in Chicago, Comedy Works in Denver and Comedy Club on State in Madison, Wis.
“We stumbled upon an important question: What makes a good comedy club?” says McGraw, who traveled from Scandinavia and the Amazon to Palestine and Japan in addition to studying American comedy culture. “According to many of the comics we interviewed, a ‘good room’ is one that’s dimly lit, densely packed, with hard chairs, low ceilings, a red curtain and nothing at all that’s blue.”
The Ice House breaks those rules in several ways, eschewing a red curtain for a backdrop painting of the San Gabriel Valley at night and side walls painted with images of other buildings. That approach plays off the fact that the club is hidden in an alley, giving the feel both inside and out of being a secret yet friendly destination.
“The brick on the walls is unusual for a comedy club, and it makes the room sound 20 percent hotter because of the acoustics that brings,” says Ron Pearson, a Pasadena-based comic who has been a frequent star of its shows over the last two decades. “The audiences are also great: smart enough to go on the journey you want to take them on, but not too snooty to resist going. They always book an extremely high level of talent in there, but even a bad act can look good at the Ice House.”
The top factor in the Ice House’s favor is its crisply perfect acoustics, an advantage the club carried over from its origins as both a comedy and folk music venue in 1960. The Ice House also features microphones hung above the audience throughout the club, which allows every laugh and clap to be heard in perfect posterity on any recording of a show there.
“It’s a great club experience that’s best served dark and intimate,” says Jordan Brady, a former comedian who directed the documentaries “I Am Comic” and “I Am Road Comic” about the world of standup. “The Ice House is special because it’s awesome when the laughs ricochet around the room and infect the crowd.”
Willard Chilcott, who opened the club in 1960, took on as a partner Bob Stane, a folk music icon at the time who currently operates Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena. In 1978, Chilcott and Stane were bought out by a group of investors that included current owner Bob Fisher, who changed the format of the club to standup comedy. Some 75 performances have been recorded there by artists that include the Smothers Brothers, Gallagher, Lily Tomlin, Pat Paulsen, Richard Jeni and George Lopez. Among the comedians who have performed onstage are Robin Williams, former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno, “Late Show” host David Letterman, Bob Newhart, George Carlin, Jim Carrey, Dennis Miller, Howie Mandel, Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Ellen DeGeneres, Garry Shandling, Sinbad, Bill Maher, Gabe Kaplan, Paula Poundstone, Rosie O’Donnell, Cheech & Chong, Tim Allen and Dana Carvey.
For veteran comic Bobbie Oliver, who has taught standup comedy classes at the club and featured a monthly showcase of her students for over a decade, it’s the crowds that keep her coming back for more.
“The Ice House is a big club with a small town feel,” says Oliver, who moved to the Los Angeles area from Georgia. “It’s an LA club with a hometown vibe.”
Comedy star Paul Rodriguez, who has played all over America in his more than 30-year career, said there are a variety of factors that make the Ice House special. One big thing is the club’s history, which is displayed for visitors in a series of fun wall displays and photos of some of the stars who have performed there, including Rodriguez.
“It’s the history, really, the fact that that same stage has been there and supported the likes of the Smothers Brothers,” says Rodriguez. “And the intimacy of it, it’s the best place to see your favorites, if you’re lucky enough to see them there. It’s like listening to your favorite comic inside a phone booth with him.”
Reflecting on the honor of being named to the “Humor Code” list, Fisher says one factor that’s helped improve the club’s game in recent years is the fact that the competitive economy has made them focus on bringing in more celebrity comics.
“In this era people want to see celebrities when they go out to a club, comics they are familiar with,” says Fisher. “In the past, while all our shows were very strong, we’d only have a ‘celebrity’ once every five weeks. Now when you look at the lineups for the Ice House, we quite often have four or five celebrities every week. That didn’t just happen. That was the Ice House reacting to what our customers wanted, going out and making it happen.”
“It’s a challenge because we’re a small club,” adds Jan Smith, chief booker for the 120-seat club. “It has great acoustics and a great reputation but oftentimes representatives of talent don’t want their talent to be known for working small clubs. They’re looking for them to do concerts and big venues, so we do a lot of tap dancing and a lot of cajoling to get these comedians to perform at the Ice House. But the comics themselves, like Joe Rogan, Marc Maron and Joey Diaz, continually come back to work the club.”
This weekend, Bobby Collins will perform at 8:30 and 10:30 Friday and 8 and 10 p.m. Saturday at the Ice House, 24 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $20 for general admission and $27 for VIP seating, plus two-drink minimum. Call (626) 577-1894 or visit icehousecomedy.com.
“The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny” is available wherever books are sold.