Back in October 2016, Kate Banford and Aaron Nevins’ Good Good Comedy Theatre was just an up-and-coming, black-box comedy venue in Chinatown providing a space for local comics. With the theater preparing to mount a run from longtime comic Janeane Garofalo this weekend, it appears that Good Good has come into its own.
Garofalo’s appearance is among the most significant for Good Good to date, considering her stature in the comedy world. Fans have noticed, considering all four of her shows there are sold out. Garofalo doesn’t need to play Good Good’s 50-seat house; she has other venue options, including traditional comedy clubs like Center City’s Helium or Fishtown’s Punch Line and theaters.
But Garofalo is among a host of headliners to choose Good Good this year. Others include well-known alternative comics such as Lady Dynamite star Maria Bamford; Andy Kindler, who annually gives a State of the Industry address at Montreal’s prestigious Just for Laughs comedy festival; and Saturday Night Live writer Julio Torres.
“That is very much not something we could have anticipated happening,” cofounder Nevins says. And let alone so quickly. When Good Good opened its doors two years ago, the goal was to foster a comedy community in Philadelphia. But with the addition of diverse, national touring acts to its roster, the venue has also helped elevate the stature of that community as well.
“There is something validating about seeing Maria Bamford on the same stage that I get to perform on,” Betty Mattei, cohost and showrunner of Dear Goddesses at Good Good, says. “It brings a kind of street cred to what we do.”
So what is it about Good Good that attracts these high-profile alt comedians — whose popularity has exploded in an era in which alternative comedians can promote their work via podcasts and social media — and up-and-comers like Torres, who can attract a strong comedy-nerd crowd (he wrote SNL’s much-lauded “Papyrus” sketch, featuring Ryan Gosling’s inability to get over the use of papyrus in the Avatar logo) but may not be the right fit for Helium?
As Kindler, who is also a regular on Fox’s Bob’s Burgers, says, his performance at Good Good earlier this year served as his first “good show” in Philadelphia, ever — and he first started performing here in the 1980s. That success, he says, comes down to the feel of the club, which goes back to the alternative comedy movement of the 1980s and ’90s that was spearheaded by comics such as Marc Maron, Sarah Silverman, Todd Barry, and, of course, Garofalo.
“The crowds felt like coming home,” Kindler says. “It felt like it was built on the alternative comedy movement of the ’90s, the outgrowth of all of that.”
Bamford, known for her deeply personal comedy that delves into her mental health, credits Nevins' and Banford’s love of comedy, which “makes a huge difference” in how performances play out, for her support for the theater. Because the pair is so involved with performances, the comic says, the venue “feels more personal.”
“Helium is great and I can make a good living from ticket sales there, but Good Good was willing to let me to let me do daytime shows that were maybe for fun and for free for me,” Bamford says, adding for “full disclosure” that Nevins and Banford also may have bribed her with “cold brew and peanut M&Ms” the last time she was in town.
That type of flexibility, Banford says, is what Good Good is after. With a loose approach, performers can feel more comfortable to do their thing, no matter how weird it might be.
“… That’s one of the things that’s important about comedy: feeling safe and comfortable doing the things you love to do,” Banford says.
While Good Good opened a physical space in 2016, it can actually trace its roots back to 2014, when Nevins and Banford began organizing the annual Five Dollar Comedy Week — a festival of about 90 shows that were sourced from pitches from a slew of Philadelphia comics. The goal, Nevins says, was to get comedy performers of all stripes — stand-ups, improv artists, storytellers and others — to come together, so the only rule was that any pitch could not be one type of show, but it had to combine various comedic elements.
“What was so cool was people who were in different scenes started to collaborate,” Banford says. “There are still relationships that have come from Five Dollar Comedy Week.”
Eventually, the pair started Good Good Comedy to perform some of those shows regularly, and decided on setting up a permanent home as Good Good Comedy Theatre, which they achieved through a Kickstarter campaign that ended up raising $30,000. Interestingly, the time came just a few months after the opening of Punch Line Philadelphia, the Live Nation comedy club that opened in July 2016 with Dave Chappelle headlining.
These days, that support has translated into actual audience members, who head to Good Good’s Chinatown space four nights a week, often with an overflow line outside waiting for unclaimed tickets to be released. Depending on the night, fans might see a comical tarot reading in Dear Goddesses, have some free beer at Joke Bath, or catch a group of high comedians in Weeding Out the Stoned — just a few of the theater’s many regular shows, which are planned in addition to touring acts and classes at Good Good.
That breadth of offerings, Weeding out the Stoned host Alex Grubard says, comes down to Nevins' and Banford’s involvement with programming at Good Good. As a black-box theater, the venue does not offer food or drinks, has no two-item minimum or waitstaff, and, therefore, depends upon the shows it puts on to be the product it is selling. Combine that with a level of attentiveness that is unusual for comedy venue owners, and the result is an authentically open creative space for Philly’s comedy community.
“There is the joke that ‘comics are inmates running the asylum,’ so if you leave comics to their own devices, they might do something amazing,” Grubard says. “If you give them feedback and notes, it does help. Having done the show in 15 venues, you notice the difference of what Kate and Aaron do with Good Good.”