The Comedy Club was as intimate as a living room. Actually, it was one.

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The Comedy Club was as intimate as a living room. Actually, it was one.
Chloe Radcliffe, right, performs at Apartment Fest, held in the two-bedroom home of the comedian Eitan Levine in Harlem on Oct. 21, 2023. At Apartment Fest, audiences piled into a Harlem home for four nights of jokes from comedians who have to fight for stage time elsewhere. (Amir Hamja/ The New York Times)

by Brittany Loggins

NEW YORK, NY.- When Eitan Levine, who’s been doing comedy for about 15 years, announced to his roughly 20,000 followers on Instagram that he would be holding a four-night stand-up comedy event called Apartment Fest in his two-bedroom Harlem home, he wasn’t too surprised when 157 applicants submitted audition tapes.

“Good stage time is very hard to come by and bad stage time is also very hard to come by, so you take all of it,” said Levine, 34, who was offering peers a highly coveted 10 minutes each. “I’ve applied to worse shows for less time.”

The event, which on some nights featured two 90-minute shows, complete with a headliner and six comedians, took over his apartment. On Oct. 19, as Levine pushed back a large sectional sofa, set up some 25 chairs and made sure there was enough beer and water for guests paying up to $25 apiece, he worried about train delays and whether audiences would even show up. “All of those stressors are amplified 5,000% because the show is literally in my living room,” Levine explained. He needn’t have worried. The shows were all sold out.

This DIY spirit is reminiscent of the New York’s music scene in the early 2000s, when bands like the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were getting their starts in grimy apartments on the Lower East Side. Just as those groups were to the left of the mainstream at the time, today many early-stage comedians have to create their own spaces to be heard. And just like back then, an apartment works perfectly.

Levine’s open-plan living area is painted from floor to ceiling in bold stripes that range from orange to bright teal. A window spans much of the back wall, and the space is open enough to snugly accommodate the crowd that faced a microphone stand.

Chloe Radcliffe, 32, worked as a staff writer on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” has a studio comedy feature in development and most recently appeared in a miniseries directed by Steven Soderbergh called “Command Z.” She biked from Ridgewood, Queens, to Harlem to perform at Apartment Fest. She touched up her makeup in Levine’s bathroom and prepped her set from a bench in his bedroom, which was strewn with pizza boxes and was serving as a green room.

Radcliffe opened with a bit about the birthmark on her cheek: “I was on the sidewalk and somebody dropped their AirPod and I picked it up and gave it to him and said, ‘Have a good day.’ He smiled, looked at my birthmark and said, ‘Get well soon.’”

The crowd responded with uncontrollable giggles. “I would love to find that guy in a couple of years and be like, ‘It won’t go away! I don’t know how to get rid of it!’” she continued.

Despite Levine’s nerves, this wasn’t the first time he had held comedy shows in his apartment. He originally got the idea after a rejection in 2019.

“I was applying to a bunch of comedy festivals and one day I got an email from a festival rejecting me and I realized I never even applied to it,” Levine said, adding that he “came to stand-up from the improv and sketch communities where it’s very DIY — you can put a show on anywhere — so I just took that idea.”

Brandon Barrera, 27, host of the first show on the night of Oct. 21, agreed with the DIY label and described the event as Levine “basically throwing a house party with the people who make him laugh the hardest.”

Because of the many comedy clubs in New York, the city is one of the only places in the country where stand-ups can get onstage multiple times in one night. But even then, they can hope to end the evening with 15 minutes of total stage time. Radcliffe, for instance, had two more shows on the docket after performing at Levine’s.

But bars and club owners can be picky, resulting in more pressure on comedians. Barrera, who moved from Los Angeles when his friend offered him a job as a golf caddy and a place to live in the nearby caddyshack in New Jersey, records multiple podcasts in addition to performing live. Other comedians at Apartment Fest also regularly appear on or produce podcasts, all while constantly posting material on social media, which is often where club and festival bookers find their work.

Social media wasn’t as much of a consideration for Levine as he put together Apartment Fest’s bills. Though many of the performers who made the cut were his friends and had thousands of followers on social media, he also included younger comedians who were just starting to share their work online.

“The minimum buy-in to some other festivals is 15,000 Instagram followers and 50,000 TikTok followers,” Levine said. “Other festivals are trying to sell something or they’re trying to be a festival that makes money. This festival is literally just the funniest people that submitted videos.”

Radcliffe has a significant following on social media, and while she understands it can be limiting for comedians, she said such platforms have “broadened access by orders of magnitude: underrepresented voices get noticed; more people are tangibly able to participate; comedians can build their own audience and the monetary exchange is more direct,” Radcliffe said.

Festivals often pay only in potential exposure. Even as pop-up shows in unexpected places around the city have become more popular, it’s common for bookers to take home the bulk of the money while splitting meager amounts among the comedians.

For Levine’s show, the host was paid $30, the featured acts were paid $20 and the headliners were paid $75. The money left over from the ticket proceeds — $1,500 — was donated to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Levine chose the organization after first encountering it at age 10 when he was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma. It’s also how he found his way into comedy. After his first wish, a BattleBot, was denied, “I ended up asking them to put me on a comedy show in New York,” said Levine, who grew up in Springfield, New Jersey. “So they put me up on a show at Caroline’s” comedy club.

He currently appears on an Amazon sports comedy show, “Game Breakers,” and plans to cut a special from sets of his performances that were filmed at Apartment Fest.

As for the other comedians, the stage time in a homey apartment offered a chance to connect with an audience in a low-pressure setting.

Stef Dag, 28, was quick to point out that while she may be “staring at Domino’s on the floor and clothes everywhere,” she wasn’t nervous. “It almost feels like I’m at a sleepover party — not that sleepovers haven’t been the most traumatizing nights of my life.”

“Festivals, especially when you first start doing them, there is like a certain amount of — pressure is a little strong, but you want to do well,” says Ryan Thomas, a 32-year-old comedian from Brooklyn. “Here, the scale is so much smaller, and it makes it so much more fun because everyone is in on the weirdness of the situation and it makes it way more fun to play with the audience.

“I just did my set and there was a joke that they didn’t really like, and I got to just talk them through. You’re actually able to look people in the eye.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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