Peoples Improv Founder Rebrands Comedy Bar in Midtown
MIDTOWN — A founding father of the Big Apple improv scene is staging a second act at a comedy-themed bar in Midtown.
Peoples Improv Theater founder Ali Farahnakian, who opened Comedy Bar on West 29th Street in December, is rechristening the bar Pioneers in a bid to broaden the bar's appeal without abandoning the tribute it pays to comedy's forebears.
"We want this place to be for comedians, and for people coming from the comedy clubs nearby, but we had to change the conversation," he said.
The bar only occasionally hosts comedy acts, but "people kept coming in and saying, 'When's the comedy?'"
Pioneers is Farahnkian's second bar, after The Love Bar at PIT, the venue he opened in 2002 after a stint as a founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. It's located just outside what can be considered Chelsea's comedy triangle, mere blocks from the UCB Theatre, Gotham Comedy Club and the Magnet Theater, and down the block from PIT's original location on West 29th Street.
With a wide stage and stage-lighting, handsome hard-wood walls and floors, and a professional sound-system, Pioneers is well suited for a range of entertainment, such as live music and movie screenings.
Farahnkian found it simply did not work for most stand-up acts, though.
"We don't have a curtain or wall in the middle here, so even with a microphone and speakers, someone could not control the room while there were people at the bar talking," said Farahnakian, a former Saturday Night Live writer and Second City performer.
That's when he decided to start expanding the bar's range and reach.
Black-and-white portraits of more than 100 iconic comedians like John Belushi and Richard Pryor adorn one of the bar's walls.
"I didn't want any of my friends to say, 'Why aren't I up there?'" Farahnakian deadpanned.
In addition to the portraits, including the Clown's Prayer — reportedly a favorite of Chris Farley, which is painted above lounge chairs at the front of the bar — Pioneers also now regularly hosts readings, karaoke nights, movie screenings and occasional music performances.
On Thursday afternoon, beneath a large skylight at the rear of the bar, laptop warriors sat on leather chairs and stools, alongside office workers and union laborers taking late lunches or early post-work pints.
"You're building — first for the second floor, and then the building, and then the block, and then the neighborhood," Farahnakian said. "Hopefully it becomes the place that's your place to come to in the wilderness."
There are 19 beers on tap, ranging from $5 to $7 a pint, and the bar also serves sandwiches, wines and liquors. Farahnakian, who also splits his time between teaching improv classes, performing Sunday nights at PIT, and acting in movies and TV shows such as Comedy Central's "Inside Amy Schumer" and Adult Swim's "Delocated" on Cartoon Network, is focusing on "seeing if we can survive."
"We'll see what the future holds. There are battles where you just see how long you can hold the hill," Farahnakian said. "We have eight years on our lease to try to create flow, create jobs, create a community.
"The hope is during that time, you create the memories and the love," he added. "It's the middle of the story — we don't know what the ending is."