We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The evening of June 27 was a special one for DC Improv owner Allyson Jaffe and her business partner, Antoine Griffin. In order to find a venue large enough to celebrate three decades of comedy, the 9:30 Club hosted D.C. native Josh Adam Meyers’ Goddamn Comedy Jam in celebration of DC Improv’s 30th anniversary.
The premise was simple: Comedians, including Meyers, Christian Finnegan, Red Grant, Steve Byrne, Jessica Kirson, and Donnell Rawlings, each performed a few minutes of comedy followed by singing a song of their choosing accompanied by a backup band.
Throughout the evening, multiple shout-outs, birthday wishes and thanks were given to the Improv, Jaffe, Griffin, and the comedy club’s staff in attendance, who were happy to be lauded.
During the finale, both Jaffe and Griffin joined the comedians on stage for an epic dance party, singing along to renditions of The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside,” Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday,” Nirvana‘s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” From this vantage point, Jaffe could watch the audience from the stage, knowing full well that the crowd was entertained.
It may seem odd for a comedy club to celebrate its 30th anniversary at another venue, but we’re living in nontraditional times. In fact, in 2022, the survival of such a club is a major achievement following two years in a pandemic and its ongoing complications. When it opened in the early 1990s, DC Improv, or the Improv as it’s often called, had one simple mission: to provide the city with some much-needed laughs. Thirty years on, it still provides audiences with chuckles, groans, and belly laughs all while providing comedians with a safe, nonjudgmental space to hone their craft.
In early May, just hours before comedian Steve Byrne’s first of three headlining shows at the venue, Jaffe is giving me a tour of the renovated comedy club, pointing out the improvements made while they were closed during the pandemic.
There’s new carpet in place, new tables along with newly ordered chairs that are on the way. A wall has been removed to open up the space and improve the flow of the room. Track lighting has been installed to highlight the photos of the comic legends who have performed in the space. The only hint that the club opened in July 1992 are the neon accent lights that Jaffe decided to keep.
“I’d always heard over the years so many comics saying the DC Improv was the best, or one of the best, or top 3 clubs in the country,” says Byrne, who first played the Improv in the mid-2000s while on a Jameson tour with Bert Kreischer (“Imagine free whiskey and Bert Kreischer. It’s like, match, gasoline, have fun,” he jokes). “And then you get here and you understand why because it has all the aesthetics and all the elements of what a great comic and comedy club wants. You want low ceilings, great sound, and it feels intimate although it’s a bit more expansive—it’s got it all. I remember going up, being like, ‘Oh fuck, this is great!’ And you think … I’m going to be a superstar! I’m doing this in a major A-room comedy club and then you go to like, Toledo, and you’re like ‘Oh, OK.’ You know, right back to reality.”
In the updated green room, hanging framed posters offer a mosaic of all the performers from each year. But one bucks this design: the poster for the last two years combines 2020 and 2021 with a black space separating the year.
“Our 2020 calendar was very sad,” Jaffe says with a sigh. “Everything was blacked out except that one little corner so I decided to combine 2020 and 2021.”
Like all business owners in the live entertainment industry, Jaffe was devastated when word of the lockdown came through on March 15, 2020, learning of the closure from her server while out to dinner that night.
“I was at a neighborhood restaurant,” she recalls. “Our server got the notice … And the city shut us down and I just … I bawled. I cried so hard at that restaurant.”
While some might call crying in public a dramatic reaction to the closure, for Jaffe, who has spent her entire adult life working at the Improv, the closure was gutting. Her concern instantly shifted to her staff.
That night she emailed her staff to immediately lay them off so they could get on unemployment as soon as possible. Jaffe also posted about the situation on Facebook alerting people to a GoFundMe campaign she started to help financially support her laid-off employees. In the end, the campaign raised $50,000.
“It was just so amazing,” Jaffe says. “I was like, OK, I can do something for people. I can help them and I was happy to be able to do that.”
Attending American University in the mid-’90s, Jaffe ended her sophomore year feeling miserable (“I just kind of had a rough time in college”) and looking for an outlet. Deciding to surround herself with something that made her feel good, Jaffe got a job waiting tables at the Improv in May of 1998. Staying for the remainder of college, she found her love of comedy and the Improv working its way into the majority of her school projects.
“I majored in visual media and I minored in theater and it’s like everything was the Improv,” recalls Jaffe. “I wrote a play about the Improv and then I filmed [comedian] Flip Orley, [and did] a documentary about him. Everything was just [centered] around the place.”
Encouraging Jaffe at the time was Mark Anderson, the founder of the club, who died unexpectedly 10 years ago. Anderson, who also owned comedy clubs in California, Arizona, and Texas, decided that D.C. was in desperate need of some laughs and reinvented 1140 Connecticut Ave. NW, which used to house the Italian restaurant Christini’s, into the Improv. Dave Chappelle, when he was just an up-and-comer in stand-up, was the very first comedian to perform there.
In 2002, Anderson went on to reopen the Old Town Theater in Alexandria as a comedy venue. Jaffe, who had graduated from college by then, asked if they needed help during the day, which led to answering phones, helping with marketing, and whatever else needed to be done for the next 18 months.
At the end of that year and a half, Anderson did a remarkable thing: He gave Jaffe ownership in the club, a decision that Jaffe still can’t quite believe.
“Nobody does that, you know?” says Jaffe. “Nobody is like ‘I see this person’ who’s a 21-22 year old girl, and he just saw something and I always felt like I want to live up to that.”
Perhaps what Anderson saw in Jaffe was a person who was already dedicated to the Improv, and who would expand its reach beyond stand-up. Over the years, Jaffe has added classes for the general public such as improv, learning the skills of stand-up, and comedy writing from former Saturday Night Live writers.
She has also continued what Anderson did for her, most notably with Griffin, now a partner and manager of the Improv. Griffin’s story is almost comically similar to Jaffe’s: Not enjoying classes in college (in his case, Howard University in the early 2010s), Griffin was looking for a fun outlet and, answering an ad in Craigslist, started to work the door at the Improv.
Like Jaffe, the door job led to more opportunities over the years until he was promoted to assistant manager.
Griffin helped Jaffe navigate the pandemic, initially hosting online open mics and then producing drive-in comedy shows in RFK Stadium’s parking lot. Once a soft opening was allowed for the club in April 2021, the Improv set about slowly returning to normal as regulations allowed, first with socially distant seating, which then expanded over time as the rules changed.
Now running at regular, pre-pandemic capacity, the timing couldn’t be better. This year, the Improv, D.C.’s longest operating comedy club, has entered its dirty 30s. It also allows Jaffe to engage in what she calls the best part of her job.
“I like watching audiences,” says Jaffe. “That’s my favorite thing. My job here is to make sure whoever’s on that stage is entertaining that audience. And that’s how I look at it.”
As for the future of the Improv, Jaffe’s goal is a simple one.
“People ask, ‘Why don’t you open up other spaces?” says Jaffe. “I just want this to be the best place that it can be. That’s the focus.”