Comedian Keith Hebert performs at Empire in Portland. (Courtesy Lucas Salisbury)
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The stairwell leading to Empire Comedy Club is packed with people. Behind the club’s closed doors are candlelit tables and dozens of folding chairs, all facing a small stage where a bright red stool and a microphone are lit by a wide-angle spotlight.

“I’m trying to make a place that’s welcoming to everyone,” said Lucas Salisbury, the club’s general manager.

With an iPad to control the music in one hand and a white bar cloth in the other, Salisbury checks in with the talent and his staff before letting the audience inside. It’s 7 p.m. on a Friday and Salisbury is ready to manage the club’s fourth comedy show of the week. 

The second floor at Empire on Congress Street in Portland used to be devoted to music. Now it’s the city’s only full-time comedy club. (Portland Phoenix/Blair Best)

“It was last year when I made the decision to move into all comedy shows,” Salisbury said about turning Empire into Portland’s only club dedicated to comedy. Having worked at the club since 2007, when he was 19 years old, Salisbury has seen Empire grow and believes the change from a live music venue to the comedy club will help Empire stand out in Portland’s entertainment scene. 

“When you can show up and see 90 minutes of comedy, you can still go see a music show or bar-hop afterward,” he said. “So I think it allows for more flexibility of peoples’ attention spans and schedules, and that’s one of the perks.” 

Another factor that made Salisbury decide to move away from booking live musicians was the rise of larger music venues in Portland. With the club’s intimate size, on the second floor above the bustling Empire Chinese Kitchen at 575 Congress St., he was struggling to find high-profile talent that would draw enough of an audience.

“The overhead here when doing comedy shows is cheaper because I can do sound and lights from my iPad while also working the bar,” Salisbury said. “But if it were a sold-out music show, I would need four people working the door and a dedicated light-and-sound person.”

He also said it was difficult when a musician would travel from across the country to perform at Empire, and the show was sparsely attended. “More often than not, the slower shows were kind of disheartening,” Salisbury said. 

Salisbury knows what it takes to fill the room. “I got hired on a whim to work security and ended up staying here for 12 years,” he said.

Salisbury has worked almost every job in the club. He went from bouncer to bartender to bar manager until a couple of years ago when he took on the role of general manager.

“I always loved the space, and I was here since the beginning, so I have a good grasp of what works here,” he said.

Anders J. Nielsen and Rachel Gendron on stage at Empire in Portland. (Courtesy Lucas Salisbury)

‘A moody vibe’

The door to the club is now open, and the line of people has moved from the stairwell to the bar. Salisbury is serving drinks and mingling with regulars while also managing the comedians who are waiting backstage. In the background, instrumental hip-hop music plays – a genre he says gives the club a “moody vibe.”

With the show nearly sold out, Salisbury said the growth in just one month as a full-time comedy club has been huge. “We are starting to see many repeat customers,” he said, “and we are also seeing many people that have never been here before.” 

One type of comedy show that Salisbury is offering is the “showcase,” a performance format where several comedians perform sets of 10-15 minutes. Salisbury said this allows for more variety – something he looks for when finding and booking comics.

“Ultimately, I want to provide a space where you can see top-tier comedy in an intimate space consistently, and right now, our schedule is starting to reflect that,” he said. 

During January, Salisbury scheduled weekend showcases, and almost all of them sold out. Now, the weekly schedule includes nationally known comedians like MYQ Kaplan, Lev Fer, and Hari Kondabolu, all of whom either have comedy specials on Netflix or have performed on national television.

Alongside these high-profile comedians, Salisbury is also allowing space for local comics to thrive. He schedules an open-mic night every Monday where local comedians can practice their material in front of an audience. 

“I’m trying to cultivate a comedy community,” Salisbury said. “I love seeing locals build up their set and get better every week. I just want to make a space where people can go and laugh or go and make people laugh because I think that’s something we all need, especially right now.”

Aly York of Old Orchard Beach is a frequent performer on open-mic night at Empire in Portland. (Courtesy Lucas Salisbury)

‘My comedy home’

One local comedian who is often on stage during the open-mic nights is Aly York. She lives in Old Orchard Beach and has been working on her comedy act for two years.

York has performed in bars and with comedy groups including Portland Comedy Co-op and River Comics. She said having a club dedicated to comedy in Portland is monumental for the comedy community – a group she said is bigger than people may think. 

“It’s an awesome environment to work in,” York said as she ran her hand through her blonde, pixie-cut hair. “I call it my comedy home. It feels like a place where we can all meet up and be together and practice our comedy.”

Sitting behind her on the stairs are two other local comics who, like York, are at Empire to support the comedians performing on stage. “Even if we aren’t performing, we all hang out in this stairwell,” York said. “It’s a big family here.”

York said Empire Comedy Club is giving people a place to laugh – something she believes is essential, especially during the long winter months.

“When it’s super cold outside and getting darker earlier,” she said, “this comedy club is here for people to forget about their problems and have a reason to laugh and have fun.”

Each audience member has now found a seat, and the soft hip-hop music slowly fades as a man with long brown hair enters the stage and yells, “ALL RIGHT ARE WE READY FOR A COMEDY SHOW?”

The crowd goes wild.

Portland resident Blair Best is an assignment editor at WGME13 and a freelance writer.