Despite the pandemic’s spine-tingling, continued fear of human contact and the social divisions of heckling, punchy and intolerant crowds too far to the left and/or to the right, being in a room with people laughing out loud – an intimate comedy club with stand-ups and sketch artists standing before a city-scape backdrop – is still one of life’s greatest pleasures. Even if you’re crammed tight into a first-row seat and the night’s stand-up is tearing you a new asshole for shits-and-giggles, you’re probably having the same good time as everyone else is at your expense. That’s what a communal experience at a comedy club offers – laughter at all counts.
This occurs nightly, whether it is legendary Los Angeles-based chains such as The Laugh Factory and the Comedy Store or New York City rooms such as Gotham Comedy Club or Caroline’s. However, it is an upstart brand, the Helium Comedy is family-owned, independent entertainment provider and its grouping of club venues across the country (Philadelphia, Portland, Buffalo, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Raleigh (Goodnights), Austin (Cap City), and Rutherford, NJ (Bananas) that is taking their stages into your home with Helium Comedy Studio.
The goal of the Brothers Grossman, Brad and Marc, the co-owners of the Helium Comedy brand, is, as goes the network’s tag line, to produce a “funnier future.”
In addition to its live staged productions, Helium wants to take its comedians and the comedy club experience, and bring it to your device in what could be the logical next iteration of the comedy special or its own Comedy Central channel. With network-quality production values on its dedicated Helium Comedy Studio YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/c/heliumcomedystudios), as well as dropping videos on TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, Helium’s comedy isn’t only coming at you occasionally. Like any good network, Helium Comedy Studio is a 24/7 proposition.
Alonzo Bodden, the Queens, New York-born stand-up, famed for his victory on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” reality competition program, is a Helium brand favorite with regular club dates in all of its rooms, nationwide. Bodden was a natural for the Helium Comedy Studio, and his “Stupid Don’t Get Tired” special reams the buttholes of anti-vaxxers, Karens and Tucker Carlsons everywhere. Los Angeles comedian Ben Gleib’s “The Mad King” tears into coma victims with unconscious bias, social distancing while fucking, “bukkake joints” vs. cup-sharing, his personal issues against that of a crumbling planet, and the post-truth era in which we live. Other Helium regulars such as Jeff Dye (NBC’s “Better Late Than Never”), Jade Catta-Preta (MTV’s “Girl Code”), Jon Dore (Comedy Central’s “Inside Amy Schumer”), Brent Gill (Viceland’s “Flophouse”) and Rahmein Mostafavi (from SiriusXM) also have their own specials.
Mary Radzinski, a Philadelphia-based comedian who has been part of TruTV’s “Greatest Ever” televised showcase, as well as being a Helium regular, has her own stand-up special unfurling through Helium Comedy Studio. “It’s my home club… it’s where I started and I was the first female host there,” she said of the Philadelphia room in the Rittenhouse area. “It’s the greatest room in the city because It has that seedy feeling. We’re basically under a parking garage, which if that doesn’t warm your heart… It means a lot to be there. This would be where I’d want to record something if I could.”
Brad Grossman, the COO and co-owner of the Helium Comedy brand and its eight venues and Helium Comedy Studios Executive Producer Jimmy Chairman have been developing the Helium Comedy Studios (HCS) and its content streaming brand, YouTube and beyond based on live events at Helium Comedy Club since before the pandemic hastened its creation. Here, Grossman and Chairman address their comedic adventures in YouTube and beyond, seriously.
PW/A.D. Amorosi: Let’s talk about how the pandemic was the Firestarter for your interest in living out live comedy on the web and through social media, and how it moved quickly from that concept into one that acts as an addendum to what Helium’s clubs are doing in real time.
Brad Grossman: The pandemic was the truest form of a threat to the future of live entertainment, specifically for independent venues. I could have never predicted the government to mandate capacity restrictions or, in the extreme, a forced closure for 14 months at our club in Buffalo, NY. What we as a team recognize is that if we aren’t constantly creating, developing the business, and challenging the ways comedy is delivered to our communities, we are fixed to just be another run-of-the-mill club destined for mediocrity. The Hive, as we call it internally, was an idea we concepted over the last 4 years, and under intense stress, we knew it was time to take the leap of faith and begin to produce more audio and video than ever.
Jimmy Chairman: To me, the pandemic was more fuel to the fire than the Firestarter itself. The idea of creating a Helium-branded content company originated when Covid was just a gleam in the eye of a horny bat. I first met with the Brothers Grossman at the 30 Rock commissary in October 2019. Brad was already keen on the idea of creating a production imprint. The idea of “pivoting to video,” which was all the rage in digital media circa 2015, proved ineffectual in that space because it didn’t work well enough as a revenue generator. The idea of “pivoting to video” makes perfect sense for a group of comedy clubs. It’s the perfect complement to the core business. Content is still king. Producing as much quality content as we are is a viable business model in and of itself. That the production company cranking out the laughs is an arm of a group of clubs means that the content doubles as branding for the clubs, for the comics themselves, and more broadly, as commercials for stand-up comedy and the comedy club experience as a whole. It’s a shame that it took a global pandemic to be the catalyst, but however we got here, here we are.
PW/A.D. Amorosi: So, why an actual network, via YouTube, and hitting up socials as opposed to just streaming or web broadcasting the occasional special or live show?
Brad Grossman: We’ve seen this content everywhere, and yes, YouTube is our primary outlet. However, we’re preparing our content for all platforms including TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, and for broadcast to ensure content can be digested by anyone who is interested in the channel.
Jimmy Chairman: And, our content reaches across social media. It’s not just on YouTube. We’ve attracted tens of millions of views to HCS content on TikTok, Instagram, FB, and YouTube. The “network” model works because producing content only occasionally won’t help build a brand. This model only works in bulk.
PW/A.D. Amorosi: I like the comedy in bulk idea. Tell me about the mix of comedians. It looks like veterans with national presence, as well as locals indigenous to the cities where each Helium night club resides. Obviously are culling from eight clubs in eight different cities… tell me about the selection process of who and how?
Brad Grossman: Honestly, our goal is to elevate a diverse set of performers from different backgrounds, cities, new and old. So many great talents that could use a little attention.
Jimmy Chairman: The most important factor in how we curate our roster is whether the act is funny. There are so many great comedians out there, so many diverse, hilarious voices and points of view in need of a spotlight. Only a few performers get specials on Netflix or HBO. We want to democratize the comedy special. Give some shine to the dope comics who are out there busting their tails in pursuit of laughs (and getting the laughs)! Whether it’s local talent; or touring acts who aren’t based in NY or LA; or club headliners who are more recognized for their TV acting/hosting work than their stand up — if they’re really funny, we want to help raise their profile.
PW/A.D. Amorosi: Airing stand-up on YouTube or TikTok, the question of copyright and ownership comes up. Does Helium own the programs outright? Does whatever ownership there is last for perpetuity or is there a limited time frame? Is money split with the artist or is this pay for hire?
Brad Grossman: Unlike some of the other production companies, we are offering extremely favorable deals to performers. We’re motivated in a much different way. Our interest is to expand the pool of talent that can tour the world.
Jimmy Chairman: The artists are our partners. We want to grow together. Sharing profits equitably is a part of that.
PW/A.D. Amorosi: Other comedy clubs and chain venues air live or recorded work on YouTube, or have their own channels. How is Helium following a tried-and-true route or doing it differently on YouTube then their competitors?
Brad Grossman: Honestly, I think we learned over the pandemic, streaming live comedy doesn’t work very well. Content is much better with a live or taped audience.
Jimmy Chairman: Our intention is to bring the comedy club experience to people’s devices. We’re doing so by offering network-quality production values without losing the energy of the club. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but I think it’s been very effective to this point.
PW/A.D. Amorosi: Do you pay attention to what the Comedy Store and Laugh Factory do on YouTube, or do you mount your own offensive and have your own vision focused?
Brad Grossman: It’s a big world out there. I think there’s room for all of us.
Jimmy Chairman: I’m laser focused on what we are doing and try not let what others are doing get in the way of that.
PW/A.D. Amorosi: The world of video and digital platforms is not entirely novel to Helium Comedy. Please discuss that origin story and its whys and wherefores, and where you believe it is going in the immediate present with what offerings you have now, and what is to come?
Brad Grossman: Time will tell. I’ve been interested in film and video production since I was in college 20 years ago, it was a clear path for me. We certainly took a stab early on with John McKeever (part of Gilly & Keeves) producing sketches for online consumption. I think we were a bit early at that time. However, I expect to produce new content adjacent to the “comedy specials” that fit the experience users, platforms and distributors are currently looking for.
PW/A.D. Amorosi: Are you afraid, ever, that Helium Comedy Studio’s potential popularity will keep people from attending the live room Heliums, eating its mozzie sticks and drinking beers?
Jimmy Chairman: Not for a second. I’d imagine that enjoying our content would make a viewer yearn for the energy of the live performances.
Brad Grossman: (laughing) I’m pretty confident escaping our lives for two hours for drinks and laughter with friends and/or strangers in the club is here to stay. And if it’s not, it sounds like a pretty scary world to me.