Comedians, from left, Connor McGrath, Micaela Tepler, Ali Simpson, Keith Hebert, Rachel Gendron and Mike Hallinan in the alley behind Empire, the music and events space on Congress Street in Portland that’s transitioning into a comedy club. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Connor McGrath and several dozen other Portland comics have been essentially homeless for the past seven years, trying to hone their laugh-making skills at bars and restaurants where at least some patrons just want to eat and drink.

The last time that area comedians had a permanent home was 2012, when the Comedy Connection on the city’s waterfront closed after 20 years in business. So news that Portland will once again have a full-time comedy club beginning in January – Empire Comedy Club on Congress Street – is about as exciting to McGrath as a standing ovation after a 45-minute set.

“I feel like I’m a gunfighter that has been wandering the hillside, perfecting my shot across the wild, wild west,” said McGrath, 31, of Portland, who performs locally and around the country. “I think it’s absolutely crucial that a comedian has a home club. I have never had that in my eight years performing comedy, and it feels indescribably good that I finally might have one.”

Comics and others in the Portland comedy scene say that having a permanent comedy club in the city will give local comedians more opportunities to practice before a live, engaged audience and to watch and learn from fellow local comedians as well as regional and national headliners. It could also be a place where they learn what to expect at professionally run comedy clubs they might end up playing in other cities.

The new comedy club will officially open in January in what’s now the 125-person capacity Empire Live Music and Events venue above the Empire Chinese Kitchen on Congress Street, in the heart of downtown. Since opening six years ago, the venue has hosted a mix of live music and other events but has added more and more comedy in the past few years, including occasional national headliners.

The decision to go all comedy was based partly on the increased competition in Portland’s music scene, particularly as more music venues have opened in the past five years or so, said Lucas Salisbury, Empire’s general manager. When the restaurant and upstairs venue opened in 2013, Empire didn’t have nearly as much competition for booking music acts, both brand-new groups and touring acts, as it does now, Salisbury said. Portland venues that have opened or expanded in the last few years include Portland House of Music, Thompson’s Point and Aura. Also, he said, booking comedy is cheaper since fewer people are needed to lug and run equipment than for a music show.

Salisbury began spreading the word about the new comedy club in late August and is adding to the comedy schedule throughout the rest of this year, while still hosting music acts. He said he’s talked to many local comics and estimates there are probably 50 or so doing comedy on a regular basis, though most also have day jobs. Starting in mid-October, he’ll begin hosting some comedy shows on Wednesday nights, in addition to the local comedian showcases already happening on Sundays and the first Friday of every month. The showcases have a $5 admission charge. The club has a bar but does not serve food.

Empire has also scheduled nationally known comedians to perform this fall, including Todd Barry on Nov. 15 and Joe List on Dec. 6. Both have been on Comedy Central and late-night talk shows. Jamie Kennedy, a veteran comic who was also in the comedy-horror “Scream” movies, will be at Empire Dec. 20 and 21.

Salisbury hopes eventually to have comedy at Empire five or six nights a week, with more than one show on some nights. He envisions local comedians getting to perform on weekend nights with national acts, perhaps as openers but also in their own late-night slots.

Tim Ferrell, a former writer for Comedy Central who teaches comedy classes in Portland, said the city’s aspiring comedians would benefit immeasurably from a full-time club. He said some of the crucial details of putting on a good comedy show – like keeping every comic to their time limit – can get lost at bars or restaurants that have periodic local comedy shows. But at a full-time club, like Comedy Connection was, comedians can learn to become more professional. Several Maine comedians who played regularly at the Comedy Connection have gone on to careers in comedy, most notably Bob Marley.

The Comedy Connection closed in 2012 after a health inspection revealed a rat infestation and after the club’s management said it was unable to negotiate a new lease on the Custom House Wharf building. In the years since, Portland comics have organized their own shows at local bars and other venues. Portland bars Lincolns and Blue have hosted their own comedy nights, often with several comedians.

“I think it’s going to give Portland a place where people can go to see a consistently high level of acts,” said Keith Hebert, 34, a Portland comedian who works as an accountant by day. “If you go to a bar to do a show or see a show, you’re not entirely sure what you’re in for. For me, I’m really excited to get a chance to work with some (nationally known comedians) I really admire.”

Musicians can rehearse anywhere but comedians really need an audience, so having a regular club to work out new material will be an important benefit, said Rachel Gendron, a Portland comedian who helps organize shows at a variety of area venues. Her act relies on improvising and riffing off audience members, so she needs to perform often.

“If I can get on stage more, it will be great for me,” said Gendron, 31. “They’ve already done a good job of establishing a reputation for comedy (at Empire), so I think that will really help.”

At a club dedicated to comedy, audiences are more likely to pay closer attention to the performers, and that will encourage comedians to elevate their acts, comics said. At some Portland bars, even ones with well-run and well-attended comedy shows, there are still some patrons who are mostly there to have a drink, said Micaela Tepler, a Portland comedian who also teaches seventh-grade science. So she’s looking forward to Empire Comedy Club’s singular focus.

“I think it’s really going to be a place where the whole comedy community comes together,” said Tepler, 26.

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