The smell of burgers and onion rings waft from the kitchen. A first date nervously unfolds in the corner booth. A rowdy set of college-age football enthusiasts down shots. And a biker sitting at the bar takes his cocktail while watching the news. It’s a typical Saturday evening at Atlanta’s Vortex Bar and Grill on Peachtree Street.
To most patrons, the Vortex is just an eclectic burger joint with an impressive beer selection and whimsical brick-a-brac on the walls. But to those in the know, it’s so much more. Through the swinging doors in the back, down the hall, and past the facilities is the Laughing Skull Lounge – a tiny speakeasy of a comedy club – it seats 80 people – housed in what was once the Peachtree Playhouse.
Riding high on the success of a high-profile festival that drew an impressive array of industry dealmakers, this discreet club is poised for national recognition. The owner, Marshall Chiles, admits the club has an intangible hipness superseding the sum of its parts. “The Laughing Skull is cooler than I am,” says the Atlanta-born comedian, “and I’m kind of jealous of it.”
The room’s moody back-seat feel is no accident, though. “Somebody said in 1984 that ‘this is how comedy clubs are supposed to look’ and they’ve stayed the same ever since” says Chiles. “You don’t have to build a 500-seat place, give away tickets, and make your money on chicken fingers. That model’s broken. I’m trying to show the industry there’s a better way to do it.”
Many comedians, including stand-up veteran Margaret Cho, who has a home in Atlanta, use the club to experiment with new material.
“You have a higher level of talent and creativity that’s coming through, and that makes me better as a comic,” Cho says. “I’m there a lot – like every weekend – just to hang out, and I see how my work has improved by simply hanging out.”
Cho, who’s currently shooting Lifetime’s third season of the comedy fantasy Drop Dead Diva, had preconceived notions about Atlanta and its comedy scene before moving here. “I expected it to be very conservative. It’s actually pretty liberal and pretty progressive,” Cho says. “I didn’t expect it to be such a cultural melting pot. So much great music is happening and so much great comedy. It’s been a great place for me creatively.”
Chiles says Atlanta’s comedy community differs from those of New York and Los Angeles, in that TV deals aren’t necessarily the brass ring. “Guys in Atlanta are doing it because they love standup comedy,” he says. “It’s just more of a pure art form down here.”
That’s not to say veterans of those hardscrabble, industry-driven environments aren’t warming to Chiles’ approach. Marc Maron, host and creator of the tremendously popular podcast bearing his name, recently headlined a few nights at the Laughing Skull.
“What’s not to be appealing? It has great sound; it’s a great looking club, and it’s a very small crowd,” says the abrasively charismatic comic through a mouthful of Nicorette gum. “Would it be appealing to me if I could fill a theater? Yeah, I think so. Because I prefer half a house; I like a small crowd. I don’t like much of a fourth wall. I like a conversation to unfold. I develop my material on stage, and certainly a small room is more conducive to that.”
Maron added: “Marshall comes from the club system, but he had the foresight to see what was going on, and to try this with a tremendous amount of risk involved.”
And now that those risks are paying off, Chiles plans to stay the course, relying on that critical component that made his club a success in the first place: exclusivity. He paraphrases a line from The Social Network when summing up his business model: “Keep it cool, and everybody will want to play with you.”
For more about the club, visit vortexcomedy.com.