In the resplendence of the eighty-four-year-old Economy Candy shop on Rivington Street last week, comedy producers, David Levine and Ethan Mansoor presented an unconventional show that brought hilarious relief to the arduous past year-and-a-half.
The early-twenties Levine and Mansoor are new to the comedy world but, for this latest production in their Underground Overground series where small stores transform into comedy clubs overnight, they walked the aisles like assured impresarios.
As Kelis sang, “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard” and around fifty twentysomethings settled into white folding chairs, windbreaker-wearing Levine and jeans-sporting Mansoor stepped in front and introduced some of the sharpest comics in the city.
“I’m Black so my diabetes is goin’ up right now,” joked host Reg Thomas, as he took the makeshift stand that had a Whirley Pop display on the side and jars of jelly beans in back. Exuding an enviable cool, Thomas himself proved to be a compelling stand-up before the crowd of young men and women.
It was Caitlin Peluffo, however, who practically flung him aside. Speeding to the stage, Peluffo grabbed the microphone and ignited a blistering set. “I’m surrounded by my favorite things. Ah! I want to eat it,” she yelled with Sam Kinison-like ferocity, drawing loud laughs from the back row by the Haribo packs. Spitballing about her dysfunctional romance and the phenomenon of “feminist pornography,” the comedian emanated a kind of manic glee and reflected Levine’s and Mansoor’s broader ethos.
Mass Closure of Clubs
At a Midtown East bar a few weeks earlier, the childhood friends explained that Underground Overground arose from the mass closure of traditional comedy clubs during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic and, consequently, they wanted to give comedians spaces to perform in.
In their own way, by enabling comics to play such atypical venues as barbershops and laundromats, Mansoor and Levine have contributed to the wider resurgence of the arts in the city that’s currently taking place. “With all of the problems in the world, comedy is emerging as one of the best mediums to still talk about these things,” Mansoor says.
Mansoor is the University of Chicago-educated brain behind the series but Levine is its undeterred heart. It’s easy to see how the native New Yorker, who resembles a young Vince Vaughn, enlisted such notable comedians as Dave Attell and Sam Morril to perform at Underground Overground’s first shows this past spring. By making countless calls to agents and through the sheer persistence of youth, Levine ensures his series’ success.
“I walked down Orchard Street,” Levine begins, over a cup of hot tea. “So I have a plan next week to walk into all of these venues and ask them if they want to do a show. And a lot of them are going to say no, but you never know who’s going to say yes.”
Beyond putting on memorable productions, Levine and Mansoor also want to revitalize the local economy.
“We like helping small businesses,” Levine says. “If you’re a place on the Lower East Side like a laundromat or a tattoo shop, the demographics we’re bringing to the show are twenty-one to twenty-seven-year-olds, about a hundred kids who live in the neighborhood, and it’s great eyeballs for them.”
Additionally, the producers pay the business owners for using their space and, as Mansoor says, “They make more money than we do.”
Skye and Mitchell Cohen of Economy Candy had never held a comedy show in their store before but, perhaps drawn by Levine’s charisma and knowing that they’d still be able to sell candy, they agreed to his prospect. Standing by the register, they grinned as new customers walked around their space.
After a witty set by comedian Harrison Greenbaum, in which he quipped that he “never had to compete with a jawbreaker before,” veteran comic Sean Donnelly stormed the room.
Representing Queens with a Mets cap- ”Brooklyn kicks you out when you reach forty,” he said - the bearded performer scanned the young crowd and deadpanned in his signature wheeze, “I just look like your uncle who tagged along.”
Imbuing topics such as divorce and mortality with refreshing humor and jumping from side to side, Donnelly delivered a raucous set that would have played just as well at The Comedy Cellar as it did under the shelves of Economy Candy.
Taking the mic from Donnelly was the mellow Jordan Rock who, after saying, “I don’t know if this is a show or a non-essential gathering,” dished fierce pandemic jokes including the poignant punchline, “We didn’t even want to see our friends!”
British newcomer Chris Turner offered a riotous last set. Starting with, “It’s nice to be in your nation. It used to be our nation, of course,” the Manchester-rooted comedian gathered different words from the audience and, as 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop” blasted overhead, segued into a freestyle rap that left listeners in handclaps and tears.
“That was amazing,” went some of the attendees as they walked into the Lower East Side night and, amidst their laughter, Levine and Mansoor smiled with gratitude.