Beloved San Jose comedy club reopens its doors post-pandemic
San Jose Improv General Manager David Williams said during the pandemic, the community supported its pop-up kitchens which helped the business survive. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

One of San Jose’s most beloved downtown venues is reopening after almost a year and a half.

The San Jose Improv reopens today with comedians Sammy Obeid, Phil Griffiths, Sam Marcoux and Chai Sharma performing. D.L. Hughley headlining this weekend.

The neighborhood staple, located at 62 South Second Street, survived earthquakes, fires and now the pandemic.

Ironically, the venue completed an extensive remodel before being shuttered.

In August 2019, San Jose Improv closed for two months, signed a new lease for 15 years and invested $1 million into aesthetics and a new audio-visual system. The comedy club then re-opened in October 2019 and then shut its doors five months later due to the pandemic lockdown.

Equipped with an industrial sized kitchen, the business pivoted and created two pickup and delivery pop-up kitchens, Poultrygram and Resident Taco.

“The local community really helped support us,” said General Manager David Williams. “That was part of how we were able to survive.”

Assistant General Manager Jovonnie Martinez cited concerns over all the resources put into the renovation and new lease by the club’s owner Levity Live.

“We knew in the back of our minds maybe that would be our saving grace,” Martinez said.

Williams said they never thought about closing. He said Levity Live’s other interests—talent management, television production and live entertainment—helped keep the comedy club afloat.

San Jose Improv also received support from parent company AMC Networks, the federal government and through loan applications. But if the pandemic went on another year or two, things might have been different, Williams said.

The comedy club brings business and revenue to downtown as patrons often frequent local restaurants and bars before and after shows. Martinez said the community has expressed excitement for the reopening.

“I’m certain it will bring great morale back to the area,” she said, adding that restaurants will do better once foot traffic picks up in downtown.

After being closed for almost a year and a half, the San Jose Improv will reopen on Thursday, June 24. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Brendan Rawson, a member of the Greater Downtown San Jose Economic Recovery Task Force, said he is encouraged to hear San Jose Improv is coming back.

“Downtown sorely needs a mix of businesses active in building back the area as an arts and entertainment destination,” Rawson said. “Consistent programmers such as the Improv generate business activity week in and week out for local restaurants, bars and cafes.”

San Jose Improv lost more than 70% of its workers during the pandemic. Despite hosting numerous job fairs, Martinez said it’s hard to find workers as some people are still concerned about being in a crowd during the pandemic and others are making do with unemployment benefits.

“It’s been quite a struggle filling those positions,” she said. “There’s been a lot of uncertainty.”

The atmosphere and beauty of the building, with its stamped ceiling, gilt moldings and cool vibe makes people want to be there, Martinez said. Google, the Silicon Valley Organization, Content Magazine, Cinequest and School of Rock have rented the venue.

Skye Phoenix, whose daughter Riley performed at San Jose Improv with the School of Rock, said she has great memories of being at the venue.

“It’s like an old club with its booths,” she said. “You can eat and have a drink and enjoy the show. It’s intimate and has been there for generations.”

San Jose Improv is located in the historical Jose Theater, built in 1904. In the 1900s, it was a vaudeville theater and even hosted The Three Stooges and later hosted drag and burlesque shows. In the 70s and 80s it was a rock music venue and a movie theater in the 90s. The building has been home to the Improv for close to 20 years.

Among its famous performers are Val Kilmer, David Spade and Dave Chappelle. Arsenio Hall and Felipe Esparza filmed comedy specials there.

“We take the responsibility of our stewardship of this historic building and partnership with the people of San Jose very seriously,” said Katelyn Studebaker, a spokeswoman for the club. “We’re continuing to build and create our own history within this comedy community.”

Word is out that the San Jose Improv is back in business. It’s booked for the next 14 weeks.

“The comedians can’t wait to get back and we can’t wait for them to be back,” Williams said.

On opening night, local comedians will perform for an intimate audience of 225 people. But following that, they’ll have 450 people at every show. Following public health guidelines, people who are fully vaccinated don’t have to wear a mask. Williams said people who aren’t fully vaccinated are encouraged to wear masks and that all staff will wear them.

“We can’t wait to have people back in the building,” Studebaker said. “It’s been so quiet.”

Williams imagines he’ll feel a mix of emotions on opening night.

“It’s excitement. It’s nervousness, it’s getting back to doing what we love,” he said. “I know it’s going to be extremely emotional and there’s going to be some tears, tears of happiness mainly. We just can’t wait.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].

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