Asylum NYC has become a comedy hub with Alan Kliffer at the helm

Alan Kliffer isn’t afraid of the hard work of show business, whether that’s learning carpentry to renovate a theater or consistently attracting an audience of laughing customers. He’s done both at Asylum NYC in the past year-and-a-half, transforming the space—both physically and metaphorically—into a major comedy hub for New York City. 

As artistic director at Asylum NYC, Kliffer is passionate about creating a space for comedy of all types—standup, sketch, improv and clowning—and building a space where New Yorkers can come for a much-needed laugh. 

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Kliffer took the helm at what was then called Improv Asylum in September 2019 but the pandemic quickly upended his plans, leaving him unemployed and the theater shuttered. Asylum NYC reopened in April 2021 with a new name and a new look thanks to the renovation work Kliffer completed during the closure.

A packed crowd at Asylum NYC.
Photograph: By Arin Sang-Urai / Courtesy of Alan Kliffer

The theater then introduced Titanique, the hot Off Broadway show roasting the 1997 Titanic movie, which regularly sells out the theater. The company also added Asylum Mainstage Presents, a weekly show featuring a troupe of seven Asylum members along with special guests like Colin Mochrie, Janeane Garofalo and Frankie Grande; Baby Wants Candy, a musical supergroup; The Female Gaze, a daytime talk show at night; and more. About half of the company’s comedy shows sell out, Kliffer says.

Even Saturday Night Live hosted its audition showcase at Asylum’s space.

The building at 307 West 26th Street in Chelsea was once the location of the storied Upright Citizen Brigade. UCB closed during the pandemic, as NPR reported, but its legacy still echoes through Asylum’s halls.

“There is an unspoken history in that space … that’s just baked into the walls of Asylum, which is really cool, and then Alan came and created this sense of newness as well,” says Jess Elgene, who performs in Asylum Mainstage Presents. “It is in a really cool way equal parts new and old.”

Jess Elgene with Colin Mochrie.
Photograph: By Mike Bryk / Courtesy of Jess Elgene

Elgene also credits Kliffer with creating an inclusive environment for performers and the audience—”letting comedy be a celebration of all people and laughing together,” she adds.

“I can’t say enough about what a safe environment Alan creates and that Asylum in general creates,” she says. “When I got to Asylum, I said they/she on my audition form, and the environment was so positive and so supportive and celebratory of me.”

Since that first audition, Elgene has performed with comedy greats like Frankie Grande and Colin Macherie, of Whose Line is it Anyway fame. After shows, it’s not uncommon for everybody—including the audience—to stick around.

Jess Elgene performs on stage at Asylum NYC.
Photograph: By Mike Bryk / Courtesy of Jess Elgene

Carter Lee Iddings relishes those afterparty moments as well. 

“There’s something about being in this space that just feels magical. When you’re here and it’s packed out and everybody’s laughing, and everybody’s having a good time and there’s a great afterparty following one of our late-night shows and everything, it doesn’t feel like work a lot of the time,” Iddings says.

A lifelong comedy fan who moved to New York to pursue comedy, Iddings started as an usher at Asylum and worked his way up to assistant to the artistic director. He’s watched as the organization has grown, adding more shows, staying open on more nights per week and hiring more staff. 

Backstage with Colin Macherie.
Photograph: By Mike Bryk / Courtesy of Alan Kliffer

“It really started from Alan doing every job himself,” Iddings tells us. 

He credits Kliffer’s approachable, helpful style for that growth. 

Kliffer, who took his first acting class at the age of 5 in his home country of Canada, is now offering classes at Asylum NYC on everything from starting a standup routine to clowning to honing your character set.

“I’ve always wanted to be a part of entertainment,” Kliffer says. “Over the year, it has really been this nice build, but now it’s like rocketing to space.”

Alan Kliffer in front of an Asylum NYC sign.
Photograph: By Arin Sang-Urai / Courtesy of Alan Kliffer

He’s also mentoring the next generation through the High School Improv Games program. In partnership with the New York City Department of Education, he’s worked with eight high schools to train local teachers and send Asylum performers to schools all leading up to an improv showdown. The first event, held in May, brought students from all five boroughs together for a day of fun and friendship what Kliffer calls “the friendliest competition you can imagine.” He hopes to scale the project nationally in the future.

As Asylum NYC continues to grow and to sell out shows, Kliffer hopes Asylum NYC can provide an inclusive space for community, especially considering how white the industry tends to be. 

“We need to create encouraging spaces and also I think it’s a responsibility of ours to look at that piece from the practical and try to make an actual change, like try to train younger and try to get people in,” he explains. “That’s why I think we’re an important space but also why comedy is just so important.”

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