It's Friday night at the Comedy Cellar. As Estee Adoram comes and goes from her station at a dark corner booth, it's hard to tell if she is holding court or hiding out. She's running downstairs every few minutes, checking in on the comic who is currently onstage and the ones who will soon be up to bat. Back at the table she makes tiny, impenetrable notes in her crossword puzzle of a calendar. After observing her for an hour, any possible confusion about Estee's role dissipates: she is the mistress of all she surveys.
I met Estee for the first time in late March of this year at the Cellar, as those in the know call it. I had come to meet my friend and collaborator Judd Apatow, who had just completed an impromptu set and was devouring a massive plate of Middle Eastern food. Garry Shandling, Judd's mentor and a beloved elder statesman of the comedy world, had passed away earlier that week, and the mood among the comics at the Cellar was a somber one. I was somber, too, imagining Judd as my Garry and feeling the deepest love and appreciation for someone so willing to guide younger artists. The jocularity you might expect from a booth crowded with stand-ups was replaced with a more forlorn and halting dialogue, an awareness of loss that made laughing harder than anyone wanted it to be. So to say I wasn't looking around for subjects to profile for Lenny is an understatement.
But when Estee joined our table, loudly exhaling in the fashion of an irritated aunt who has just finished cooking for a full Shiva, I was transfixed: initially by her printed caftan, her bright lip, and her Vegas-ready bubble of hair. But more so by the quiet force she seemed to exhibit, nodding with silent approval as she handed carefully counted bills to a nervous, wired young comedian who had just finished for the night.
"Estee is the boss around here," Judd explained. "Everything that happens is because of Estee."
"Wow. Could I interview you for my feminist newsletter?" I blurted, immediately horrified that I had chosen this moment to wheel and deal.
"Sure," she shrugged, as if this were a request she got hourly. "But I am not a feminist."
"That's OK!" I trilled. I would have honestly denounced feminism and all its trappings in that moment just to make her like me, so intense is her gravitational pull.
In speaking to the comedians she has fostered over her 34-year career at the Cellar, I was able to get a clearer picture of the power Estee wears like a fancy perfume. "There is no comedian at any level of their career that doesn't get nervous when Estee watches," says Sarah Silverman. "No matter how you fight it, you want to impress her."
"She watches everybody. No dummy. She doesn't like to be fucked with," says Colin Quinn, whom Estee counts among her closest friends (although when she talks about the comedians who have made the Cellar's reputation, it sounds more like she's praising her children). "She's amazing."
Since starting at the Cellar as a hostess, Estee has risen up the ranks (something she was taught to do during a stint in Israel's army) to her current role as manager and head booker: "Every time someone left or died, I got a part of their job," she says, like it's just that simple.
When I come back to interview her the following week, I arrive twenty minutes late, unduly panicked from having been trapped in a Bernie Sanders rally. My phone (which is also my recording device) had died and I was sweaty and winded. I had bought her a turquoise ring from the head shop down the street where I purchased a new charger. This is the exact wrong circumstance under which to grill someone Jim Norton describes as having "a world-class bullshit meter. Name-dropping and drippy showbiz smiles do nothing to sway her. She sees right through all of it." But, just as he promised, she is also "affectionate and doting and loving with the people she genuinely cares for. She isn't hard-hearted or cruel by any means. Estee is simply not a good liar, which by nature makes fraudulent people feel transparent."
I really want her to like me.
Estee has no time for the trendy opinions of millennials with think-piece boners. On the subject of the lack of women in comedy, she says, "I am not gonna put someone on who is not great just because she's female. And I really don't believe any club owner would not book a woman just because she's a woman. There's only one trend in comedy and that's to be funny. I don't go for gimmicks." Political correctness is also not of interest to her (she counts the controversial Norton as one of the comedians who means the most to her and her club). It's tempting to read her assertion that she's not a feminist, that her gender has not made her career more complex, as a survival mechanism of sorts, one that might make nearly four decades in a darkened club full of men a bit easier to handle. But when she speaks, firmly and calmly, it's also hard not to believe her.
Michael Che, Saturday Night Live writer and current "Weekend Update" host, says, "Estee is the mother of New York comedy. The Cellar is a fraternity that every comic wants to be a part of, and Estee is the gatekeeper. So she can be extremely intimidating because her opinion matters to us so much and she has no problem expressing it." Still, he is careful to note, "when she brings you in, you're literally at home. There's a reason why no matter how famous a comic gets, they come back to the Cellar. She's just the best."
"Are you really the scariest woman in comedy?" I ask, repeating an affectionate but firm assertion I've heard a lot around town.
She throws her hands up. "I hate when people say that, because it's really not me they're scared of but what I represent. You see, everybody thinks they are 'it.' They don't have the real handle on who they are."
Finally I ask her about comics themselves, whether they're as damaged as we are all led to believe, how she keeps her boundaries with people who are hungry for affirmation and fame and to be told they are "it." She nods like an experienced Freudian analyst, an effect only enhanced by her Eastern European accent: "If you really talk to a comic and break it down, they all have some kind of wound." She tells me Ray Romano is the only emotionally healthy comic. After a pause: "Maybe Judd."
When asked for comment, Romano says, "Estee knows comedy much better than mental health."
Below are some excerpts from our conversation.
Lena Dunham: What are the things that you look for when you're auditioning a comic?
Estee Adoram: A lot of people ask me that thing. It's very hard for me to answer. First of all, I want to see what reaction they get from the crowd. There is something I really hate about comics that don't do well, that they do this: "It's over your head. I'm smarter than you." It's really important how the audience reacts. I look at their reaction. I look for what kind of energy the person has. If the joke falls flat, how do the comics react? How do they recover from it? What do they do with it? Because once I start booking them, I trust the stage to the comic. And the best comic can have an off night. He can bomb. I want to know how they're going to deal with it. Are they going to turn on the audience? I've seen that happen. I was devastated.
LD: Is it possible to offend you? Are you easily offended? Is there any material that a comic could do that would upset you?
EA: I hate vulgarity. I don't mind dirty. There's a difference between a comic who works dirty or is vulgar. I don't want the level of intelligence to go down the toilet because of that. I have personal stuff that I don't like. I wouldn't be offended, but I don't like it. I don't like Holocaust jokes.
The only one that can pull it off is Dave Attell. He can do it and it works. I'm from a Holocaust-survivor family, so that's a very raw nerve for me. I don't particularly love cancer jokes. People do that. If you manage to do it where the audience laughs, I turn my head. Those are pretty much it.
LD: How do you feel about rape jokes?
EA: Depends on how you do it. You need to come and you're going to listen to Lynne Koplitz doing the rape joke. If you don't laugh, I'll buy you whatever you want.
LD: She's a woman, right?
EA: She's a woman. Depends on how it's said. The angle that you approach it. I've never had anybody offended by her doing the rape joke, but she is masterful.
LD: How do you feel about the current comedy culture, now that everyone is holding up their iPhone, how easy it is for comics to get into big trouble when they're testing out material, when they're playing around?
EA: When we check people in, we tell them the phones need to be off. When they walk downstairs, there's a sign. If we see anybody with a phone on, we take it away, have them delete it, and we kick them out. We do not tolerate it. It's really a very difficult thing. Whenever we have a celebrity or somebody like that, the wait staff needs to stop everything and just watch for the phones. All the big guys come and work out material here, because they know that we'll have extra security and we'll do that. We'll protect them the best that we can.
LD: Do you think that there have been times where, being a woman and being in this position of control, you felt people thought they could step over you? Or do you think they meet you and they're just like, Oh no. That won't be happening.
EA: Yep. Maybe they say things behind my back, I don't know. But no, I never felt it. I can't even think of an incident of somebody trying.
LD: That's amazing. Well, you definitely project real confidence in what you do.
EA: Yeah, by now if I don't, I should really shoot myself. If you do something that you're really known for, there's a confidence in that. Every day I have at least three shows. Wednesdays and Thursdays I have four shows, and Fridays and Saturdays I have seven shows. I have an awful lot of shows. Guess what? Without publicity, and ads and whatever, all of the shows are sold out. All the time. What that tells me is that we have a good reputation. You'll have people bringing the parents, or parents bringing their adult children. People know when they come they'll see a good show. Other clubs, not so much. I think that there's a certain respect involved because of the traffic that we have.
LD: Do you experience stress?
EA: Yes, but not at work.
LD: Your stress comes from other things, not the job.
EA: Exactly. I can be sometimes overwhelmed. Let's say it's a Saturday night and suddenly I have Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K., Amy Schumer, they all came in, they all want to go on, and we want to make everything work, which eventually you do. That will lift my shoulders, but I'm not stressed. Stress that I feel is if things don't go well for my son. That's the real stress, that's where I feel it in the pit of my stomach.
LD: When I first asked you to do this, I said it's for my feminist newsletter, and you made a joke. You were like, "Well, I'm not a feminist ..."
EA: I'm not.
LD: I want to know about that. I'm so interested because for many young women it's a huge part of how they identify. Clearly, you're a woman who is in a position of power, who is not interested in having your authority be subordinated to anybody else, but feminist is not a label that makes sense to you. I wanted you to talk about that a little.
EA: I was thinking about it after we talked. You would define my lifestyle, my work, every job I've ever had in my life as feminist. To say I did it myself sounds conceited.
LD: It's OK to sound conceited.
EA: No, I don't like that. Be humble. I like humble. I always rose to the top. I was always in the position of authority, even when I was in the army. I was always in the position of authority.
LD: In the Israeli army.
EA: Exactly. I was in charge. I have pictures to show, to prove it. There is something in my character, I guess, that makes it happen. I never felt: "I am not allowed to do that because I'm a woman." Feminism would step in and say, this is a blockage here. I never felt that. I worked, I worked hard, and I always was recognized for the job. I never felt power, it's just that's the way it is.
LD: So many people, especially women, talk about feeling like they have to work past so much disrespect in the comedy world, push past so much misogyny and male expectation. So it's fascinating to hear you say, "No, I feel like I can interact with these men on a straightforward level."
EA: I do. It's not that I'm living in a fantasy world. I'm not. The reality is, most people that I come in contact with give me my dues.
LD: As they should.
EA: Yeah. Well, yeah. Could I make more money? Sure. Now, there's the big thing in show business. Equal pay for women and whatever. It probably is an issue. To me it's not. Yeah, I would like to make more money, of course. At the end of the day, for me, what matters is the satisfaction with what I do, my relationship with people, whether it's comics, coworkers, friends, people I meet. I feel happy. As long as I have enough to live for what I want to do, I'm good. I don't know if it's words of wisdom, but that's what kept me happy.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Lena Dunham went to stand-up-comedy school for six weeks in 2000. She was fourteen, and it only went OK.