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."