At 19, Allyson Jaffe walked into the DC Improv Comedy Club and asked for a job. Over the next 22 years, she worked her way up from waitress to office worker to manager to co-owner. Today she’s tackling her most difficult job yet: ensuring the club survives the pandemic.
At 42, the District resident manages the day-to-day operations of the club. Since March, she moved comedy classes online. She canceled shows and refunded tickets. And she laid off the entire staff. But through it all, Jaffe is doing everything she can to make sure the club can reopen once it’s safe to laugh in an audience.
“If you ever take an improv class, the core lesson in improv is saying yes to everything that happens,” Jaffe said. “And so this is the longest improv scene of our lives.”
Jaffe may run the show now, but her career in comedy had humble beginnings. Jaffe grew up in Queens and moved to Washington in 1996 to attend American University. Two years later, she got a job at DC Improv Comedy Club, which is one of 25 franchised clubs across the country. The D.C. branch was opened by Mark Anderson in 1992. At first, her waitressing gig was meant to help pass the time during the summer of her sophomore year. But quickly DC Improv became her world.
“I started waiting tables there and then I never left,” Jaffe said. “Literally my whole life became the Improv. Every school project I did was about the club and my social life became my co-workers. And I did an internship for credit in my senior year at the Improv. I just fell in love with it. I really did. Just watching crowds and comics and that sort of environment of lightness and laughter. It’s really wonderful.”
Jaffe approached the general manager right before her graduation in 2000 and asked if he needed any additional help. She was then hired to assist in office work like marketing, promotions and answering the phone. A year later, she did some pro bono work, assisting club founder Anderson in re-opening the Old Town Theater in Alexandria. In appreciation, he made Jaffe a co-owner, today one of five, in DC Improv and the Old Town Theater, which went defunct in 2003.
In 2002, Jaffe was promoted to night manager after the job became vacant. A year later, she launched one of her most noteworthy projects: the DC Improv Comedy School. As the school’s self-titled “principal,” she works to coordinate classes on improv, stand-up, sketch writing and other comedy-related workshops.
“We started with one class in May of 2003 and it sold out,” Jaffe said. “Literally it’s been going nonstop ever since then. It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences. I’ve met so many amazing people of all walks of life. No one cares what you do for a living when you take a class, they’re just all there to try something different and laugh. That’s what I love about the Improv. That’s what I love about comedy.”
Jaffe said she is proud of her heritage and looks toward the life of her maternal grandmother for strength and guidance. At 18 and speaking no English, Frances Kornbluth immigrated to New York from Poland. Shortly thereafter, her parents and brother were murdered in the Holocaust.
“My grandmother was so strong, and she just continued to move forward and build something, make her life and power through that,” Jaffe said. “And I think that’s part of what helps me continue my journey and my fight. Having that person in your life that went through that trauma, and being able to take a situation and figure it out. She’s a fighter. I’m a fighter.”
It’s the strength Jaffe turned to when the pandemic hit. On March 16, she laid off her entire staff. More than 50 part-time and full-time employees, including herself, lost their jobs that day. Two days later, she launched a GoFundMe to raise money to support her former workers. Within weeks, $45,000 was raised for the fund.
“I was just blown away by the support. I never expected that much. My first goal was $1,000 on the fund and then I saw all this support from my comedy students. They stepped up to the plate. Our customers stepped up to the plate, and comedians,” Jaffe said. “It just shows the impact that this particular venue has had on people. And that’s why we have to do whatever we can to survive. I will do what I need to do so my staff can come back. So my customers can have a place to let go and we could just laugh again.”
The club is closed through the summer, but Jaffe hopes they’ll be able to reopen safely sometime this fall. The club has also started hosting $5 virtual comedy shows and has done well over 20 of them. These programs won’t be able to support the club long term, but Jaffe said every little bit helps.