A laugh riot

Washington residents could use a few laughs as winter descends and sparring on Capitol Hill intensifies. Thankfully, the new Riot Act Comedy Theater in Penn Quarter opened in August to provide visitors with a healthy dose of hilarity.

Located at 801 E St. NW, the spacious two-story, 13,000-square-foot venue offers two bars, a sizable dining menu and a lineup jam-packed with famous comedians including Nick DiPaolo and acclaimed political satirist Will Durst.

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The spotless 350-seat showroom is large but intimate, and ensures loads of interaction between comics and the audience. Reasonable ticket and menu prices also make it a viable alternative to a dinner-and-a-movie outing.

Co-owner John Xereas, former co-owner of DC Improv, spoke with The Hill about his new venture, his dream guests and where Riot Act, and Washington, stand on the national comedy map.

Q: Was it scary going out on your own with Riot Act?

It was definitely scary … it is a huge leap. But it was very exciting, and the fact that my partner is Geoff Dawson — he owns Buffalo Billiards, Rocket Bar, Iron Horse [Taproom]. We didn’t know each other; we were both looking at this space for different reasons. And it’s kind of like that old commercial where the guy stands there with the peanut butter and the other guy runs into him with the chocolate, and they’re like, ‘Oh, this is good.’ ”

(Editor’s note: Marjorie Heiss is also a co-owner of Riot Act.) 

Q: How is it going so far? 

We’ve been blessed. The crowds have been great. We’ve had a great lineup. What’s great about what we do, too, is that every night it could be something different. And we’re really trying to be a D.C. club, because there aren’t a lot of places for local people to work out [their act]. Our first six weeks were all D.C. people … that was our thing coming out of the gate.

Q: D.C. isn’t necessarily known for humor. Is it underrated for comedy?

It used to be, maybe 20 years ago, 15 years ago. There were multiple places for people to work out. There was the Comedy Café, there was Garvin’s, there was [DC] Improv. And we have Dave Chappelle from here, we have Wanda Sykes, we have Martin Lawrence, we have Lewis Black … they’re all from D.C. But a lot of it had to do with the atmosphere when they were coming up, that there were multiple places to work. Because you don’t know if it works unless you can get on stage, and a lot of places they have now to work out are bars and things like that where a lot of times people don’t even know there’s going to be comedy going on, and they’re working against the bar and people talking and the noise. And there’s not a lot of places that are just dedicated, where people come in and this is what’s happening, and people know.

Q: So it’s not that D.C. doesn’t have funny people — it’s that there are few places for them to hone their comedy?

This is true, and there’s so many comics. We do open mic every Tuesday, and I probably have 80 or 90 people in the queue trying to get up because there’s so many people. And saying that, we’ve done seven open mics that probably is 13 to 14 different comics in each one. So we’ve already gone through probably 150 people that signed up … It’s communal. The comics come in, they get to see each other, they get to say, “Oh, that joke, you did that, did you ever think about doing it this way?” They can riff with each other and write and create bonds.

Q: Given the club’s location, are you trying to do more politically focused events?

We do and we don’t. I think sometimes in this town, people come here to get away from it a little bit, because they’re subjected to it a little bit more in this city than other cities. But it’s not something we shy away from at the same time. But we don’t want to overdo it … Maybe once a month, every two months, something like that.

Q: Is there a specific comedian you would really love to get in here?

Dave Chappelle is a really good friend of mine. The first show we ever had at the [DC] Improv, Dave was the [master of ceremonies] and Brian Regan was the feature, and Ellen DeGeneres was our headliner. So I’ve known Dave for a long time, and I really wanted him to do the grand opening. He’d be that person that I’d be really proud to have here. And he’s definitely going to come through here, so it’s just a matter of time.

Q: Any high-powered political people you would like to see in the audience?

I’d love for the president to come, that would be cool. We had a senator or congressman in here to see Paul Mooney …  The chief of police was here. She stayed and she loved it. I was worried; I said, “Chief [Cathy] Lanier, I was worried that you wouldn’t like our name, because it’s Riot Act.” And she was like, ‘I love it — it’s great!”