Brooks Wheelan performs at set at Empire in 2018. Credit: Courtesy of Empire

PORTLAND, Maine — The city will soon be getting its first dedicated stand-up comedy club in nearly a decade. And it’s in a spot everyone already knows.

In January, after 12 years of serving as a popular mid-capacity music venue in Portland’s arts district, Empire will rebrand as the Empire Comedy Club. It will book local and national stand-up acts.

Empire General Manager Lucas Salisbury said the shift comes from a number of factors, but he cited competition from an abundance of music venues in Portland.

“It’s been rough. This place has been known as a music venue for so long,” Salisbury said. “There’s so much opportunity out there for people to see music every day of the week. It used to be this place’s bread and butter.”

But Salisbury said there’s a growing need for a comedy club in the city. Empire Comedy Club could fill that niche.

“Comedy is bigger than it’s ever been,” Salisbury said, citing an uptick in specials on Netflix and Amazon Prime as well as an ocean of podcasts. “I’m super passionate about it. I love watching comics come in here and do a joke they’ve tried 20 times, and then see the moment they figure out how to get it right.”

Credit: Courtesy of Empire

To Portland’s comedy audience, Empire’s announcement may seem like a natural progression. The club booked national comic Doug Stanhope for a festival in 2017, and has had strong showings for Gina Yashere, Brooks Wheelan and Chris Distefano.

Salisbury believes a comedy-driven model, with artists doing two to four sets per weekend, would help him bring in more revenue than the current calendar, which primarily consists of music. He cited Sean Patton, a New York comic who performed a short set at Empire in May, as one of the early inspirations for the move.

“There wasn’t a lot of people here that night, but it was really one of the best sets I’ve ever seen,” Salisbury said. “The energy was so good. I talked to him afterward, and he said, ‘You should make this a full-time club.’”

Salisbury said that he will handle the bulk of the booking for the club, and will replace Ian Stuart, who frequently hosted comedy nights at Empire in the past.

Portland has not had a full-time comedy club since 2012, when the Comedy Connection on Custom House Wharf closed its doors. Since that time, the scene has been relegated to mostly open mics and the occasional short showcase at local music venues and pubs, such as Blue, Bull Feeney’s and Lincolns.

Micaela Tepler, a stand-up comic with the Portland Comedy Co-Op who moved to Portland in 2012, said the scene has come a long way since Comedy Connection’s closing and is ready for a full-time location.

“When I came back, there was not a lot of professional support,” Tepler said. “Now there’s a lot more higher quality shows. A lot of people in Portland have sharpened their tacks.”

Tepler said that while “comedy in general is a boy’s club,” the scene has made strides in that department.

“When I was doing open mic years ago, it was maybe one other woman, now it’s much closer to equal,” she said. “The Portland Comedy Co-Op is one of the bigger bookers if you’re a local. Three of five of us are women, and three of five are also queer. It makes other women more comfortable.” The Portland Comedy Co-Op — a group that includes Rachel Gendron, Anders Nielson, Ali Simpson, Conor McGrath and Tepler — are expected to play a bigger role in Empire as well.

Empire is located in Portland’s arts district at 575 Congress St., above the popular dim sum restaurant by the same name.

The club should retain its capacity of roughly 150, the majority of them seated. Unlike many comedy clubs (such as the old Comedy Connection), there will be no table service, and patrons will be expected to order at the bar. Salisbury anticipates the club will renovate to make the stage somewhat smaller, adding a row of additional seats on each side.

The Great Open Mic program, a popular showcase hosted by Portland’s Luna Colt and Kari Hodgens, is expected to be the only music-related programming on Empire’s calendar in 2020, and the club expects to continue burlesque and drag shows as well.

The club has booked national comics Neil Hamburger (Sept. 5), MCQUEEN (Oct. 4), Todd Barry (Nov. 15), Joe List (Dec. 6) and Jamie Kennedy (Dec. 20-21). New York comic Carmen Lynch will be the first to perform in the club’s official new incarnation Jan. 10.