During the pandemic, Chris Copen went from writing jokes with Will Ferrell in Los Angeles to changing diapers at a day care center in Johnstown.
Although the reversal of fortune was bleak, the hilarity of the situation was not lost on him.
Copen, who founded Point Blank Comedy at Point Park University in 2016, plans to channel his awkward moments into late-night laughs at Dad’s Basement in Dormont.
The storefront at 1521 Potomac Ave. is part collectibles store, part comedy theater.
Brothers Jake and Jared Berlin, who inherited the collecting bug from their mom, buy and sell trading cards, autographs, sports memorabilia and other baubles on the first floor. They opened the business in April and have been welcoming a steady stream of customers ever since. While on lockdown, a lot of folks cleaned out their closets and decided to trade their keepsakes for cash.
The Berlins also enjoy soaking up the stand-up spotlight. They asked Copen to help them transform the 1,100-square-foot cellar into a performance space.
Dad’s Basement Comedy is set to make its debut on Oct. 9 as part of the Dormont Street Festival, but Copen and the Berlins plan to host a few open house events beforehand to give people a feel for what they’re planning for the new space.
The 45-seat venue has a ‘70s rec room vibe, complete with lava lamps, black lights, a stage, a green room, a writer’s room and a concession stand. There is no bar, but the joint will be BYOB.
Collaboration is key at Dad’s Basement, which is why the writer’s room is so integral to the concept. Misery loves company, but the same can be said for creativity.
There are already 10 local comedians working at the space who are busy writing stand-up routines, online sketches, songs, experimental acts and rough ideas for improvisation. Dad’s Basement won’t be your father’s smoke-filled comedy club with a two-drink minimum and unruly hecklers. (But you may hear an occasional dad joke.)
It’ll be an incubator for young talent emerging from local universities. Dormont’s quirky vibe and its proximity to the Hollywood Theater, popular eateries and the T make it an ideal place for class clowns to commune with each other.
“We want this to be more of an experience,” Copen says. “We will play with form and push expectations. People will come here knowing that they’re going to see stuff that’s cool and cutting-edge.”
Shows will be intimate and affordably priced, ranging anywhere from $5 to $25. Copen compares Dad’s Basement to The Groundlings and The Second City, grassroots comedy institutions that launched many illustrious careers.
Copen remembers listening to his grandfather’s Steve Martin comedy album when he was 7 years old. He spent the rest of the summer transcribing the performance, pouring over the words like the Rosetta Stone in an effort to find out what made it so sidesplitting.
“It taught me to approach comedy from a very analytical sense,” he explains. “It’s all about word choice and rhythm. Patterns of speech and tone can make a simple sentence 5,000 times funnier.”
After leaving Point Park, Copen moved to Los Angeles and worked for Mosaic Media Group and Unique Features. Besides the entry-level industry minutia, he spent his downtime scouring the local comedy scene. When Covid shut down the industry, he decided it was time to make a change, and moved back to Pennsylvania to focus more on his own creative endeavors.
Now a Dormont resident, Copen sees the neighborhood as a kingdom for modern-day jesters who can spout witty one-liners with ease. Dad’s Basement hopes to find its niche among an already vibrant Pittsburgh comedy scene.
But, the business owners are hoping to carve their own way, too.
“There’s a balance between what maintains our creative integrity and what will sell tickets,” Jake Berlin says. “We do have a fundamental job of putting on a good show.”