On January 8, 2017 in the space above Ramapo’s historic Lafayette Theater, Rhino Comedy club owner Maria Vail gathered a group of friends together with one goal: to create a comedy empire. Though Vail’s vision was anything but simple, the Ramapo College acting professor and longtime theatre professional had faith that her experience and industry connections would enable her to build a club where artists of all kinds could experiment and share their work with the public.
Since the majority of the group moonlighted as improvisers, they began their work by creating a curriculum of improv. After the sold-out success of the troupe’s first show in the now-moved Mexican restaurant Olé Olé—which happened to take place on April Fool’s Day—Vail thought they may just have a hit on their hands. Six years and thousands of laughs later, she is sure of it.
“When I started Rhino Comedy, the first thing I told (the group) was that we need to create an empire with a big heart,” Vail explained. “It should have that vulnerability that is universal, where people can laugh. The most efficient form of communication is comedy because it’s like a synapse—the space between two neurons. That’s how a joke works. The thing that’s missing is why people laugh. They get to put it together while the comedian’s talking. Then they’re included in the joke.”
Though the club was forced to move out of its old, larger venue last year due to climbing rental fees, Vail says their new space above the thrift shop “Wow! That’s Unusual” fits the Rhino’s close-knit, kooky vibe. Following extensive renovations and the installation of a sound and light system, the club re-opened in November 2022, complete with a full-service bar and small stage. Audience numbers typically cap at forty seats, though fifty can be arranged for especially popular shows.
“It’s kind of perfect because when we do sell out, of course it’s great,” Vail said. “But if we don’t, the room’s still small enough that it feels like a good atmosphere.”
The Rhino’s Classes and Events
Of course, Vail iterates that Rhino Comedy would be nothing without its dozens of performers and students. While Saturday nights are reserved for traditional shows with professional comedians (save for a five-minutes-for-five-dollars open mic afterwards), the club doubles as a comedy school, offering multi-level classes in improv and standup with opportunities to perform crafted routines. Vail also offers what she calls “comedy clinics,” where standups can workshop jokes in an informal setting. Other nights showcase the club’s professional improv troupe (aptly named the Rhinos), open mics, game shows, murder mysteries, improv jams, parties and comedy contests, as well as themed shows such as “Divorceland! Divorced Comedians Tell All.”
When asked how she manages to keep up with the Rhino’s myriad of events, Vail laughed.
“It’s funny, I don’t mind it,” Vail said. “Like, I don’t mind coming in here to mop or cook mozzarella sticks. Because it’s all working toward the goal of comedy. Maybe that’s a bit ephemeral, the idea of comedy itself being the goal. But I’ve spent my entire life doing theatre, hanging out with actors and comedians…This is what I do.”
To the Rhino’s dedicated patrons who supported the club through a move (not to mention the pandemic), Vail can only say ‘thank you’ for continuing to support the free speech-based art she loves so much.
“Comedy is the healthiest thing in the world,” Vail explained. “It’s the most positive thing for your soul, for your depression, for anything you’ve got. Because it’s all about truth and listening…There’s no failure. We just hope to keep spreading the bug.”
Tickets and additional information on Rhino Comedy shows can be found on www.rhinoimprov.com.