AT THE STRESS FACTORY, A HUSBAND AND WIFE TEAM HAS BEEN MAKING NEW JERSEY RESIDENTS LAUGH FOR TWO DECADES
BY JESSICA JONES GORMAN • PHOTOS BY ROBERT NUZZIE
It was a few months before the premiere of the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, and Ray Romano was in the back office of Vinnie Brand’s comedy club, stressing out. “He was a struggling comic, performing random shows, trying to make ends meet, and nervous that this little pilot on CBS would never actually pan out. I told him, ‘Next time you’re in here, you’ll be performing for a lot more money than this,’” Brand laughed. “He responded, ‘From your lips to God’s ears.’” The show, over 210 episodes and nine seasons, was nominated for no fewer than 69 Primetime Emmy Awards (winning fifteen).
There’s a similar story with a pre King of Queens Kevin James and a young Drew Carey. But Vicki Brand, Vinnie’s wife and business partner, said that it wasn’t until Chris Rock dropped into their club to tune up his latest special that she knew their underground comedy venue was officially on the map.
“He did 18 shows, just testing out his stuff until he got it right, and I was like,‘Wow, this is really cool,’” Vicki Brand said. “It was that moment when I suddenly knew we had something special going on.”
But Vinnie and Vicki worked hard and struggled for years to make their now locally famous Stress Factory a success. Vinnie, who was born and raised in Middletown and graduated from Rutgers University, owned a small construction company and then a flower shop before deciding to try his hand at stand up.
“Both businesses were failing, and I honestly fell in love with performing,” he said at his New Brunswick club. “I worked at a couple of local spots and then decided to host my own open mic night, which immediately hurt me. The other clubs didn’t want to hire their own competition.”
So in 1991, Brand decided to open a full time operation at a hotel in Edison. “It was a four wall deal in a hotel; we didn’t control food, beverage, or staffing, so it was different, but fun,” Brand said. “We moved to a different hotel in 1992 and finally set up shop in our current location in 1994.”
He met Vicki 50 days later. “I fell for her right away,” Brand said. “It took her a little longer; I think she might have finally reciprocated sometime last week [laughs].” “Actually, I’m not there yet,” Vicki quipped over speakerphone.
Either way, the couple nurtured the club together throughout its infancy. “I didn’t have any money; I was barely getting by,” Brand said. “Vicki was in college at the time, studying to be a physical therapist or something, and I convinced her not to pursue it. She came on board, and together we built the club into what it is today.” “It’s been a blast, but it’s also been a long haul; we’ve really worked our asses off,” Vicki said of the couple’s 24 years in business. “In the beginning, we worked such crazy hours, we were sleeping in lawn chairs in the back of the club and napping in our cars. Vinnie kept saying to me, ‘Just give me five years; I promise it’ll be worth it.’ I think he’s been saying that every five years since.”
The hard work paid off. In addition to fueling the early careers of comics like Ray Romano and Kevin James, the Stress Factory has hosted industry bigs like Jerry Seinfeld, Andrew Dice Clay, Wanda Sykes, Sebastian Maniscalco, Jim Breuer, John Mulaney, and Louis C.K. all of whom have performed on Vinnie and Vicki’s stage.
“Many of those comics performed here before they hit it big, and they always returned to do another show,” Brand said. “That’s such a cool moment, to have a comic return to their roots, and to know that my club has that respect.” The intimate venue, which is located in the basement of its Church Street building, has 340 seats, all focused on the stage.
“There’s not a bad seat in the house,” Brand said. “This is hands down the best way to see a stand up show. The material loses something in a theater setting—the energy of the crowd is electric here, it’s magical. The excitement builds, you play off of the audience’s reaction, and a vibe just drips out of the room.”
Brand is similarly proud of the up and coming talent more recently featured at the Stress Factory. He calls Ms. Pat, who played his club in early November, the next big thing in the industry.
“She recently signed a sitcom deal with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer,” Brand said. “She’s a gem she’s turned her difficult life into comic gold. In a few years, everyone will know her name.”
And while the art of stand up has changed over the past 25 years, Brand said it’s a form of entertainment that is still alive and well.
“Stand up is hands down still the best night out around,” he said. “Where else can you go where you know someone is going to make you laugh for an hour and a half? Yes, the internet and 800 different cable channels have made it easy to watch comedy from the privacy of your own home, but nothing compares to going out and seeing a comic live.”
The art is thriving so much that Brand recently expanded the Stress Factory, opening another club in Bridgeport, Connecticut. “It’s beautiful,” he said of the space, which opened in May but was nine years in the making. “Bridgeport is in the same position the New Brunswick Stress Factory was 28 years ago. We are out there now pounding the pavement, letting people know that a real comedy club is open in their area.”
“Vinnie told me to just give him five more years and he’ll make it work,” Vicki said with a laugh.
Brand recommends watching comedy in his intimate space instead of in larger theatres (“Where would you rather see Springsteen…at the Stone Pony or PNC? Gimme a break!”), and reminds club goers to watch for updates online, because established comedians often return to the venue unexpectedly to try out new material.
“Sebastian Maniscalco has done it, and so has Amy Schumer,” he said. “Two summers ago, Aziz Ansari’s agent put out a feeler on a Sunday and requested a Tuesday night spot. In 24 hours we had two sold out shows and had to hire extra staff just to man the box office phones. If you were lucky enough to get one of those 340 tickets, you got to see one hell of a show.” But that’s the beauty of what Brand does for a living.
“Can you believe it? Making people laugh is our life,” he said. “I love every minute of this job.”
The Stress Factory
90 Church Street, New Brunswick
732.545.4242 / newbrunswick.stressfactory.com