Atlanta comedy club Relapse Theatre successfully lives up to its name

If you were telling a joke about the Atlanta comedy club that closed for three years and reopened last April, the punchline would be that its name is Relapse Theatre.

“All tragedy is comedy, right?” says Relapse founder Bob Wood when asked why he chose the moniker. He just thought relapse sounded cool. He also wanted something to represent comedy’s ability to simplify life — the company’s logo is a man with a briefcase devolving into a monkey doing jazz hands. Irony doesn’t spare comedians, it seems. At this point, Relapse is equally an allusion to the theater’s own history as it is a statement about the nature of comedy.

Relapse first opened in 2005. Wood wanted the refurbished church on 14th street to be a comedian’s theater focused on cultivating new talent. Bookings were based more onthe theater’s schedule than the prestige of the comedian; anyone could get onstage as long as the theater had free space. No video clips or resumes required.

"Somebody's got to believe in people at the beginning, which is what we do," says Wood. "I would rather be a comedy club where comedians come from as opposed to one where they just came to."

The theater flourished. For six years, experienced comedians and newcomers frequented the venue. Legendary late-night comedy hour, the 1 a.m. Secret Show, started at Relapse. In 2012, Creative Loafing Atlanta named it one of the top four comedy clubs in Atlanta. Cineprov! and dozens of other comedy groups considered Relapse home. Then, suddenly, the theater closed.

"We did it like Seinfeld. We were literally on top of our game, and then one day we just weren't," says Wood. "It wasn't like we were puttering out and not doing well. We were crushing it, and then one day we stopped." Wood had bought the property from the original owners and spent a lot of time and money bringing the building up to code. Eventually, overdue bills and financial woes won.

Relapse Theatre officially played its last show in December 2012. Atlanta mourned. Members of the comedy community started a fundraising effort called “Relapse Back in The Saddle — Get Relapse Theatre back open so it can continue to have a positive influence on everyone who steps foot inside,” but the crowdsourcing Indiegogo campaign fell short of its $80,000 goal. Wood, however, continued to pray the theater would one day continue.

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“Here’s the truth of it. I’m a Christian, and I live near the theater. I would put my hand out the window and pray the words ‘grace, grace’ whenever I went by the property. Me and my whole family did,” says Wood. “One day I was like ‘God, I believe in you. I believe you can do anything. If that’s true, and I believe it’s true, and obviously you heard me praying for the last three years, I don’t need to keep praying. You heard me the first time. I know that you can, and if you will, I’ll tell everybody.’ The same hour I prayed that prayer the gentlemen who owns the property called me and asked if I wanted it back. So in the whole entire three years, I gave up for less than an hour, and in that hour, I got it back.” Wood never asked what prompted the property owner to change his mind, merely accepted it as an answer to his prayer.

In April 2016, the theater reopened. The Atlanta comedy scene had expanded during Relapse’s absence; many of the venue’s regular shows and troupes had found new homes. Relapse, however, remained essentially the same. The comedy club focused on community-driven laughter and helping its new regulars thrive.

“I love the fact that at Relapse you don’t have to be anybody, you don’t have to know anybody, you don’t have to prove yourself, you don’t have to wear skinny jeans and belong in a clique. Literally, you just have to want to do comedy,” says Wood. “You just have to be nice. I think that’s always been Relapse’s thing is we just want to work with nice people and everything else is kind of secondary.”

Hosting comedian Rory Scovel’s Netflix special is one of those secondary perks. Scovel, one of Variety’s 2012 comics to watch, is a longtime friend of the theater and was among the first to donate when it closed. In Scovel’s special, he daydreams about being an over-the-top, overconfident version of himself that crushes beer bottles and blows off Wood (Wood calls him one of the nicest comedians he’s ever met) before kicking open the theater’s door and walking through rows of screaming fans. Then Scovel wakes up and the title screen proclaims “Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up for the First Time.” The company’s logo is distinct on Wood’s shirt and in the background of the theater; the whole bit is both very funny and very Relapse.

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If you were telling a joke about the Atlanta comedy club that closed for three years and reopened last April, you don’t really need a punchline. The community and kindness embedded in the theater’s storyare enough to make anyone smile; Wood’s constant optimism is more jubilant than the accidental hilarity of his theater’s name.

“I have huge ideas for Relapse, but I just want it to continue. I just want to keep doing it and to seize opportunities as they arise,” says Wood. “It would take a miracle to do all I want to do with it, but I’m used to those.”