Comedy Marches On

Who will save stand-up from COVID-19?

COVID-19 is still preventing audiences in many cities from seeing stand-up comedy, especially Los Angeles and New York where comedy clubs, and even outdoor comedy events, remain under lockdown. But some cities are allowing shows, and some comedians continue to tour, despite everything.

The only people who miss stand-up comedy more than rabid comedy fans are the comics themselves. Ask Steve Treviño, a stand-up comic with decades of experience who found his mental health was at risk if he didn’t get back into performing comedy.

After months at home in quarantine with his wife and son, he did his first club show to a 25-percent-capacity audience at San Antonio’s Laugh Out Loud Comedy Club. “I didn’t realize how much I personally needed the stage and the people and to express myself,” he says. “It was just a moment of, ‘Oh yeah, I remember why I love this so much.’ “

Treviño has been talking a lot about the pandemic on stage, and in his new stand-up comedy special, “My Life in Quarantine,” which details domestic life and the aftermath of COVID-19’s effect on families like his.

He’s part of a growing number of comedians who are starting to return to indoor shows at clubs located in cities that allow those kinds of live performances. He did a drive-in show in Miami (“Which was a freakin’ nightmare; instead of laughing, they’d would honk the horn or flash the lights at you”) and has done a number of outdoor shows like the one featured in his stand-up special.

Comedy
Steve Treviño does his socially-distanced set. (Photo credit: Terry Stewart).

No matter what capacity the clubs allow audience members to attend, the rules have still changed. For his own safety and his family’s safety, Treviño has had to eschew his usual rituals. “I walk on stage without a mask. I perform and I leave the club with my mask on. I don’t do meet and greet. I don’t shake hands. The biggest challenge for me is that there’s no interaction with the fans. For me after the show, taking pictures and meeting fans was such a big part of my life,” he says.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down comedy clubs and scrapped comedy festivals, sidelining touring comics. Here in Texas, we’ve already lost one comedy institution, Cap City Comedy Club, which had a 35-year run as Austin’s premiere destination for touring headliners and local comedians rising in the ranks. Earlier this month, Dangerfield’s in New York said it’s closing for good after 50 years.

The pandemic has damaged our prodigious national stand-up comedy industry on a scale so large that we can’t even know how much we’re missing. On a recent interview with Howard Stern, the comedian Chris Rock revealed that while it’s sad that a comedy tour he was planning got scrapped, an even bigger loss was kept under wraps. Rock said that at many of the venues where he was looking to perform Eddie Murphy was quietly booking shows for an apparent 2020 stand-up comedy tour that didn’t happen.

Can comedy laugh back?

Will stand-up comedy be back in any significant way before the year ends?

While New York City clubs battle to try to reopen along with restaurants, some promoters and comics aren’t waiting for clubs to be an option. In some parts of the country, stand-up is already happening with outdoor shows trying to get around coronavirus ordinances with socially distanced tables, mask requirements, and limited audience capacity.

At comedy clubs where local laws are allowing indoor shows to happen at limited capacity, it’s no less of a struggle. Wende Curtis, the owner of two Comedy Works clubs in Denver, has been able to reopen her South Denver location at 175 capacity (out of 400 seats), but her downtown location with its much smaller showroom has remained closed. Since the South location began operating again in July, “We sell out just about every show to 175,” Curtis said. “The crowds are very nice, they’re very appreciative and happy to be there.”

But the worry she says she had before July, that she not open her business back up too soon and become part of the problem, hasn’t gone away. “Numbers are climbing again, it’s almost kind of like waiting for the other shoe to drop,” she said. A month after reopening, Curtis said, things started to feel comfortable, and it has become easier to book comics such as John Heffron and Brad Williams who were otherwise not planning to do indoor comedy shows.

Comedy Works South has taken precautions such as using electrostatic disinfectant equipment and hospital-grade disinfectants not only at the club but at the condos she also owns where comics can stay. Things have been going well under the circumstances, she says, but the business circumstances of the pandemic’s impact on comedy led to five of her six managers leaving Comedy Works. “They were good, good people, good managers,” Curtis said. “This scared the shit out of people. You get punched again and then you just get punched again. These were managers that loved this company.”

As things continue, Curtis is using PPP funds to employ her comedy staff to do work including painting at the downtown location with plans to rent it out for holiday parties for groups of under 50 people. Opening it up for comedy shows is legal, but wouldn’t be feasible financially. “It’s one of the most famous rooms in the country for good reason, but boy is it tight. So we’ll just see if we can get Christmas parties,” she said.

Treviño says that within the stand-up comedy community, there have been battles over whether comics belong in clubs at all right now. He says he received backlash from some comics for going back on the road. They’ve called him irresponsible and accused him of putting people’s live in danger. “My response to them,” he says, “was ‘you don’t have to come.’ Because I’ll perform in front of 10 people, 50 feet apart. For my mental health and other people’s mental health, we gotta get out and laugh, you know?”

For my mental health and other people’s mental health, we gotta get out and laugh, you know?

Some of that blowback has come full circle with some of his L.A. friends asking how they can safely tour the country and get back into clubs. “For example, Theo Von is a good friend of mine and he’s like, man give me some of that Texas action!’” Treviño said. “It’s a mass exodus out of L.A.” with comics such as Joe Rogan relocating and bringing others with them.

Some comics are mixing limited club or outdoor patio performances with other kinds of experimental venues. Drive-in comedy shows like the one Treviño did in Miami battled the summer heat in some parts of the country with comics like Bert Kreischer sweating it out. And taking a bit of innovation from music festivals and clubs, Manny Maldonado recently headlined a Silent Disco-style silent comedy show. Audience members wore headphones and sat outside on a large patio with the material beamed into their ears wirelessly. Is this the future?

It really depends on what your definition of live comedy means. We can all agree that a Netflix comedy special, at least one that’s not being shown live, is not “live.” And specials that are still trickling out onto streaming largely were filmed before the pandemic and already feel like they came from another era. Marc Maron’s prescient and spot-on End Times Fun remains topical even as its audience setup now seems completely unrealistic for the present. Treviño’s very funny and spot-on “My Life in Quarantine” is the first full-length comedy special I’ve seen to address the pandemic head on and at that length; it’s very likely many other comedians will be following suit.

Zooming for dollars

But what about comedy happening in the moment, delayed only by an internet connection and your screen? Zoom stand-up (sit-down?) comedy is one way comics are staying busy and trying to get paid, with live-broadcasts shows for fans. Zoom has also been the place to catch hundreds of panels and tutorials about comedy, as well as reunions of beloved TV shows like The Office and Veep, some of them servicing as COVID-19 or political fundraisers.

For at least another few months, before another wave of potential lockdowns and Zoom fatigue hit, it’s a good time for comedians to experiment with what constitutes “Live comedy” and to lean into possibilities of remote video or non-traditional venues. Maybe it’s time for a comedy festival in a cavernous abandoned mall or stand-up comedy on parking lot rooftops. Maybe this is the time to shred the conventions of what comedy clubs do and what the stand-up circuit means for touring comics.

One of the most intriguing comedy projects I’ve seen this year was You’re the Game Show, an experimental trivia / stand-up mashup hosted by Ben Gleib. I paid $10 to watch the show, which began with a few comics doing awkward (but not unfunny!) sets via Zoom from their living rooms as part of the “Nowhere Comedy Club”. The main event was a frantic and high-energy trivia show that wouldn’t have stumped any Jeopardy! champions, but that was fast enough to thwart Google look-ups. A lively chat room of comedy fans helped it along.

You’re the Game Show was hit or miss as pure comedy, but its rough edges and the danger that the trivia match would all fall apart at any moment reminded me of why I love “Live” comedy, whatever that means. There must always be an element of risk, a hint that things could go off the rails at any moment, for stand-up to feel truly dangerous. And dangerous always gets the bigger laughs.

Meanwhile, comedy clubs in our biggest cities remain shuttered. Several New York clubs have sued the state, alongside some off-Broadway theaters, saying that they can reopen safely. But Governor Andrew Cuomo remains in a somber mood. “How essential is a comedy club when you’re talking about an infection rate?” he asked Time Out New York. “Not to offend people in the comedy club, Lord knows we need to laugh, but those are the calibrations we’re making.” It’s a good question, but to people trying to make a comedy living during a pandemic, clubs remain pretty essential.

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Omar Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman, but he's not interested in fixing your printer. He's written for Rolling Stone, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Television Without Pity, Previously.tv and NPR, where he was a blogger and on-air tech correspondent for "All Things Considered." He's a founding member of Austin's Latino Comedy Project, which recently concluded a two-year run of its original sketch-comedy show, "Gentrifucked."

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