Comedy Clubs Are Closed, So To Reach Audiences, Comics Have To Improvise

By Elizabeth Blair

Colin Quinn says performing on virtual platforms won’t ever come close to appearing in a club full of strangers because it lacks “the tension” of the live experience. He’s writing a book that draws from some of the material he explored in his Red State Blue State special — and says he now has no excuse not to finish it.
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At a time when we really need to keep a sense of humor, comedy clubs are closed. Stand-up comedians are on lockdown. So what do you do if your career is making people laugh? You can write jokes while you shelter in place, but how do you know if they’re funny?

“I don’t know until I get in front of an audience,” says comedian Marina Franklin. For her special Single Black Female, Franklin worked out jokes in small clubs for about 100 people before filming the special for an audience of 1,000 at the Vic Theatre in Chicago.

In normal times, Franklin would be out at New York comedy clubs six nights a week. That kind of exposure can lead to acting jobs or the chance to open for bigger name comedians.

“Every night in New York City is an opportunity; you never know who’s going to see you,” she says. But during quarantine, “It’s been oddly quiet amongst the comedy community.” Franklin’s been spending more time focused on her podcast Friends Like Us but still finding the seeds of future material.

“I have had several things happen to me that are pretty funny,” she says. She got into a fight about social distancing at the farmer’s market — “not a place where you normally would fight” — and scolded the man selling fish for yelling Next! “There’s no screaming during pandemic time,” she laughs. “And why are we in a hurry? No one’s going anywhere.”

So, Franklin has material, but she’s concerned about some of her comedian friends who need audience feedback to thrive. “Some comedians, they have depression and mental illness — that’s rampant in the comedy scene, it’s rampant in the world,” she says. “So I do worry [about] the lack of feedback.”

Mike Birbiglia agrees. “Comedians rely so much on audiences to relay their deep, inner most thoughts and feelings about things,” he says. “And when you can’t do that on stage, it’s worrisome.”

Like a lot of comedians, Birbiglia has turned to the Internet to connect with audiences. With help from Roy Wood, Jr., he started “Tip Your Waitstaff,” a series of Instagram Live videos in which Birbiglia talks to fellow comedians about the jokes they’re working on. Gary Gulman, John Mulaney, Emmy Blotnick and Hannibal Buress are among the comedians who’ve participated.

The series is a fundraiser to help comedy clubs around the country including The DC Improv (where Birbiglia got his start), The Comedy Cellar in New York, The Stardome outside Birmingham, Ala., and The Comedy Attic in Bloomington, Ind.

Birbiglia says the Instagram audience takes some getting used to, especially keeping up with the streaming bursts of written comments that quickly roll up the screen. After he interviewed John Mulaney they talked on the phone about how fast the comments go by. Mulaney likened it to watching “1,000 audience members all talk at the same time.’ “

Birbiglia has had to cancel a number of appearances because of the pandemic. He figures he might as well get used to performing virtually since there’s no telling when clubs and theaters will reopen.

Veteran stand-up Colin Quinn was always planning to use this time to finish writing his forthcoming book Overstated: A Coast-To-Coast Roast of the 50 States. The pandemic “takes all your excuses away for not working on things like that,” jokes Quinn. He’s hearing that comedy clubs won’t reopen until 2021. As for performing on virtual platforms like Zoom, Quinn doesn’t think they’ll ever come close to replacing a club full of strangers because it lacks “the tension” of the live experience.

“It’s got to have that element of ‘Oh, this could really fall apart, and this person could be collectively, publicly humiliated,’ ” Quinn says. “That’s part of comedy. It’s the thing you try to avoid in comedy but it’s got to be in the air.”

As for new jokes he’s thinking about now, Quinn’s latest annoyance is “the new sincerity.” It’s always been there, but now, in the midst of the coronavirus, he says “everybody on social media feels compelled to weigh in and go, ‘Hey, guys, be safe. Put your mask on.’ “

Mark Twain once said that laughter is humanity’s “one really effective weapon,” and without it, all of the comedians I interviewed talked about feeling “powerless.” Rob Corddry and some of his comedian friends have been making funny videos specifically intended to cheer up health care workers. Corddry got the idea from a doctor friend who was diagnosed with COVID-19 but kept working from home, taking care of the mental well-being of her staff. He says she was worried that their spirits were sagging.

“She was worried about their cheer, you know, because that affects everything. That affects their momentum,” says Corddry. “So I just thought: Well, I know a lot of funny people that can make videos.” Eventually those videos turned into a fundraiser called Funny You Should Mask in which comedians such as Eric Andre, Sasheer Zamata and Nicole Byer interview health care workers.

Corddry says it is “very sad” to see comedy venues in dire straits. At the same time, he says, something this awful could also lead to some great material. “When comedians get this much of a glimpse at their own mortality, you can expect some pretty funny comedy coming down the pike,” says Corddry.

When that day comes, we’ll be ready.