Assuming they have an iPhone or a car to take them to the nearest drive-in show, fans of live comedy have a lot of new ways to get their laughs during the pandemic. They also have almost none of the traditional choices that would have been normal just a few months ago.
Most indoor clubs around the region are shut down, including Laugh Boston, Improv Asylum, the Comedy Studio, ImprovBoston, and Nick’s. The Wilbur, one of the busiest comedy stages in town, has rescheduled or canceled numerous dates. Joe Rogan’s October show at the TD Garden has been pushed back a year. Comics Come Home, the annual charity show hosted by Denis Leary that was supposed to take place at the Garden in November, was canceled in July.
Fans and practitioners alike have spent the past several months getting used to virtual comedy on Facebook, Instagram, Twitch, and Zoom. Online comedy is still burgeoning, but in-person comedy started coming back in June as phased openings advanced around New England. Giggles Comedy Club in Saugus opened a tent. Stages popped up at drive-in theaters and converted parking lots. The Worcester Beer Garden Pavilion is doing socially distanced comedy outdoors, including shows with Kelly MacFarland and Robert Kelly in September. The scene is in perpetual transition with no sense of when “normal” might return.
Some comedians have been waiting it out until they can get in front of an audience they can see and hear. Others have embraced the technology and are creating their own opportunities.
Boston comic Corey Rodrigues has enjoyed both the virtual and in-person worlds. He developed “Corey’s Stories,” a charming kids’ show, for YouTube and Facebook and continues to do stand-up online while also performing at clubs and drive-ins. He logged his first in-person shows in June at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut with a socially-distanced, reduced-capacity audience. “I have a very tolerant attitude towards all of this, you know?” he says. “This is my living, this is my profession. This is what I love to do.”
Christine Hurley has played everything from small clubs to Comics Come Home at the TD Garden over her 16-year career in stand-up, but the new environment has meant constant adjustment. “You’re not getting any immediate gratification back,” she says. “You can’t hear the laughter. I’d have to have two good stiff highballs before I did a Zoom.”
She has been doing in-person shows again at Giggles and WooHaHa, the Worcester Beer Garden Pavilion’s comedy club, but she had to knock off some rust, and found audiences were a bit hesitant at first. “I was a wreck because I was out of practice. It was tough,” she says. “I’m grateful to be back doing live shows, but it’s not the same.”
Those club owners who are doing in-person shows have to keep up with state and local safety guidelines. But for some, that’s the only way forward. Mike Clarke, owner of Giggles Comedy Club, is no fan of online shows. He wants his comedians to have a proper stage, sound, and lighting, and most importantly, audience feedback. So he set up a tent at his Route 1 club and seats groups of four to six together with limited capacity. “After being open 31 years, I didn’t want my legacy to be ruined by a virus,” he says. “I have no intentions of going under or closing. I’m just trying to adapt. Things change weekly, monthly.”
Rodrigues has heard comics complaining about not being able to play full rooms, but he’s not one of them. “You can’t have a full crowd. So what? You still go in and rock it.”
Drive-in shows have become a popular alternative to theater shows, some featuring national headliners such as Nikki Glaser, who plays the Yarmouth Drive-In Saturday, and Jim Breuer, who does a show at the Cheshire Fairgrounds in Swanzey, N.H., Sept. 4. It’s an unusual environment for comedians accustomed to reading an audience by the sound of their laughter or the looks on their faces. The performers are projected on a big screen and their audio is piped into the cars. Horns beeping and lights flashing replace laughter and applause.
Norm Laviolette is owner of Improv Asylum in the North End and co-owner of Laugh Boston in the Seaport, neither of which are currently open for in-person shows. He has produced and hosted a drive-in show, and appreciates how the comedians have adapted. “They’re the ones that have to step up, look around, not hear the laughter, hope that their audio is going into the cars,” he says.
Boston stand-up comic Lamont Price is sticking to online shows for now, reevaluating the scene every couple of weeks. He jokes that he may have wished the Zoom comedy trend into existence. “I’d be like, ‘Man if ever there came the day where I could just Skype myself in and not leave the house, that’s what I’m looking forward to,’ ” he says. “Now here we are.”
He misses getting onstage, but he misses hanging out with his fellow comics even more. “That, to me, is the real show,” he says.
Earning a living is another worry. Some online shows pay a stipend, but many comics are depending on the tips they can get during their spots by mentioning their Venmo or PayPal addresses. Price mentions that back in March, a lot of comics thought they might be out of work for maybe a month. “It’s starting to get a little tight,” he says.
Private gigs have dried up, too, which has taken a big bite out of Hurley’s earnings. “A lot of people would say ‘Come do my husband’s birthday party, come do a baby shower,’ ” she says. “That’s done. Those are gone. . . . I figure I’ve probably lost $40,000 in income by not having those.”
After an awkward initial stage, online shows are starting to look better. Stand-ups are figuring out lighting and sound and finding their way through the lack of audience response. “Comedians seem to be adapting to it,” says Rick Jenkins, owner of the Comedy Studio in Somerville. “I think at first a lot of comedians who are more established and have been around a long time felt it was artificial and didn’t want to bother. But now it looks like it’s going to be here to stay. Being able to work on a computer is now part of the job.”
In August, the Studio increased its live offerings online and now has shows almost every day of the week. In some ways, according to Jenkins, Zoom shows can be even more intimate than an in-person show. “You are having a one-to-one conversation now,” he says, “instead of speaking to a big, wide room.”
Laviolette says one or two online shows a week won’t help a club’s bottom line much. Still, Laugh Boston is experimenting with ways to put on a professional show and expects to offer a full virtual schedule with national headliners sometime in the fall — events that he expects to continue even after the club eventually reopens. “I think where the payoff for this technology is going to be is that this is here to stay, and there is going to be, for a long time, large amounts of people that just don’t want to go out,” he says.
Clubs also aren’t as limited by region anymore. Anyone can watch an online show from Flappers Comedy Club in Burbank, Calif., Acme Comedy Co. in Minneapolis, or Nowhere Comedy Club, which exists only online. Jenkins hopes to move the Comedy Studio toward the national spotlight and “increase the viewership to the point where we’re a viable comedy club again.”
The virtual comedy landscape will continue to change as bigger players step in and figure out ways to improve the look of the shows and optimize profits. “As the larger clubs start to figure it out, there’ll just be more competition and there’ll be more marketing dollars behind it from the bigger clubs and the bigger brands,” says Laviolette. “We all have to figure this out. And we’re all investing in it.”