Live, in-person comedy is back. Venues large and small in and around Boston are open and doing brisk business again after nearly 16 months of uncertainty during lockdown. And their schedules are filling up.
Local clubs like Laugh Boston, Improv Asylum, and Nick’s Comedy Stop resumed indoor shows as soon as restrictions were lifted. Giggles in Saugus has kept its tent up in its parking lot, giving the club an indoor and outdoor space. Theaters including the Wilbur, the Wang, and the Shubert are opening up while seasonal venues like the Cape Cod Melody Tent kick off their regular programming.
Kathe Farris, a stand-up comedian and director of operations at the Comedy Studio in Somerville, estimates she performed five in-person shows from last March to the spring of 2021. Now she averages two spots a week, not counting shows she is attending just to watch. “All of a sudden it’s just ‘Boom, we’re back,’” she says.
Comedy’s robust return has come months earlier than many, including Farris, had expected. “I thought in September we would start seeing some restrictions lift and have like a softer ease in,” she says. “And even then I didn’t even think it would be where it is now.”
Farris was initially worried the Comedy Studio wouldn’t be able to book enough comics to fill its summer residency shows at Vera’s in Somerville, much less find an audience, but she’s seen full rooms. “People are looking for comedy,” she says. “We’ve got full rosters of people. And we’re selling out.”
That kind of success was no sure thing. In March 2020, comic Roy Wood Jr. wrote an essay for Vulture about the potential economic fallout for the stand-up community as venues closed. Comedian and author Wayne Federman devoted a chapter of his new book, “The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle,” to comedy in the COVID era. “Comedy clubs and theaters were among the first businesses to shut down and will probably be among the last to fully reopen,” he wrote. “Humans inside, laughing out loud, with close-packed seating and low ceilings were ideal conditions for great stand-up comedy, as well as the transmission of airborne viruses.”
Andrew Mather, talent buyer for The Wilbur, notes that comedy doesn’t require much more than a microphone and small crew. That helped The Wilbur reopen this week for six full-capacity shows with Tim Dillon. Seth Meyers, Bill Burr, and a 21-show run from John Mulaney are coming up at the theater in the weeks ahead.
Mather cites the region’s high vaccination rates as a reason The Wilbur has been able to ramp up quickly. “We’re just lucky in New England and Boston, because our vaccination rates are good,” he says. “[For] a touring comedian, it’s much more appealing to want to come here than other parts of the country.”
Improv Asylum’s black box theater in the North End is exactly the kind of room Federman was worried about. It can pack 200 audience members in fairly close quarters around a smallish stage. Initially, the Asylum limited capacity, putting stuffed animals in selected seats to enforce social distancing and sending the performers out in hazmat suits to remind the audience, in a humorous way, they still needed to be careful.
Norm Laviolette, cofounder and CEO of Improv Asylum and Laugh Boston, was optimistic about the return of live comedy, anticipating crowds would be less intimidated by club shows than theaters. “I thought it would come back faster than theater and music,” he says, “just for the simple reason [that] it’s smaller and I think it’s less scary for people.”
Laviolette says his clubs feel almost normal now, which is an especially hopeful sign considering the summer is typically sluggish for stand-up shows. “If anything, it bodes really well for the fall,” he says.
The local scene suffered some pandemic casualties, most notably the closing of ImprovBoston’s Cambridge location. But other spots, including Hideout Comedy at the White Bull Tavern near Faneuil Hall, have come back even stronger than before. According to lead producer Katlin McFee, Hideout Comedy was quick to get up and running when the city began allowing socially distanced indoor shows. She remembers the audience being asked how they found the show. “Someone yelled, ‘This is literally the only thing to do on Thursday in Boston right now,’” she says.
Hideout fills a particular niche, booking headliners on their way up who can’t yet fill larger venues. “Maybe they’re not big enough for Laugh Boston, but there’s no other room in Boston for those headliners that are still so great,” says McFee. “They’re on late-night shows all the time, but they’re not going to be at the big venue.”
Josh Gondelman packed the White Bull in June when he booked a night of shows on short notice to rehearse his set for the taping of a special. Kate Willett, Louis Katz, and Emma Willmann all have shows upcoming, and Hideout is still expanding its offerings with specialty nights like The Queer Qomedy Hour, which used to play at ImprovBoston.
While comedy is thriving more quickly than many anticipated, there may still be bumps in the road ahead. Laviolette says he’s ready for anything after navigating the past year. Before the pandemic hit, he had been planning a complete renovation of Improv Asylum’s front room and was wondering how he could possibly close for an entire month. “Now you’re like, ‘Yeah, we gotta shut down for three weeks, no problem,’” he says. “It does change your perspective. Maybe everything isn’t quite as urgent as we think it is.”