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

May 7, 2020
Originally published on May 7, 2020 1:19 pm

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.

YouTube

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.

: 5/06/20

In a previous audio version of this story, and in a caption, we incorrectly stated the name of Colin Quinn's Netflix special as Red States Blue States. It is Red State Blue State.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

We could probably all use a little humor right now. But if comedy clubs are your thing, you're out of luck. They're closed indefinitely. Here's a reminder of what you're missing. This is Colin Quinn riffing about social media.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "RED STATE BLUE STATE")

COLIN QUINN: If somebody told you, even 15 years ago, we have this idea where everybody is going to be able to give their innermost thoughts all day every day...

(LAUGHTER)

QUINN: ...Minute-by-minute updates to the entire planet...

(LAUGHTER)

QUINN: ...You would say, oh, God, no. Please don't do that.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: And here's Mike Birbiglia.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "THE NEW ONE")

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: I don't know anything for certain. I think it's entirely possible consciousness is a hallucination. How do I explain that to a kid? See that juice box? Don't be so sure.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: For sure, we need to laugh right now. But for professional comedians, it's been a challenge. Here's NPR's Elizabeth Blair.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: In normal times, standup comedian Marina Franklin says she'd be at New York comedy clubs six nights a week.

MARINA FRANKLIN: Every night in New York City is an opportunity. You never know who's going to see you. You never know if someone's there that's going to ask you to, you know, be in a film or go on the road with them.

BLAIR: And clubs are where she can test out the jokes she's been writing.

FRANKLIN: There's certain jokes that if I'm laughing right away, I pretty much know it's going to translate to an audience. And there's other jokes that I don't know. I just know the premise is smart. But I don't know until I get in front of an audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "SINGLE BLACK FEMALE")

FRANKLIN: Strong, black woman, that never felt like a compliment. That always felt like work.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: Take the jokes Franklin told in her special "Single Black Female." She worked them out in small clubs for about 100 people before performing them for an audience of a thousand at the Vic Theatre in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "SINGLE BLACK FEMALE")

FRANKLIN: Someone was like, hey, what you doing on Saturday? I got this heavy couch. I need a strong, black woman.

(LAUGHTER)

FRANKLIN: It's like, I don't want to be useful.

BLAIR: The need for laughter works both ways. Now that the clubs are closed, Franklin says she's worried about some of her comedian friends.

FRANKLIN: Some comedians, you know, they have depression and mental illness. That's rampant in the comedy scene. It's rampant in the world. So I do worry the lack of feedback - a lot of them are going on Instagram because on Instagram Live, you're talking to an audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARY GULMAN: So the joke is about Eminem's "Lose Yourself."

BLAIR: That's Gary Gulman talking to Mike Birbiglia for a series of Instagram Live videos where Birbiglia talks to fellow comedians about the jokes they're working on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GULMAN: A couple of things are going on here. He says, you only get one shot, which I always tell people in show business, you get so many shots...

BIRBIGLIA: Not true, not true - so many shots.

GULMAN: Even within the movie, he gets a second shot.

BIRBIGLIA: (Laughter).

BLAIR: The Instagram Live audience is different. As the comedians are talking, a fast-moving stream of comments rolls by nonstop on the screen. Via Skype, Birbiglia says one comedian told him...

BIRBIGLIA: It's like watching, like, a thousand audience members, like, all talk at the same time.

BLAIR: The series is a fundraiser for comedy clubs called Tip Your Waitstaff, with GoFundMe pages setup for different clubs, like The Comedy Cellar in New York, The Stardome in Birmingham, Ala., and The Comedy Attic in Bloomington, Ind. Birbiglia might be relying on the Internet for now. But he says comedians need those clubs.

BIRBIGLIA: Comedians rely so much on audiences to relay their sort of deep, innermost thoughts and feelings about things. And when you can't do that onstage - if that's your job, usually - yeah, it's worrisome. It's definitely not great.

QUINN: There's just something about the live - the tension of the live thing.

BLAIR: That tension is vital to the live club experience, says veteran standup comedian Colin Quinn. Some comedians have been experimenting on the platform Zoom. Quinn says it's no substitute.

QUINN: Unless they find a way on Zoom for people to collectively shame you, which I'm sure should be easy to come up with, then comedy could work on Zoom. But it's got to have that element of like, oh, this could really fall apart. And this person could be collectively, publicly humiliated. That's part of comedy, you know? Or it's the thing you're trying to avoid in comedy. But it's got to be in the air.

BLAIR: Quinn's last Netflix special, "Red State Blue State," was filmed long before the pandemic hit. And yet, he was almost prophetic as he described how people have become so reliant on their devices and Amazon for everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "RED STATE BLUE STATE")

QUINN: You want something? Tell us what it is, and we'll send it to you.

(LAUGHTER)

QUINN: We're sending you all a free pair of pajamas. Put the pajamas on...

(LAUGHTER)

QUINN: ...Start ordering stuff.

(LAUGHTER)

QUINN: Outside is over. It's inside from now on.

(LAUGHTER)

ROB CORDDRY: There will definitely be changes to everything.

BLAIR: Rob Corddry and some of his comedian friends have been making funny videos specifically intended to cheer up 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 lead to some great material.

CORDDRY: When comedians get this much of a glimpse at their own mortality, you can expect some pretty funny comedy coming down the pike.

BLAIR: And when it does, we'll be ready.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.