Comedy in the Time of COVID

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. An epidemiologist walks into a legendary comedy club, and the emcee says nothing, because the place closed its doors forever in March 2020.

During the first few days of the coronavirus pandemic, only a handful of people were aware of a cluster of atypical pneumonia cases in the Wuhan region of China. Little did the average person know what was to come. In the early months of the crisis, all but the most necessary businesses and services temporarily shut down. Federal guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security: Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency stipulated which services qualified as critical to infrastructure. The National Conference of State Legislatures tracked essential services which included things like energy, child care, agriculture, food production, and municipal services like water, waste, and transportation. Absent from the list was a myriad of services deemed non-essential like gyms, hair salons, and nightclubs.

In what seemed like overnight, millions of people were out of a job, even if temporarily. As weeks turned into months, and months turned into a year, life as it was before seemed precariously out of reach. Then, slowly, the economy began to reopen. Retail centers started welcoming back masked customers. Restaurants opened for takeout. Hairdressers accepted appointments. Nightclubs, theaters, and auditoriums remained empty. Live entertainment and its practitioners lingered, eager to restart plying their trade. 

Comedians spend decades honing their skills in bars, nightclubs, student centers, coffee houses, or anywhere with a PA system and a few people willing to listen. But, when all public spaces are verboten, how can a jokesmith endure? Some were content to wait out the crisis. Others jumped on the teleconference technology train. A select few sought a complete change in scenery. 

Alonzo Bodden started his career not as a hungry young comic but as a corporate trainer for Lockheed Martin. One class on comedy writing and an open mic night later, and he was hooked. “First time on stage I loved it,” he said, “something clicked. I don’t know what it’s going to take or how it’s going to go but this is what I’m going to do.” 

Bodden has had an envious career. He was the runner-up in the second season of Last Comic Standing. The following season, he won. He has performed at the historic Apollo Theater, twice. He opened for comedy legend George Carlin. He has shared a stage with some of the funniest and most controversial comedians of our age. When the pandemic hit, Bodden was doing a gig in South Africa and narrowly returned before travel into the United States was halted. 

Once home, he sheltered in place. While others took to cyberspace, Alonzo Bodden took a knee. “The adaptation to doing it via Zoom,” he said, “it’s not the same. People are like ‘what’s the difference?’ It’s the difference between playing Grand Theft Auto and stealing a car and running from the cops.” To Bodden and other comics of his view, the transition to online comedy lost too much of the authentic experience and simply was not worth it.

Jackie Kashian started her comedy career in 1984 while in college. “I count the 80s as one year.” she said, “Most of the 80s were me plugging along trying to graduate from college.” Her first real break came from a club run by Bill Kinison, the brother of 80s comedy firebrand Sam Kinison, with stage time five nights a week. 

After that, Kashian went on the road and found a following. She moved to Los Angeles in the early 2000s and continued her stand-up career, supplementing stage time with guest roles on shows like Murphy Brown. In 2006, Jackie joined the burgeoning podcasting craze with The Dork Forest, a show dedicated to all things dorky. “I will say this,” she commented, “there are several ways they’re presenting live stand-up online now. My favorite way is using Zoom, like we’re doing right now, where I can see the audience.”

When the pandemic hit, Kashian was already well versed in the technology side of the entertainment industry. In addition to The Dork Forest, she and fellow comedian Laurie Kilmartin had been doing The Jackie and Laurie show for nearly four years. Transitioning to Zoom shows was a natural lateral move. She joined other comedians like Maria Bamford, Patton Oswalt, and Conan O’Brien on the very small screen, garnering laughs while in isolation. Not performing was not an option. “You go into Gallery View and I can see the audience,” said Kashian, “sometimes people turn their cameras off and I don’t mind. I’m used to performing to a room full of darkness.” Teleconferenced comedy had benefits that could not have been afforded at a standard comedy show, and certain drawbacks of the medium could be easily remedied with practice, something which Kashian discovered as she adapted her format to the new normal. “There’s usually 10 or 15 people that I’ll unmute in a room of 150,” she said, “you’ve got to mute some of them because of the internet lag, and laughing over setups and punchlines.”

The comedy scene in Austin had been gaining notoriety for some time. The Moontower Comedy Festival, South By Southwest, The Austin City Limits Music Festival, and a mass exodus from the east and west coast to the new third coast made Austin an ideal location for relocation. The Austin Chamber of Commerce reports that the largest migration of people to Austin, other than Texans moving from other parts of the state, are from California and New York. 

While some fans might consider standup comedy an essential service, local leaders did not. The Creek and the Cave, a New York comedy staple, closed for a few weeks, then a few months… then shuttered for good. The state of New York maintained one of the most steadfast pandemic responses in the United States. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York finally allowed restaurants, bars, and other businesses to reopen at full capacity starting May 19, 2021. But, unfortunately, it was too late for Rebecca Trent and her cozy little club in Queens. Being forced to close the doors in March 2020 and the rising costs for New York real estate made the decision to relocate a no-brainer. 

After an extensive search, Trent found a new home for her vintage Queens marquee. The latest iteration of the Creek and the Cave opened for business on April 1, 2021. Attracting talent from all over the country to this 6th Street adjacent venue was easy as selling two-dollar Lone Star longnecks in July; the hardest part of it all was getting the audience started again. “I think the biggest challenge,” said Trent, “is letting the audience know that they’re allowed to laugh. We were all shut down as audience members for so long, and now it’s coming back and we’re able to be loud.” No matter the audience available, Trent is dedicated to making the Creek and the Cave a place of laughter for those that need it in these trying times. “I want to continue to try to create a space that’s comfortable for folks to commingle and enjoy a laugh, you know?”

The pandemic robbed society of many things. It stole irreplaceable rites of passage like proms, graduations, and big family weddings. Tragedy abounds as the death toll marches along. Ironically, it is horror writer Stephen King that reminds people why comedy is so important in the face of unfathomable loss: “A tragedy is a tragedy, and at the bottom, all tragedies are stupid. Give me a choice and I’ll take A Midsummer Night’s Dream over Hamlet every time. Any fool with steady hands and a working set of lungs can build up a house of cards and then blow it down, but it takes a genius to make people laugh.”

Comedy – It’s not just a profession, it’s a compulsion.

Creek and The Cave – Austin’s New York Comedy Immigrant

Historic Austin Comedy Venues

Where to Find Great Comedy in Austin

Comedian Mary Lynn Rajskub found that the pandemic disrupted a lot more than just her club appearances. She had to adjust her comedy career and her parenting.

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