The Coronavirus epidemic has hit numerous industries with an unpredictable fury, threatening airlines in particular. Yet it’s also affecting American life in countless other ways, with one oft-overlooked aspect being the shutdown of the nation’s comedy clubs and the resulting impact on comedians.
Checking in with several regular performers of the Ice House comedy club in Pasadena, it’s clear that the only thing certain is that the state of show business is uncertain. One particularly damaging aspect of the profession is the fact that the best live comedy experiences are dependent upon intimate crowd interaction, rather than the social distancing measures called for by government officials at this time.
“I’ve seen some people on Instagram saying ‘I’m going stir crazy, I can’t remember what it’s like to go out and do open mics,’” says Scott Vinci. “But what some are doing instead is using the Zoom app to perform in virtual open mics on the sites for [comedy venues] Burt’s Back Room and Flappers.
“It’s like watching other comics on a virtual ‘Brady Bunch’ screen, with several faces of comics appearing in different boxes as people test jokes from the safety of their homes,” Vinci adds. “I haven’t tried it, because I’m not sure if it’s a good way to test comedy and material can be stolen online even easier than at an actual open mike. But one comic on the Flappers virtual mic joked, ‘Hey, I wanna thank everyone for staying in.’”
A veteran “guitar comic” who often plays original songs on the instrument onstage, Vinci notes that he’s “been more productive getting things done on my own. It’s a good time for people to take inventory on themselves. I finished a couple songs.”
One comic expressing the frustrated wing of comedians is rising star Ryan Joseph, who had just landed career management and a T-shirt deal before the Los Angeles public gatherings crackdown. He feels that the virtual mics don’t accomplish much of value, and instead fuel participants’ egos more than their creativity.
“Virtual mics are a microcosm of what most comics really want – people to look at them,” says Joseph. “What practice can you get from a webcam of your stupid smiling face? As a comic, I’ve been training myself every night to receive energy from crowds, and now all I feel is despair lately and like all my jokes aren’t relevant anymore.
“This does make you see how much this means to you and what it represents in your life,” adds Joseph. “There’s a lot of depressed comics out there, especially the ones that live alone. One friend told me they have body spasms. It’s like we’re broken without the stage.”
Full-time, veteran comic Ron Pearson has long maintained a lucrative career by performing as an “audience warm-up” comic, keeping crowds energized during the lengthy breaks between scenes at sitcom tapings. With Hollywood also engaged in the shutdown, he’s found himself with “zero work” and the concerns of supporting his wife and two teen children.
Yet he’s found upside in the opportunity for increased home life and family time.
“I’m terribly busy taking care of the family, as we’re planning food, cleaning, and reorganizing the house,” says Pearson. “There’s no way the Coronavirus can survive in our house. We can barely survive, it’s so clean now.
“It’s a great time to be inspired writing-wise but the problem is, you can’t try it out anywhere,” adds Pearson. “We’ve got a 750-piece jigsaw puzzle that’s kicking our family’s butt, but the Coronavirus is the perfect excuse for my wife to get me to do projects because I can’t even leave the house.”
On the other hand, Brian Kiley’s job as senior writer on Conan O’Brien’s TBS network late-night talk show “Conan” is making him one of the rare comics who’s staying busy in his chosen profession amid the pandemic. The show took an extra week off after a scheduled break the week of March 16, but is returning Monday with a new format packed with surprises for viewers.
“Conan will be doing the show in quarantine, isolated, and we’ll be pitching ideas to him that I can’t divulge,” says Kiley. “He’s already been doing some stuff online from his home, as seen on teamcoco.com.
“I think people are looking for some distractions, so we’re trying to provide them with something,” adds Kiley. “A lot of comics can’t make any money right now, so it’s tough on a lot of people and I don’t know anyone enjoying the time off.”
Kiley notes that it’s likely hard to come up with plenty of O’Brien’s trademark goofball style amid a dire medical crisis. But he’s eager for the challenge nonetheless, recalling one other time he and the show missed out on a major news story that was comedy gold.
“I remember being off one time when [former vice president] Dick Cheney shot that guy in the face, and that was tough missing out,” explains Kiley, who has worked on O’Brien’s various talk shows for the past 26 years. ”But there’s other times you’re relieved you’re off cause it’s due to tragedies. This is all consuming, I don’t think anyone’s champing at the bit to get back to joke about coronavirus, but everybody likes to feel useful. We also recognize that there’s a lot of people suffering right now, so if we can provide anybody with a little bit of distraction, it’s worth it.”
In the end, Pearson looks back to a past national tragedy as a means of finding hope for the future of comedy amid this one.
“I think people will be going out to clubs a lot when we get the all clear to go out again, because it was that way after September 11,” recalls Pearson. “People would over-laugh for a month or two after that. You actually felt you were serving the community, rather than just making it a night of entertainment.
“I don’t think this will be at that level,” Pearson concludes. “Comedy is such a great relief. People will be tired of how much TV series they’ve binge watched by the time that rolls around. They’ll be jonesing for the live stuff.”