It’s a … rough time to be a comedy performer right now: Stand-up venues across the country are shuttered for the foreseeable future, television production is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels, and the typical survival gigs that up-and-comers rely on to pay their bills before their big breaks are few and far between because of COVID-19. But even with many comedians both suddenly out of work and concentrated in two of the pandemic’s hardest-hit cities, some of them have found meaning in making use of their free time and comedy chops to step up and help out.
At a time when so many things are decidedly Not Funny, the fact that comedic performers, who work in the notoriously self-serving and myopic entertainment industry, have stepped out of their normal routine of making people laugh and into a new normal of aiding their communities is something to celebrate. From providing food to those struggling with sudden unemployment, to fundraising for progressive political candidates’ campaigns, to moving literal boulders placed to prevent the unhoused from having a place to sleep (seriously), these comics have proven that being hilarious and being generous are not mutually exclusive.
After begrudgingly entertaining the nation for the past five years with his annual September 21 video, The Amber Ruffin Show writer Demi Adejuyigbe held next year’s video hostage in exchange for donations to worthy causes. “I have a huge amount of anxiety around what the September videos have become and the way that people engage with me because of them, but they also feel like something with so much attention around them that giving them up couldn’t possibly alleviate that anxiety anyways,” he says. “This year, it felt necessary for my own sake to insist that these videos can only continue as long as I have a legitimate reason to keep them going, and aiding underserved populations feels like the most legitimate reason I could have.”
Turns out his fans were more than willing to pay the ransom. So far, Adejuyigbe has raised over $320k (and counting!) for five different charitable organizations: Street Watch L.A., Trans United Fund, BlackRoots Alliance, National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, and SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition.
During a time when Adejuyigbe is actively trying to remove himself from things that are “distractions more than they are purposeful creative choices,” it has been particularly important for him to couple putting out his comedy with helping his community: “I’ve been able to channel this free time into being politically proactive, thanks to the inspiration of so many L.A. comedians who are just leaps and bounds smarter and more generous and cooler than I am. I’m also lucky enough to have the financial and social stability that an ever-growing number of people haven’t had through the year, and trying to do comedy or any sort of grand irreverence that only serves my own interests through that dichotomy feels … immoral. And really dumb,” he explains. “I just don’t have any interest in making irreverent things that aren’t gonna help people in some way.”
In addition to using his podcast, Make My Day, to distribute funds to charities of his guests’ choice, Desus and Mero co-executive producer Josh Gondelman recently made headlines (well, headline) when he turned a joke petition to get him to try cocaine into a fundraising effort of over $1,000 for the National Harm Reduction Coalition.
Gondelman says that between a giant public-health crisis, a looming eviction crisis, and issues of racial justice becoming so prominent in the national conversation, it felt insufficient for him to order takeout from local restaurants and pat himself on the back for supporting local businesses: “I figured if I was going to start a podcast during a pandemic for my own enjoyment and career advancement, I should probably use the platform to do some good for other people too,” he says. “I’m hoping to showcase causes that might resonate with people from week to week in case I can make them aware of something that might be close to their hearts that they could get involved with.” So far, Gondelman has raised money and awareness for Smiletrain, Food Bank For NYC, and Lighthouse Youth and Family Services, to name a few.
Ever the active listener, Gondelman is taking cues from other activists using their platforms to put in the work. “I’m learning a lot from friends who are doing real hands-on work, like Mitra Jouhari making sanitary kits for unhoused people in L.A. and Matt Lubchansky and Jaya Saxena working with the People’s Bodega in NYC.”
And when it comes to what he describes as the “cocaine kerfuffle,” Gondelman turned proverbial lemons into proverbial lemonade. “I know a few people tweeted about also donating to the Harm Reduction Coalition after the whole thing, and that was very gratifying,” he says. “And I didn’t just stumble across that organization. I learned about it from Sadie Dupuis, who has done a bunch of work with them.”
In between becoming a hand-thrown pottery expert and magazine cover star, Three Busy Debras’s Mitra Jouhari has spent the past few months collecting thousands of dollars worth of donated items in her living room to assemble into hygiene kits for her unhoused neighbors in L.A. “I wanted to help, and for me, the best way to help was to direct that nervous energy into one very specific place,” she says. “For me, that meant fundraising and organizing to make a ton of hygiene kits.”
At first, she explains, it was overwhelming for her to try to figure out how to get a foot in the direct-action door, especially with the distractions of a pandemic, a civil-rights movement, and a crumbling political situation: “I was feeling so overwhelmed and spending every free second obsessing over the multitude of scary, depressing things going on,” she says. “I had volunteered with SELAH before and think the work they do is so vital and important. I asked how I could support them, and it became clear that hygiene kits were really needed in this moment. It’s impossible to walk around L.A. right now and not see how dire the situation is for the unhoused. It has allowed me to channel the sadness and hopelessness I feel into something that feels productive and good.”
While Jouhari was concerned that earnestly tweeting about her volunteering on a (now unfortunately defunct) account that’s normally mostly fart jokes would earn her the dreaded, irony-poisoned Twitter-troll designation of “virtue signaling,” she says the outcome has been more than worth it. “I have had so many people reach out and say that my posting about organizing, and my transparency about having never really done it before, showed them that they could do it too, so I will continue to talk about my experiences,” she explains. “Now there’s like a little network of us all DMing each other and offering tips and support. That’s a pretty beautiful thing.”
In spite of devastation over her proposed “ice resurfacer” (read: Zamboni) emoji being rejected from inclusion the next iOs update, Robot Chicken writer Jamie Loftus has used the last few months to make sandwiches to feed her less fortunate neighbors in L.A., table for City Council candidate Nithya Raman’s election campaign, and physically move literal boulders planted under an overpass to prevent houseless people from having a place to sleep.
“Like most people, I felt really anxious and disillusioned with the government on all levels when the lockdown started, down to the local level,” Loftus says. “I’d been involved with community efforts before lockdown for a while, but it felt especially important to use whatever I had at my disposal — which suddenly included all this goddamn time — to contribute as much as I probably should have been all along.”
Like many others who have become more involved in mutual aid projects during the pandemic, Loftus says she was inspired by other activists who had been working tirelessly behind the scenes. “Some early pandemic organizer heroes were Alex Yoon and Melissa Acedera of Homey Made Meals, who were organizing regular people to make meals for food-insecure residents safely from home; the formation of the People’s City Council in L.A., and all they’ve organized and accomplished in their first six months; and Louis Abramson, who started a calling service for elderly people to connect them with groceries,” she says. “Seeing so many of my friends and peers funnel all that despair into action was really motivational, as well.”
While Loftus has been deftly balancing using her free time to finally acquire an Avatar costume and help out those around her, she says the latter wasn’t even wasn’t even a question. “It’s the least anyone with any sort of platform can do to try,” she says. “It’s been cool to see stuff I’ve been a part of have a small measure of impact through messages and interactions with people online, and anything I can do to amplify the important work is worth doing.”
In between voice acting on CBS: All Access’s Tooning Out the News and fostering the world’s most adorable squishy dogs, Simone Norman has been organizing grocery deliveries for COVID-vulnerable populations with Crown Heights Mutual Aid, East Brooklyn Mutual Aid, and NYC DSA’s Abolition Action Grocery Fund. As she explains, it’s not exactly new to her. “I’ve been organizing with DSA for years on a number of different issue-based campaigns,” she says. “But the pandemic turned the dial up to ten on every single issue New Yorkers were already facing and drove precarious working families into abject poverty.”
For Norman, the pandemic has also highlighted how inextricably linked political engagement and mutual aid are in the communities she serves. “These are such unbelievably important times, politically,” she explains. “And at the same time, it’s impossible for people to come together and fight for what capitalism has denied them if they can’t eat. Mutual aid and grocery delivery runs won’t incite the revolution, but meeting each other’s material needs as a community is crucial for us to be able to fight the good fight this moment demands of us.”
At a time where organizing in person has become difficult (to say the least), having a social-media following (accrued from her comedy, work with the DSA, and comedy work with the DSA) has been a boon to Norman’s efforts. She says it’s been “crucial for fundraising, for exposure, for political education, for rallying volunteers. There have been a lot of people who have reached out after seeing a post who I’ve been able to plug in to certain projects. And when I do Zoom comedy shows or whatever — which I struggle to do (ugh, I’m so bad at pandemic comedy; I literally don’t remember what humor is or what laughter sounds like) — I can plug things for people to donate to or links to check out.”
No stranger to using her chaotic social media for good, Flayaway writer and noted Bernard Bro™ Sarah Squirm has hosted a handful of virtual comedy shows during quarantine to raise money for DSA California State Assembly candidate Fatima Iqbal-Zubair’s and DSA L.A. City Council candidate Nithya Raman’s respective campaigns and to fund safe housing for writer Nori Reed. “It’s a global pandemic,” Squirm says. “People are sick and dying, losing their jobs and homes. It feels insane to not at least try to help out just a little bit.”.
If it seems like a lot of Squirm’s effort and platform are going toward DSA causes, it’s because they definitely are. “I like doing fundraisers for the DSA because it truly feels like we’ve been totally and completely failed by every single institution, she explains. “And even though it has its problems, the DSA is simply all we seemingly have left for hope for the future.” Many Democratic Socialist beliefs and focuses are especially relevant now, when so many people are suffering economically. In fact, Squirm says, “The coolest fundraiser I got to help out with has been the DSA Stimulus Solidarity Fundraiser, which raised money to put $1,200 checks directly in the pockets of immigrant families who didn’t qualify for stimulus checks — people literally putting their asses in danger for a capitalist government forcing them to work in a pandemic and yet excluding them from any protections or basic human rights.”
For Squirm, using her platform, comedy, and free time was a no-brainer. “The internet is hell, so if you’re gonna be online, might as well use online to help people,” she says. “And I’m unemployed, so I’ve got a lot of time on my hands. If that means doing livestream fundraisers to help get people some money, I am down. If it takes putting together a comedy show to get people to find out about a cool thing the DSA is organizing around, then count me in. Throwing a livestream fundraiser is literally the least I could do … There’s actual organizers saving people’s lives right now.”
Beloved bartender and stand-up comedian (in the beforetimes) Eliot Thompson has provided fully masked and socially distanced Narcan deliveries and on-the-fly Narcan and harm-reduction training sessions around New York City from his car during the pandemic. But this isn’t his first rodeo. “I first got involved in harm-reduction outreach because people around me kept dying overdosing from Fentanyl,” he says. “And it was friends from every scene I operate in: bar people, high school friends, comedy buds, old friends from music, people with totally different relationships to drugs.”
With the opioid epidemic happening at the same time as the … other, newer epidemic, and with both bars and comedy operating at a fraction of what they used to, Thompson has had more time to contribute to the cause of harm reduction. “All of my other passions, like comedy, have been totally put on hold,” he says. “So if I can use my minimal social media influence to spread harm-reduction awareness and be an outlet for people who are weirded out about going to a treatment center or a pharmacy for free Narcan, that’s really rewarding. Delivering it to homies who want it is just me participating in a tiny way.”