COVID Didn’t Kill Live Comedy — It Drove It Underground

Photo: Arin Sang-urai

In March 2020, New York City–based comedian Bryan Yang had a few jokes about COVID-19 in his set. “It just feels very millennial for a virus to be called ‘coronavirus,’” he said at some of his last shows before the city went into lockdown, “and then it’s like, ‘Actually, I identify as COVID-19, so call me by that now.’” Another bit was about how medical professionals started calling it COVID-19 because it sounded like the name of a street gang, thinking that’d get President Trump to act on it.

Yang’s wife is a nurse, and they took precautions to avoid contracting the virus. Still, they both got it later that month, just as the pandemic’s first wave hit the city. While Yang’s wife experienced a few days of a low-grade fever, the 32-year-old comedian spent two weeks in the hospital. At one point, he could only breathe with the assistance of a CPAP machine. Now he can’t fathom performing stand-up indoors. “You know the clubs are trying to survive,” he told Vulture in November, “but also, it’s like, Man, I would hate to see it if someone got sick from going to see comedy. It just feels like it’s something that can wait.”

With over 400,000 Americans dead due to COVID-19, it can be hard to grasp why anyone would take the risk of holding or attending a comedy show. But despite a state ban on live comedy performances, the pandemic hasn’t destroyed the New York comedy scene — it just pushed it underground. Now that PPP loans and other government funds are used up, venue owners are finding ways to stay in business by exploiting exemptions set aside for religious services, indoor dining, and trivia nights (yes, really) as a means to get comics back onstage, even if that stage is in a church or on the subway. Illicit, indoor shows are still happening, and the fate of many New York clubs is still in limbo. Some venues — like Dangerfield’s on the Upper East Side and the Creek & the Cave in Long Island City — have been forced to shut down for good.

As the state became the epicenter of the pandemic in early 2020, New York made up many rules on the fly. On March 20 of last year, Governor Cuomo announced an executive order requiring all non-essential businesses to shut down, and the state’s phased reopening plans didn’t allow restaurants and bars to open for outdoor dining until June, after the first wave of hospitalizations and deaths subsided. The convoluted regulations allowed bars to serve drinks outside, as long as they obeyed certain capacity regulations and served food — as little as a hot dog with a round of beers would suffice. The New York State Liquor Authority released more specific guidelines in July, which warned that “all other forms of live entertainment, such as exotic dancing, comedy shows, karaoke, etc.” were not permissible, “regardless of phase.”

Despite the comedy ban, clubs improvised, setting up stages in parking lots, on rooftops, or in parks. Dani Zoldan, a co-owner of the Upper West Side comedy club Stand Up NY, was among the first to get shows going again: He started with a small gig — definitively against the law but attended by a couple of passersby — inside his club in June, with a sign outside the venue advertising it as “illegal comedy.” Then, acknowledging it would be unsafe to continue indoors, he moved his bookings outside, putting on over 400 events in Central Park and other open areas with comics like Melissa Villaseñor and Ronny Chieng performing. Zoldan admitted in a December interview with Fox Business News that the shows were illegal but argued that they were beneficial for the mental health of New Yorkers.

Then, in August, the SLA clarified that no bar or restaurant could have “advertised and/or ticketed shows.” This happened around the same time that Governor Cuomo said bowling alleys could reopen at 50 percent capacity, provided they didn’t serve food or drinks indoors, and museums, aquariums, and other “low-risk cultural institutions” could operate at 25 percent. During a radio interview in September, Cuomo — after mentioning how dangerous it would be to reopen a venue like Madison Square Garden — singled out the comedy sector: “How essential is a comedy club when you’re talking about the infection rate? Not to offend people in the comedy club, Lord knows we need to laugh, but those are the calibrations we’re making.”

That month, Kambri Crews, owner of the Astoria venue QED, where she’d hosted outdoor shows in its backyard space over the summer under the impression she was operating “in good faith” due to the SLA’s unclear messaging, organized a #SaveNYComedy campaign with fellow comedy-club owners. With the backing of State Senator Michael Gianaris, she pleaded with Cuomo to allow ticketed entertainment events in smaller venues. She pointed out the hypocrisy that bars could legally host trivia nights because the SLA said patrons would remain seated and socially distanced, but people telling jokes in the same setting was somehow more dangerous. Cuomo’s office never responded to their list of demands and detailed proposal.

“It didn’t make a bit of fucking difference. That’s when I threw up my hands like, Well, I guess we’ll take the rest of fall off,” said Crews in December. Her business wouldn’t be able to withstand a hefty fine, and on top of that, she’s immunocompromised — she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017 — and unwilling to risk putting on any indoor shows. Instead, she’s selling books, journals, and stationary from QED Astoria’s shop and letting local craft vendors work out of its showroom.

“If Cuomo actually looked at what he’s doing, he’s driven everybody underground. He’s creating a speakeasy culture, and it’s only getting more dangerous in winter as people are driven indoors,” Crews said. “I would rather be closed and not put myself at risk, but the governor is really giving me no choice. And when I look at those other clubs that are shoehorning these packages and these nights, it’s out of desperation. If it were just for the love of comedy, I would say, ‘Grow up. We’ve got a pandemic on our hands.’”

Marko Elgart, owner of downtown Brooklyn’s EastVille Comedy Club, is among the desperate. He claims that because his venue operates as a restaurant, he could welcome back patrons for comedy shows when indoor dining reopened in September at 25 percent capacity, as long as they paid a “donation” fee to his business rather than buy a ticket. Despite the SLA banning all live comedy, he insists that it was all legal and safe, and that his online reservation system was better than door sales at pop-up shows because it allowed for contact tracing in the case of a positive COVID test in the club. That translated to under 30 people in the rare event of a “sellout.”

“I have friends of friends who own locations who’ve had straight COVID violations, like no masks. They just give a warning,” Elgart said in early December before the latest ban on indoor dining, noting that he won’t allow maskless patrons inside the club and checked temperatures at the door. “At this point, to feed my family and chip away at the hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt I’m in, yeah, it’s worth taking a risk [of a violation].”

The decision wasn’t an easy one. “You look at the numbers, 80 percent of people who contract COVID have zero symptoms. Out of those who contract it, it’s a global 3 percent death rate. So that’s great odds. Now granted, obviously, if one of those 3 percent were my mother or my father …,” Elgart said. “I mean, it’s ruined a lot of people’s lives, those who were killed or permanently affected. But it’s also ruined a lot of people’s lives on the other side of the coin, like mine. The moral dilemma here — and that’s my problem with outrage, self-righteous culture — is you’re an asshole if [you reopen]. The question comes up: ‘Is it worth even one life to continue?’ And you’re the asshole if you say, ‘Well, yeah, I’m kind of willing to roll the dice at this point.’ Life is priceless, that’s a fact. I’m very cautious. But it’s one thing to go by caution, and it’s another thing to go by fear.” Since early January, EastVille has pivoted to livestreamed shows, and the club also launched a GoFundMe “Survival Fund” campaign to raise $10,000 in December.

Cris Italia, a co-owner of the Stand near Union Square, used the same restaurant argument as Elgart to host indoor podcast tapings, outdoor stand-up shows, and even a private SNL afterparty for Dave Chappelle before indoor dining was banned again. (On January 21, TMZ reported that Chappelle, who has been on tour recently and frequently photographed at maskless indoor shows and gatherings during the pandemic, tested positive for COVID.) He acknowledges that comedy clubs aren’t essential businesses but is furious at Cuomo’s stance. “It’s a slap in the face,” he said in December. “To treat us that way, like we don’t matter, that’s what hurts. You expect more from people that you elect to office to not make you feel like there’s no hope.”

In November, Zoldan brought comedy back indoors by organizing the “Temple of Laughter,” a show that was staged inside the St. Paul & St. Andrew United Methodist Church on the Upper West Side to get around the state’s ban on indoor comedy performances. “It was a huge church. They can hold 1,000 people, so we were able to safely socially distance everyone,” he said in December. “The pastor was behind it. If we can get them into the church, just to provide an evening of laughter, like, why not? I think we’re doing good.”

Christian Finnegan, a comedian and Kambri Crews’s husband, said in January he was “somewhat sympathetic” to comedians performing at masked, low-capacity indoor shows earlier in the pandemic, but now that indoor dining is shut down and infection numbers have gone up, he’s “against any and all indoor shows, period.” He added that he thinks club owners are in a “no-win situation,” and that stand-up comedy is a “very easy punching bag” since it’s the “poster boy for ‘non-essential.’” Mike Birbiglia, who organized the Instagram series called Tip Your Waitstaff in March to help raise money for club employees, is also reluctant to go back to performing indoors. “It’s just too risky,” he said in December, acknowledging that he was lucky to be able to start a podcast in June that allows him to test out material with other comedians. “The risk and reward of it is just not there for me, right now, to leave the house more than I have to.” (Multiple comics who toured the country and performed indoors during the pandemic — including Chappelle, Brian Regan, Bryan Callen, and Brendan Schaub — tested positive for COVID in 2020 and 2021, though it’s unclear where they contracted it.)

Things look better than they did in mid-December, now that COVID-19 vaccines are beginning to roll out. On December 27, Trump signed a second federal relief bill that includes a $15 billion Save Our Stages stimulus fund that could give venues 45 percent of their 2019 gross earnings or $10 million, whichever is less. That would be a lifeline for the clubs, but it remains to be seen how New York’s city and state governments will help the comedy scene. It certainly doesn’t look like any aid is coming from the city this winter: On December 15, the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs announced it would award $47.1 million in grants to more than 1,000 non-profit venues, including the Metropolitan Opera and Jazz at Lincoln Center. No comedy clubs were included. Zoldan, who’s also criticized SNL for having paid audience members at its live tapings inside 30 Rock as a means to get around state rules, pointed out the discrepancy in a December statement posted on Instagram, vowing to reopen his club for live performances whenever restaurants and bars are allowed to restart indoor dining.

In early December, New York City Council passed a bill that will bring back outdoor shows starting March 1. In the meantime, rents, mortgages, and utility costs have to be paid. Indoor shows, illegal or not, will go on, even if COVID infection rates in the city remain high. Crews said she believes the near future is promising, while acknowledging the havoc 2020 wreaked. “The federal bill is going to take time to roll out, so it’s at least a few months away before we get real help,” she said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to stave off the bill collectors. It’s a lot to hope for — for 2021 being a much brighter, better year for all of us.” While acknowledging that the economic hit to restaurants and the entertainment industry has been challenging, Dr. Lorna E. Thorpe, director of the Division of Epidemiology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, said in December that in communities where cases are high, “the decisions to close restaurants, to keep indoor entertainment closed, are the right decisions. We can’t get lives back — we can get our economy back.”

For club owners, the pandemic has turned into a waiting game — for the money to come through, the vaccine to roll out, and the city and state to decide when it’s legal for live comedy to return indoors, without the need for any workarounds. Eight small venues filed a lawsuit in October, which is currently pending, arguing that if shutdowns don’t apply to gyms, casinos, and bowling alleys, theaters that hold fewer than 200 people should also be allowed to operate. Until then, people in the scene are going to do what they feel they have to do. “The sad part of it all is that we all want to do the right thing,” Italia said. “We’re just not able to.”

Birbiglia noted that the lack of support for Broadway actors, stage crews, and comedy clubs has been unfortunate. “It turns a blind eye to what draws people to New York. That’s why people come to the city,” he said. Zoldan, who admires Birbiglia’s Tip Your Waitstaff campaign, said he wishes ultrawealthy comedians who got their start in New York City had stepped up. “I’m disappointed about bigger comics who haven’t shown much empathy for the situation,” he said, citing Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock. “I feel like they’ve kind of abandoned the comedy thing, and they’re not really saying much to get people to support venues.”

Elgart is skeptical of the new Save Our Stages stimulus package, given how stingy the first PPP process was for him. He admitted that it would “solve a lot of problems” but not all, given how dire his situation is. The past 11 months have left him with few options to survive. “What I’ve experienced,” he said, “it’s a fucking struggle right now.”

As for Yang, he still has COVID material in his set — it’s just a little different than the jokes he told a year ago. “I talk about how it’s scary to have it because in pandemic movies, I don’t look like the hero who gets to live. I’m definitely a side character that dies so that you can see how serious the virus is. The Asian dude isn’t the one who finds the cure — he gives it to the main character,” he said. While he’s performed stand-up on Zoom, in parks, and on rooftops with precautions in place, getting COVID “really put things into perspective,” and he won’t perform indoors anytime soon. “I still understand why people would want to perform and try to scrape together some sort of living. Because we haven’t had a lot of help,” he said, “but I’ll just avoid this for as long as possible.”

COVID Didn’t Kill Live Comedy — It Drove It Underground