This year, stand-up comedy has seen a tectonic shift like never before. Once the lockdowns began in March, comedians had to cancel shows, tours, guest appearances and basically any other means they used to make a living on stage. Comedians in the industry find themselves divided on whether indoor shows should even be happening right now, but outdoor shows seem to be all the rage—especially in New York.
Enter Colin Quinn. Determined to continue the laughs in the midst of a pandemic, he enlisted the help of his funny friends to put on a live show in a Brooklyn parking lot filmed for HBO Max. It’s titled, appropriately, Colin Quinn & Friends: A Parking Lot Comedy Show. The novelty here is that the audience remains in their cars for the length of the show. At its best, the show is a snapshot of what this year in comedy has been—sometimes funny, but more often awkward and uncomfortable.
The special is a hybrid between straightforward stand-up and a documentary about how the show came together and how each comic reacts to everything happening around them. Quinn directs the special while the performers—including Sam Jay, Dan Soder, Rich Vos, Rachel Feinstein, Marina Franklin, Keith Robinson, Bonnie McFarlane, Bobby Kelly and Chris DiStefano—all take the same stage one after the other. What comes across the most throughout the 49-minute runtime is just how rusty and out of their element each of the comedians feel in this setting.
Personally, I’m a fan of outdoor shows. I’ve seen a couple and have even performed in one myself, but having people laugh, clap and give any sort of feedback from the comfort of their vehicles just doesn’t translate well to a taped special. I know this is real because it does not even translate well to the comedians who are on stage. A true way to know that a comic bombed is to have them tell you repeatedly that they did and what a horrible set it turned out to be. Chris DiStefano reminds the viewers of this many times behind the scenes after he was the opening comic to hit the stage and essentially had to warm everyone up to the house rules for the night. DiStefano even got up on stage at the end of the night to let everybody know “if you watch this one on TV, I didn’t bomb. It’s just the show didn’t start until the second comic.”
The jokes themselves miss more than they hit. The ones who make it out the best are Sam Jay and Dan Soder because of their comfort with the situation, but everyone has their fair share of bombs, or at least what seems like bombs. Nobody at the taping could really tell because of the show’s spread out, distant environment. Loud horn honks took the place of applause for the night, which usually only came at the end of each set as a courtesy. In the middle of each act, the special cuts to all the other comics backstage talking about how unresponsive the crowd was to their set and wondering if the current comic up on stage was killing or not.
Colin Quinn & Friends is not without its merits. It is a needed reminder of how rough it can be both performing and watching comedy in 2020. This is a special I can see many people looking back on years from now as an example of what a nightmare it must have been to be a comic during this time. Imagine trying to make people laugh while the world around them is on fire and the comfortable familiarity of a comedy club stage is no longer an option. Dan Soder said that he really began to see an uptick in his shows’ ticket sales in January and then had to stop performing in March. Watching the special offers viewers a sad backstage glimpse into what it’s been like for these talented and funny folks who were forced to give up performing these past 7-8 months, instead of an upbeat celebration of finally being back on the stage.
Quinn’s parking lot show can be summed up as a worthy experiment that didn’t fully live up to its potential. The HBO Max presentation ends up being an insight into just how hard this pandemic has hit the comedy community—when given the opportunity to perform, they’re still not fully ready to embrace the new confines in which they have to work. This collection of performances from seasoned pros may age better with time as audiences look back and wonder what stand-up comedy was like during this challenging time in our history. Unfortunately, as a special right now, it comes off a bit too scared, awkward, and unsure of itself to be the funny escape we really need. One of Quinn’s final remarks is “cars cannot be the new comedy club, because it’ll get old fast.” If this special is any indication , he’s absolutely correct.
Christian Becker is a writer and comedian based out of NJ. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheAmazingBeck.