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Earlier this month the comedian Brian Regan announced that he tested positive for Covid-19. In a series of tweets, his team said he’s quarantining and feeling well, and his next several shows will be rescheduled.
Regan, who’s been touring through the pandemic, is now part of a small group of comics to come down with Covid-19 on the road. Over the summer, DL Hughley was diagnosed after collapsing onstage in Nashville. Podcasters Bryan Callen and Brendan Schaub tested positive after a run of shows in Texas, where, they said, they “did everything wrong.” I’d wager there are other cases that haven’t been reported—only a few comics are famous enough to make the national news, after all—but these are the ones we know about.
To state the obvious: nobody deserves to get this disease. Hopefully Regan recovers in full. It’s not victim-shaming to take the news as a stark reminder that no safety precautions can make indoor comedy safe right now; in fact, it’s crucial to ask what lessons can be learned. In the two weeks leading up to his diagnosis, Regan headlined at two clubs in two cities: Funny Bone in Des Moines, Iowa, and the Improv in Kansas City, Missouri. His publicist told me she has “no idea” where he was exposed, and it may well have been far away from these clubs. But the fact is he was exposed, which means his audiences and support staffs were plausibly exposed too, as well as everyone they came in contact with.
Neither club has made any public announcement about Regan’s diagnosis. Funny Bone hasn’t responded to my inquiries, and The Improv’s general manager told me that “of course” the club notified everyone who was at the shows. (One attendee I contacted over Instagram said my message was the first she heard of Regan’s diagnosis, and that her friend who bought the tickets hadn’t heard anything from the Improv.) He added that he’s confident in the club’s safety measures and doesn’t plan to change them. When I asked about a photo Regan took with fans at the club, he said Regan didn’t do any meet-and-greets, so the photo might’ve been taken somewhere else. (I was unable to reach that Instagram user, but I’ll note that a July photo tagged at the club features the same doorway.)
Perhaps the Improv simply hasn’t contacted every customer yet, and Regan’s fans posed with him at some external location. Even if we grant these possibilities, they still represent huge gaps in its safety protocols, which include 12-foot distancing between tables and mandatory masking when customers aren’t seated. They also reveal a more fundamental flaw in the “distancing” measures employed by all comedy clubs, which separate parties rather than people: a meaningless precaution when you can’t ensure that all members of a party come from the same household, or that parties don’t intermingle outside the club. Then again, distancing is less effective anyway when you’re indoors for a long time.
To state some more of the obvious: comedy clubs are not to blame for messaging failures at the municipal, state, and federal levels. Only a handful of states make contact tracing data public, and this data is generally about contact tracing—how many tracers are employed, how many calls they make, how many people pick up—rather than the fruits of contact tracing. There’s no centralized resource tracking Covid-19 outbreaks in any industry, let alone live entertainment. What little insight we have is from local news, which will never cover the server or line cook or audience member who tests positive. This makes it incumbent on comedy clubs to respond forcefully and transparently to every possible exposure. At minimum they should inform everyone who may have been exposed, then rigorously audit their safety protocols—under the presumption that they’ve failed—and adjust any weak spots.
I would also suggest that clubs put more effort into preventing customers and comics (who, again, have been TRAVELING ACROSS THE COUNTRY) from fraternizing after shows. Instagram brings us many photos of a maskless Regan posing with comedians at different clubs around the country.
In a just world, the infection of a few comics shortly after clubs reopened would have been a wakeup call for the entire industry. Temperature checks, reduced capacity, distanced tables, masking whenever you’re not seated—none of these are enough to protect comedy workers and audiences from an airborne virus. Instead things seem to have gone the other direction, where the rarity of publicized cases translated into a general lack of concern about an obviously dangerous activity. This is first and foremost a failure of government, yes, but that doesn’t excuse clubs and other industry stakeholders. People have a right to know exactly what risk they’re taking when they walk into a comedy club. No one does.
It’s also a media failure. Since clubs reopened in May, the typical comedy club PR cycle, in which promoters set up headliners with local press to sell tickets, has proceeded more or less as if there’s no pandemic. Sure, comics get questions about their quarantines, how they like performing for smaller audiences, and if they have Covid-themed material. But they’ve been spared what should be urgent ethical questions about the risks they’re asking fans to take for nonessential gatherings. Perhaps more disturbingly, media outlets have consistently failed to scrutinize clubs’ commitment to safety, even after those high-profile positive cases back in June. The result is the nationwide normalization of indoor comedy, an activity that in theory is even riskier than indoor dining.
Consider the light-handed treatment Brian Regan received in the months leading up to his infection. An August interview in the Charlotte Observer focused on whether he was nervous to perform for small crowds in intimate venues—not because of the deadly virus, but because he’s used to filling theaters. An interview that same month with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch dwelled on the same subject. So did a Des Moines Register piece in November, which made a point of endorsing Funny Bone’s safety measures: selling tickets by party, temperature checks (which don’t catch asymptomatic or presymptomatic cases) and a recommendation that audiences wear masks when seated. An interview earlier this month in the Florida Weekly, updated since his diagnosis, warmly described Regan’s plan to visit his 92-year-old mother after his shows.
More? If you insist. Here’s a Cleveland News-Herald interview with Paul Virzi that tacitly endorses his assertion that since he got Covid-19 early in the pandemic, he’s clear to go back on the road: “Because Virzi had the antibodies, he didn’t shy away from taking any available comedy gigs. That included going to Arizona in June and last week playing an outdoor show in Connecticut.” (It’s unknown how long immunity lasts or whether you can transmit the virus while immune.) Here’s a Medina Gazette interview with Steve Byrne that ends on his promise to do shots with the winners and losers of a Halloween costume contest. Here’s an Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview with Rob Schneider that glances right past his statement that he’s not touring because he needs to work, he’s touring to get out of the house. (“I want to talk to people who want to listen and want to be entertained. I am a satirist for our times.”) Here’s a series of Fox 4 Newssegments promoting shows at the Addison Improv, whose shockingly lax approach to safety is revealed by a simple Instagram search. Here are some of the photos you can find there.
Last month we all got rightfully angry at a New York Times op-ed writer who laid out the risks of traveling for Thanksgiving before concluding they’re worth it. As many critics wrote, the problem with the piece was less the author’s questionable moral calculus than their decision to broadcast it. To quote the writer and PR professional Ed Zitron: “[I]nspiring millions of people—people who read the Times and use it as a source of truth—to travel for Thanksgiving—is not simply irresponsible, it is literally lethal.”
Here’s the thing. Smaller-scale versions of that piece have been running across the country since late spring. Every week local news outlets tell their readers it’s safe to go sit in a comedy club for two hours without a mask. Their audiences may be smaller, but the moral calculus is just as flawed. The stakes, cumulatively speaking, are just as high.
Clubs, managers, bookers, promoters—they’re all in on live comedy right now. Nobody wants to dissuade their moneymakers from making money. If touring comics don’t understand the risks of indoor comedy, that means journalists have to inform them. If they don’t care, we have to criticize them. If we don’t make up for the failures that got us here, we’re only entrenching them further. This is no time for fluff.
Seth Simons is the writer of Humorism, a newsletter about labor, inequality, and extremism in the comedy industry. He’s on Twitter @sasimons.