Your Next Comic Is Not Coming to the Stage: Comedy in the Time of COVID-19

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Your Next Comic Is Not Coming to the Stage: Comedy in the Time of COVID-19

My last weekend of doing shows as a comedian was full of the foreboding realization that it was my last weekend of doing shows as a comedian. For months? Years? I didn’t know, and I still don’t. I was headlining the Comedy Underground in Seattle, a room that seats about 200, to crowds of 15. Seattle, one of the first U.S. cities hit by COVID-19, was already a ghost town. People could technically still go out at that time but no one wanted to. I spent the weekend days corresponding with bookers to pull the rest of my spring tour dates, and a lot of my income, as the reality set in that the changes to our lives weren’t going to be just additional hand-washing. Onstage, I riffed on toilet paper hoarding and tried to put my heart into my go-to sex material. I tried to savor the chance to tell jokes without letting my mind drift to wondering what it was going to mean to be a stand up comedian who couldn’t do stand up.

Now, I’m developing new routines. Every morning, I wake up hoping everything will have magically returned to normal, then smack myself out of it with Twitter before getting out of bed. The obsessive news consumption gives me a false sense of control—like if I read enough op-eds by scientists I’ll discover the vaccine myself. In the afternoon and evening, I podcast, write, and work remotely for a part-time education job I’m so glad I’ve held onto. 2020 was the year I intended to leave behind all non-comedy work and survive from just touring. Now, I’m grateful to have another way to pay rent. My roommates have gone back home to their families in other states, so the apartment is quiet, save the sirens outside day and night, loud and persistent reminders that my problems are trivial. I check Twitter again. And again. Until a couple weeks ago, like a true addict, I was constantly promising myself I’d get on the wagon and logoff. Maybe I’ll quit Twitter this way instead, by smoking the whole pack of internet at once.

Here’s my plan for being productive: I’m going to finish the audio book I’ve been working on. I’ve added an episode a week to my political comedy podcast in the hopes that we can make enough money on Patreon to partially offset the loss of stand up income. I’m working on a daily YouTube show interviewing other comics about their social distancing time. If it takes off, great. If not, it’s nice to say hi to people. I haven’t noticed a substantial difference in my podcast numbers, or in Twitter engagement for that matter. It might be because so many people are producing new content, but more likely, it’s because we were all online too much already. It’s hard being isolated, frittering away the hours staring at a screen; harder to know that even when we had other, more beautiful options, we still chose that.

I tried virtual stand up for the first time last Saturday night. I tweeted a link out a few minutes before we started, and thirty or so people showed up, hungry to meet up in any form with other people. At times it felt a little like stand up, though I was sitting down, and at times it felt like a corporate presentation that might end with “I’ll circle back next week.” I plan on making it a regular thing, circling back every Saturday until this ends.

Some aspects of the quarantine feel like a relief. Last night, I made my boyfriend dinner and we sat down and watched TV. For the past eight years, I’ve spent nearly every night hustling between two or three shows a night; now I can cuddle and numb out. It was nice, nice enough that I understand why people move to the suburbs just to do it. I don’t have to wear makeup or be socially “on.” It’s relaxing to be free of professional jealousy. I don’t have to wonder why I wasn’t booked on something when no one else was either. As a white woman from California, it’s blasphemy to say this, but I’m taking a full vacation from being positive, spiritual, or trying to “manifest” anything—I think we can all safely say now, the crystals don’t work. It’s liberating to just admit that it all sucks and we cannot change it.

I run mental simulations of what a return to stand up will look like. If it’s three months, maybe it’ll be a new lease on creativity and life. Maybe audiences will be excited to gather and laugh again. Maybe we’ll all get our temperature taken at the door of the bar, and that will become a new normal, like taking off our shoes in the airport. If it’s 18 months, will any comedy clubs have survived? Will I, and every comic I know, be replaced by 22-year-olds who went viral with front-facing videos? I’ll have to write all new jokes. Jokes about casual sex would sound like a lie, or like I’m a sociopath who ignored all social distancing rules. Every comic will have coronavirus material. I guess there wasn’t just one grandpa who talked about World War II. Paid work may be harder to come by with fewer venues in existence and even very successful comics clamoring for income. It’s anxiety-inducing. But if the next six months look like scientists say they will, it will probably feel shallow and callous to have spent so much time thinking about the impact on stand up comedy at all.

My comedian friends are all holing up a little differently. From what I can tell over Facebook DM, Mike is still working hard on his TV writing job, a show that will now shoot from the host’s home. Rachel is planning on not going outside for the full 18 months. If 80% of people get coronavirus, she’s determined to be in the 20%. Jake is writing a lot of sketches, and David is organizing a rent strike in his building. Other than tweeting, the one activity that we’re all consistently engaging in is reflecting on our new identities without being able to fall back on the three words we’ve leaned on for social capital—“I’m a comic.” COVID-19 will hit comics hard. Most of us are uninsured. A lot of us don’t have savings. But without comedy, absolutely none of us are cool.

Stand up has always been a hard ride. Someone told me a few years ago that I was too old to get on TV for the first time—that if it hadn’t happened yet, it never would. I cried, and then I got on TV for the first time a few months later. During the years I did stand up with a full-time day job, I was constantly exhausted, and the years I didn’t have one, the hours without structure during the day were a battle with procrastination and depression I didn’t always win. The night I taped my Netflix special, I felt like all my dreams were going to come true. After being paralyzed with fear at an audition, I felt like nothing good was ever going to happen again. A lot of the time I long for a consistent paycheck and health insurance. It all feels like losing until you have a great set at night and get a rush of endorphins that makes you feel like you’re going to win forever. If the theater came back after the Black Plague, I trust that the dick jokes can rise again. Until then, we’re just trying to defeat our own hopelessness because we love this shit. In that way, nothing has changed.

Kate Willett is a comedian who recently appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. She has a 15 minute special on Netflix in the series The Comedy Lineup. She’s also on Twitter @katewillett. Right now she’s quarantining in Brooklyn with a guy she’s been dating six weeks. This will all be funny someday.

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