At the end of March, the only responsible comedy show was a virtual one. As of July, it still is. Despite having one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the world, America’s governors and mayors are allowing businesses to reopen and comedy has followed suit in the form of indoor shows and outdoor shows. While one is clearly better than the other, neither make sense.
The early days of COVID were frantic and confusing as scientists around the globe were discovering and reporting on a threat in real time, but that uncertainty is solidifying into a more unified consensus. Here’s what we know now.
We know surface contact is likely not a cause of transmission, rather COVID is spread person-to-person via respiratory droplets produced from speaking, coughing, and sneezing. You can be positive and asymptomatic with only a minority of patients developing a fever. Wearing masks is an effective means of protecting yourself and others and widespread use can save thousands of lives in addition to regularly washing your hands and keeping six feet apart from others.
Knowing this, the precautions many venues boast about—the distance between tables, routine deep-cleaning, and temperature checks— are essentially “hygiene theatre” instead of an actual safety net. Table spacing doesn’t matter when you have a crowd talking and laughing, spreading droplets throughout an enclosed space for an extended time. It’s not an option.
You’d think DL Hughley collapsing on stage at a Nashville club would have been the end of indoor shows. Or maybe Bryan Callen and Brendan Schaub having to tell the hundreds of fans that fist bumped them on their way out of a Texas club that they might have contracted COVID would have been the real final straw. It was not. Instead, some venues continue to bury their heads in the sand and pretend ordering another case of hand sanitizer will prevent them from becoming a headline.
Outdoor shows offer a different facade of safety, but a facade still. While open spaces greatly reduce attendees chances of infection, social distancing guidelines still need to be in place. But how well can you patrol a public park? Or a rooftop? Can you ensure social distancing in the elevators and stairwells needed to access these spaces? These shows seem to run on the honor system and, judging from what we’ve seen around the country, it’s a system people are failing en mass. Not only are audience members unmasked and closely clustered together, but comics are sharing mics (which, unlike doorknobs, come in direct contact with people’s mouths and whose rough, cage-like surface is difficult to clean), and taking group photos, unmasked and hugging. If you can’t, or won’t, enforce these rules, then what’s the point?
Regardless if you try to establish any social distancing or not, a show still encourages people to congregate. In March, the CDC went from recommending parties no greater than 250 to 50 then down to just 10 within hours. While there seems to be no current agreed upon number, we are clearly in a worse place now then we were four months ago.
But it’s not purely a numbers game, it’s also the fact that these gatherings are composed of strangers coming together from varying, unknown locations that makes them high-risk. The reason sports leagues are resuming operations—apart from greed—is due to the creation of a bubble (or pod). The recent NWSL Challenge Cup tournament was a success because athletes and staff were tested regularly while isolating individually before isolating together as one large pod where everyone’s activities and travel were monitored and severely limited for the duration of the tournament. People can form their own pods with neighborhood friends and family, but you cannot replicate this on the fly with a group of strangers and a rotating lineup of comedians. It takes only one “tourist” to pop the bubble.
The NWSL’s success has not been easy to replicate. MLB’s comeback has been hit by a mini-outbreak within the Miami Marlins, and 20% of today’s games are now postponed due to coronavirus cases. I’m not saying the heads of Major League Baseball are intellectually better equipped to deal with this pandemic than comedians are, but this low-contact, traditionally-played-outdoors, multibillion-dollar game has significantly better resources to try, and so far, it’s been one big whiff.
While I understand the desire to try to return to normal, doing so before it’s safe will only exacerbate and prolong the problem. Comedy is a non-essential business and does nothing to aid a public health crisis. Any poetic notions of its positive effect on mental health goes out the window during a pandemic.
Let’s be clear here, our government dropped the ball first. We could have been almost back to normal by now if we took serious precautions like New Zealand or essentially all of Europe did, but we didn’t and we still aren’t. Spikes are happening because we reopened too soon, but the state’s lack of action does not justify comedy’s own carelessness. Live, in-person comedy poses a huge risk. With any risk, you better have a good excuse to take it; comedy has none.
“Well, my city/state is doing ok,” you might think. It can always get worse. Schools are reopening and eviction bans are ending. With interstate travel not prohibited, any stability is shaky at best.
“Well, people need a laugh.” I’m subscribed to six streaming services while paying for just two (be cool, everyone). The average person has 11 good seasons of The Simpsons, four John Mulaney specials, and hundreds of clips of Desus & Mero at their fingertips. Our access to giggles has never been greater. Five minutes of flimsy premises from a handful of comics trying to dust off four months of rust will not fulfill my yearning for new content half as much as Ziwe Fumudoh’s Baited gives me every Thursday on Instagram. You’re better off opening your camera and finding your angles than shouting nonsense in a field.
“Well, individuals can decide for themselves if it’s worth the risk.” This is not how a viral disease works and you know it. During a pandemic, you are not only putting yourself in danger but everyone you may come in contact with when you engage in high-risk activity. This isn’t free climbing. A medic is not at risk of also breaking a bone by picking a climber off the ground, but the medic helping intubate you at the hospital might need to be intubated themselves soon because of you, and because of the decision you made on their behalf.
The case for taking your show online is the same for wearing a mask, to protect yourself and others. Zoom may be awkward but so is 50 people masked up in a parking lot, so what are we fighting for here? When people are facetiming into funerals, I can’t imagine justifying carving out precious space for your bit about Ted Cruz.
No matter who you are or where you live, live comedy can wait. We cannot be looking out for only ourselves, we need to look out for everyone. Otherwise, what will be left to come back to?
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.