We knew this was coming. Dave Chappelle is just the latest comedian to contract COVID-19, resulting in the cancellation of a string of live shows he planned to do in Texas with Joe Rogan. It’s no surprise that skirting safety protocols led to an outbreak, especially when his previous outdoor “summer camp” series had to be shut down early when a member of his inner circle was exposed to the virus. He joins a COVID-positive club of comedians that includes Brian Regan, Bryan Callen, and DL Hughley, to name a few.
What is there left to say? The sky is blue, water is wet, and live comedy during a pandemic is dangerous. As we are coming up on a year in lockdown, the US has never come close to approaching a status where the risks of performing are low enough to justify hosting live shows, but that hasn’t stopped them from happening. And for most of the time, we’ve known that safety measures (if even enforced at all) such as temperature checks, rapid-tests, and social distancing means very little when these shows take place indoors; they’re tantamount to “hygiene theatre.” Saying a show is “COVID-safe” on Facebook doesn’t make it so, and yet, here we are again.
During the pandemic, there’s been a constant flux of people pleading with others to take serious precautions, and people vehemently defending individual’s choices from (valid) criticism. This is a tense time for everyone, living through a historical moment where money, health, and job security is teetering on the edge. But these big names are garnering national attention for a reason. They don’t need these shows to pay their bills. They don’t need to update their LinkedIn resume or move back in with their parents. They have a safety net and it’s a beautiful one.
Netflix paid Dave Chappelle $60 million for his last three comedy specials. Joe Rogan is earning $100 million from his recent Spotify deal to make podcasts in his new Texas tax haven. Regan is one of the busiest professional comedians, routinely selling out large capacity crowds in between recording specials for Netflix and Showtime. As a TV and stand-up veteran (his starring vehicle The Hughleys is still in syndication), DL Hughley also rakes in millions. These stars can afford to not work, and yet the people perfectly suited to ride out a pandemic in relative comfort are choosing to risk it all—and in doing so, encouraging others to risk it, too.
And they are not just performing; they’re doing meet-and-greets, sticking around to hug strangers and completely obliterate the already flimsy six feet rule. What was the point of taking all those precautions to just throw it all away for Xander’s Instagram story? How does a meet-and-greet or a maskless afterparty sharpen your comedic skills? This kind of completely superfluous add-on shows that touring has nothing to do with maintaining a sharp wit or providing some sought after levity during a dark time. It’s all ego.
There was no reason for these shows. They’re non-essential activities. There is no economic anxiety, it’s simply a matter of people who can do whatever they want doing whatever they want. I hope everyone involved is safe and healthy. I do not want anyone to have to suffer from this terrible disease (well, not in this profession at least…), but we cannot keep pretending these are honest mistakes. These are not people stuck between a rock and a hard place. These are people stuck in a mansion between some really, really nice throw pillows. My god, what is even the point of pulling a high six-to-seven figures off content you own if you’re going to risk a respiratory disease to play a chain comedy club in South Florida?
What was worrisome from the start of the pandemic was knowing that there are many people in this world who refuse to acknowledge a problem exists until it affects them directly. I knew that contracting COVID was the only way some people would start taking it seriously (if they were lucky to get a second chance), but even that has proven to be wishful thinking. You’d think footage of DL Hughley collapsing on stage, mid performance, at a club would be a wake up call. It wasn’t. People with nothing like Hughely’s financial security net stepped on that very stage a month later with Hughely himself back on the road post-recovery. I swear, if there were comics on the Titanic, there would still be five guys wading between the floating corpses of the house band to see if the mic still worked.
There is something wrong with that. There is something not right about prioritizing art and disposable income over other people’s safety. And somehow pointing out the dangers of COVID is often considered more shameful than it is to sprint headfirst into them. I don’t know what else there is to say. Does another outlet need to remind us that ambulances across the country are being turned away because hospitals are out of beds? Do we need another story like the Maine wedding that killed several people who did not even attend the event but came into contact with someone who did? At this point, I don’t see why your comedian status warrants less ire than the screaming boomer demanding to enter a bowling alley without a mask.
Comedians love to tell people not to look up to them. They’re comedians, not civil servants. And while that is true, it will always be a bit sad to see a group of people fail to see the power of their own influence, to think their voices carry so much weight on stage yet are meaningless everywhere else. This isn’t like saying an adult should hide their vices because they might be role models for young kids, but it’s fair to say those with the most influence within the industry could stand to advocate for their fellow comedians better. We’ve seen how a simple recommendation on Twitter can kickstart someone’s career; wanted or not, that influence has legs.
Both comedians and industry professionals alike often look to our legends for direction. Think of the impact that could be made if those who inspired so many to go to their first open mic encouraged people to stay home, or put their money towards assisting the wait staff of their favorite venues and others who are actually financially struggling during this time instead of going towards plane tickets to party around the globe with their rich pals. This is right in your lane, afterall.
There’s a lot of toxicity in this industry and it flourishes with complacency. Unfortunately, comedy tends to value the perspective of those least affected by the issues plaguing our industry to validate our own responses. When the people who made their millions by “telling it like it is” no longer live in the same reality as the rest of us, it’s time to stop looking to them as the voices of reason. If they don’t want to be an advocate for anything, that’s fine, but let’s not lionize them in return.
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.