On a recent luke-warm night, in an undisclosed outdoor location in Brooklyn, an audience of a little over a hundred people sat on an expanse of concrete steps and watched a comedy show. The stage was an area of cement with a single light bulb and a PA system powered by a car battery. The comedians’ vulgarities ricocheted off nearby trees and mixed with the soft yelps of a group of boys playing basketball nearby.
The show’s host, Santiago Angel (@takeitoutsidecomedy), tightly fastened a thin, plastic covering to the head of the mic and passed it off to comedian Sean Patton (@mrseanpatton), who looked into the crowd, and said, “This is insane that we’re doing this.”
Comedians are taking a welcome, but somewhat eerie first step back into live stand-up. After nearly five months in lockdown, comics are eager to move on from live-streams and Zoom shows, uncertain about the future of live comedy in the city.
Comedian and Daily Show writer Randall Otis (@randallotistv), who was scheduled to appear on The Late Show the night that the city effectively came to a close, described the early days of lockdown as a complete and sudden departure from a routine he’s been cultivating for years.
“As a comedian, you do a lot of sets in a night,” Otis said. “Not only are you getting energy from the crowd–there’s that pressure on stage that pushes you to write more–you’re also hanging out with comedians for hours on end. When you take away the ability to socialize and the pressure of the stage, you lose a lot in terms of writing and inspiration.”
With live stand-up suddenly off the table, many comedians, at first, turned to Zoom.
“I wasn’t excited about the Zoom shows, but we didn’t have many options,” said Napoleon Emill (@napoleonemill), a Brooklyn based comedian who had to cut his Boston tour short due to the pandemic. “I mean I was happy to do them, but it was weird to do them. It was tough to make jokes, I kinda just sit-talked through them.”
Otis explained the Zoom shows in a similar light.
“They just feel more like podcasts,” he said.
While Astoria based comic Molly Kornfeld (@molly_kornfeld) said that she’s able to learn something from every show she does, she also eventually conceded that Zoom shows were a bit of a disaster.
“I mean it’s better than bouncing that same four jokes off my mom,” Kornfeld said, “but yeah I don’t like Zoom or Instagram comedy. Everything is muted and there’s no correct measure of laughs.”
Brooklyn based comedian Kelly Bachman (@kellybachman) said that she, like many other comics, eventually tired of the online stand-up shows and put her creative efforts elsewhere.
“I just felt that stand-up really requires a live audience,” Bachman said. “It didn’t feel like something I wanted to force to make work, and there were other things I like to do.”
Bachman turned to sketch videos, parodies, comedy songs, and even produced a live-streamed version of a show she had planned to take on tour before the pandemic hit called ‘Rape Victims Are Horny Too,’ which received a favorable write-up in the New York Times.
“I didn’t see stand-up online as something that made sense to me, so I did sketch videos, comedy songs–I challenged myself to one video a day,” Bachman said. “The stuff that’s been most successful for comedians online is not stand up.”
Like Bachman, Emill explained that the pandemic pushed him to reach for opportunities beyond stand-up.
“Before quarantine, my approach to stand-up was, ‘This is what I enjoy, I enjoy writing jokes,’” Emill said. “But right now, I’m thinking more about what work to do, as far as writing, creating content, voice over work—I look at it all differently. I can’t just rely on the ability of getting on stage every night.”
And yet, comedy stages, albeit open-air make-shift ones, are once again popping up all over Brooklyn.
On a day this past June, Angel and his Take It Outside Comedy co-host Daniel Vezza (@daniellouisvezza) were walking through Coney Island when they spotted a group of people with a PA system.
“That’s all you need,” Angel remembered thinking.
Soon enough, Angel and Vezza were hosting bi-weekly shows in roving locations in Fort Greene and Bed-Stuy.
While the shows have been well-attended and well-received, Angel recognized that a certain level of apprehension is expected.
“There are definitely some comics that are not taking chances,” Angel said. “But everyone’s adjusting to these circumstances differently. There are so few places to perform right now that comics that would have been difficult to book are now bookable.”
As for the added excitement that comes with the great outdoors, Angel said, “There are more distractions, so comics that are able to perform in more chaotic environments are thriving, while comics that need silence, I’d imagine, are struggling.”
Bachman, while making it clear that she’s grateful for the growing opportunities to perform stand-up again, painted a slightly grim picture of outdoor comedy in the age of Covid.
“Of course I’ve been grateful to be in front of a crowd again and make people laugh,” Bachman said, “but there’s this clear threat of a deadly virus. You’re afraid of the audience, and the audience might be afraid of each other.”
She added, “I guess it can seem sort of punk rock to people, but it’s definitely not all the same.”
Emill, echoing the sentiments of many other comics, said that while stand-up is in a strange place, it’s not going to stop him from performing.
“I’ve been really cautious coming to these shows,” Emill said. “Like, if you touch your lip to the mic during a set, it could take you right out of it. I mean, I’m super paranoid, but not enough not to go.”
Otis, though he said he’s excited about the recent trend of outdoor shows, expressed doubt that such shows would be able to sustain themselves through the winter.
“I’m not incredibly hopeful about live comedy,” he said, “at least for the foreseeable future.”
On that recent tepid evening, after Angel threw GZA’s Liquid Swords on the PA system and the audience of Take It Outside Comedy began sifting back into the night, Williamsburg resident John Hammond, 27, let out an audible sigh.
“To come back to a comedy show after–what–five months? That was really refreshing,” Hammond said. “To laugh…to laugh with other people in a group–that was really nice.”