Movie theaters: Closed.
Music festivals: Canceled.
Comedy clubs: Still figuring it out. Well, at least the comedians are.
Over the past few months, live performance venues across the world have taken a back seat in the interest of public health. In the state of Michigan, there have been virtually no changes in hopes of reopening local entertainment hotspots. Since Governor Whitmer’s first executive order of the pandemic, Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase, Ann Arbor’s premier comedy establishment, has had its doors locked. Its website, practically untouched since mid-March, serves as an eerie reminder of how abruptly American life changed. Atop the site’s masthead, an ironically cruel business slogan: “Laughter is the best medicine … come get the cure!”
With the largest source for stand-up in Ann Arbor closed for live shows, many local comedians have found themselves in a bewildering months-long limbo. Andrew Yang, a master of ceremonies for the showcase, lives in Milford, and has been doing stand-up in Ann Arbor for close to five years.
“[The showcase] is doing Facebook live shows,” Yang said in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “There’s no audience. It’s just the comics that are there on stage and then they broadcast it on Facebook.”
Typically, the showcase hosts a traditional open mic every Wednesday night, but now, comedians like Yang are searching for creative ways to pivot their comedy in the COVID-19 era.
“I know the comics are trying to adapt. A lot of us are trying to put on outdoor shows. There’s some venues that are open, where comics have to wear masks — there’s others that are unregulated, but those are shows I wouldn’t have done in the first place,” Yang said. “Basically with being indoors and performing, I’d feel unsafe.”
Yang’s concerns regarding the overall safety of live performances appear to be a common sentiment shared throughout Ann Arbor’s comedy collective. As a community, the Ann Arbor comedy scene reflects some of the best that the Midwest has to offer. As a hub, Ann Arbor comedians come from all over — with large shares from Detroit, Toledo and Chicago.
However, comedy venues around the country are traditionally dark, claustrophobic and makeshift. Comedian Demetri Martin once joked that “the best rooms for comedy are the rooms that would be the worst in a fire.” A mixture of traveling comedians sharing cramped spaces and unsanitized microphones would easily signal some COVID red flags. So understandably, some comics have backed off from the spotlight.
“Some people have been quitting,” said Jacob Barr, a senior at Eastern Michigan and regular performer for the showcase. “For people at my level, it’s like an internship where I make some money doing it, but not enough to only do comedy. But the real issue is for the people right above me who are on the cusp on being able to do comedy as a career. I’ve had multiple who just started getting their bodies into the water, and then the pandemic hits and they have to go back to their day job.”
Typically, a comedy club will split a fraction of the money from tickets sold at the door with performers, and other income is supplemented by selling food and beverage. With no live crowds, or even significantly reduced crowds, that income dramatically lessens. Barr confesses, “It’s been really discouraging for a lot of comedians I know to not be able to do what they love.”
The Ann Arbor comedy showcase has made no public statements about when they plan to fully reopen, or to reopen in a limited capacity. However, ongoing conversations suggest that Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase plans to reopen their doors as soon as possible.
“The showcase can sit three-hundred people,” Barr says, “They’re remodeling the front lobby, so they clearly have plans to stay open.” The showcase relocated to its present location at 212 S. Fourth Ave in 2014, and had already been under significant exterior renovations for the past year.
Brady Keene, a junior at Wayne State University and recurring comic for the showcase, told The Daily he had thoughts about the possibility for outdoor performances before winter weather sets in. “I also thought about doing a Zoom show, and donating the proceeds to charity.” The challenge of outdoor and Zoom-related performances, many comedians admit, is the degree to which intimacy and volume can translate jokes effectively to their audience. In particular, TV critics have highlighted late-night comedy shows’ challenges to fully resonate their jokes with the absence of a live audience. But in an era when health rightfully takes precedence over humor, Keene is hopeful this will only be a bump in the road.
“Especially in comedy,” Keene said, “any tragic thing that happens, over time, turns funny. I have a stand-up bit about the Salem witch trials. Was it funny back then? Absolutely not. But now? You can turn it into something hilarious. So I’m very excited to hear all the takes about the ignorant people once we get back to regular work.”
As comics from all ranges of experience clamor to return to clubs, comedians like Andrew Yang and Jacob Barr are already working to put on an outdoor show at Bløm Meadworks while maintaining Washtenaw County safety guidelines.
“We’re already sold out for this Friday, and we’re expecting about 25 people outside,” Yang said. “All the comics will be really rusty, and it will take a while for people to feel comfortable.”
While the pandemic will have certainly made it harder to workshop jokes and create a solid stand-up routine, the love for the craft still exists for many Michigan comics. “I would love to do terrible open mics and bomb constantly if it meant I could do comedy the same as before,” Barr said. For many Ann Arbor comics, they can’t wait to return to “the best club in Michigan.”
Andrew Yang and Logan Barr currently perform at the Bløm Comedy Night in Ann Arbor. Their Facebook Page can be found here.
Daily Arts Writer Maxwell Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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