Will LA’s Iconic Comedy Clubs Survive COVID-19?
Drive-in, outdoor shows, and Zoom broadcasts are a life raft for performers.
After dark on July 9, comedian Dave Helem took the stage in a jean jacket and cap, the Rose Bowl as his backdrop. He faced the crowd, but instead of seeing people at tables or in seats -- his normal view -- he saw 180 parked cars with passengers who were there to watch, listen, and laugh as part of a four-night Comedy Dynamics collaboration with Tribeca Drive-In. Helem’s face filled the big screen so people in the back could see, and they broadcast his voice through FM, Bluetooth, and WiFi signals. His reward: a chorus of honking horns and flashing lights, a form of surreal applause. Welcome to L.A. comedy during a pandemic.
On March 15, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a public order for establishments that serve food and drink to cease indoor service, an edict designed to limit COVID-19 spread that sent shockwaves across the hospitality world, including comedy clubs. These continued measures have been devastating to a host of local businesses, but entertainment venues most of all.
California Governor Gavin Newsom recently released new guidelines that loosen or tighten restrictions on a county-by-county basis, depending on current COVID-19 spread. Unfortunately, Los Angeles County still faces the state’s toughest restrictions. We’re still mired in “purple” -- more than 7 new cases daily per 100K and more than 8% positive tests -- so “non-essential indoor business operations” remain closed. Red status means only 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever number’s smaller; and orange and yellow status only entitles establishments to 50% capacity or a maximum 200 people, still severely hampering indoor LA businesses for the foreseeable future.
“We had about 180 cars every night flashing their lights and honking their horns. It was emotionally and creatively very beautiful.”
Imagining the Los Angeles comedy scene without iconic clubs like The Comedy Store, The Laugh Factory, Hollywood Improv, Largo, The Ice House in Pasadena, and The Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach is unthinkable. These hallowed stages have shaped the American comedy landscape for decades -- a training ground that laid the foundation for legends including late-night comedy hosts like David Letterman and Jay Leno. Approximately two dozen comedy clubs operate across LA County during less dire times, along with many comedy nights at mixed-use venues. Close these clubs and we’d cut off the largest laughter pipeline the world’s ever seen.
The Comedy Store is particularly legendary, dating to 1972 on the Sunset Strip and depicted in the recent Showtime series I’m Dying Up Here. Mitzi Shore, ex-husband Sammy, and comedy writer Rudy DeLuca founded the multi-stage venue and she went on to run the business until her passing in 2018. They’re credited with providing a spotlight for comedy titans like Richard Pryor, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jim Carrey, and Andy Kaufman, plus more recent figures such as Marc Maron, Sarah Silverman, Whitney Cummings, and Joe Rogan.
Pivoting to digital, outdoor and other formats to stay afloat
To combat revenue shortfalls and keep the laughs going, comedians and venues are experimenting. The Comedy Store is operating an impromptu outdoor restaurant in its private parking lot, streaming shows from inside the club on a large screen. On its website, the venue appealed to fans saying, “Please come by and enjoy a meal, cocktail, beer, wine, a chat, a few laughs, and community all in support of keeping The Comedy Store viable.” The community has responded by releasing new content recorded on-site. Kill Tony stars Tony Hinchcliffe, Brian Redban, and their band performing from the main room and feature rotating guests on YouTube on Mondays at 8pm. Jamar Neighbors was the featured guest for the outrageous show we watched. Tin Foil Hat with Sam Tripoli runs on Saturdays at 8pm. On August 26, Perfect Gentleman Show co-hosts Tehran Von Ghasri and George Khouri welcomed The Whirl Girls.
Largo, a longtime favorite venue for comedians and musicians that’s operated on La Cienega since 2008, went completely dark during the pandemic, just leaving an online message that reads, “All shows as of 3/12/2020 have been postponed… We will reach out as soon as new dates are announced… Please take care of each other! XO, Largo.” In July, longtime supporter Conan O’Brien started filming his self-titled TBS show at the theater, with cardboard cutouts of James Comey, Conrad Bain (Mr. Drummond from Diff'rent Strokes) and four Kevin Harts. O’Brien said in a Deadline story, “I started here doing improv. I got my first laughs here in 1985.” Largo showed their appreciation in an August 31 tweet that read, “Thank the heavens for Conan and his team keeping us going.”
Hollywood Improv booked Ian Bagg to perform on November 14, the only local live show currently on the national comedy brand’s calendar. California guidelines certainly put that show in doubt. A recent COVID-19 update read: “We love to make you laugh in our venues, but we recognize that the current global health situation is no laughing matter…When our doors reopen, we hope you’re ready to laugh! See you soon!” In the meantime, The Improv has been hosting Improv Live Comedy Drive-In shows from August 15 – October 3 atop the Regal Edwards Irvine Spectrum parking deck, with headliners like Craig Robinson and Joel McHale adding to that retro revival.
Laugh Factory, the Sunset Strip club that Jamie Masada founded in 1979 and sprouted locations in cities like Chicago, Las Vegas, Long Beach, and Reno, has been “closed until further notice” since March 15. Their homepage invites fans to “Catch Laugh Factory LIVE online Mon - Fri at 2:00 pm” PST and they also broadcast these sets from comedians like Tehran, Craig Robinson and Tacarra Williams on their Instagram Live feed. Future programming remains uncertain, a word that applies to every club and 2020 in general.
COVID-19 has also forced indie comedy nights to adjust their models. UnCabaret was performing pre-pandemic at Rockwell Table and Stage in Los Feliz. Show founder Beth Lapides now hosts Sunday night UnCabaZoom sessions every two weeks, conversing with a mix of regular and rotating comedians, raconteurs and musicians. “Taking the show to live streaming came from a deep desire to connect,” Lapides says. Since everybody’s remote, she’s also able to draw talent from other time zones, including New York-based guests like Sandra Bernhard, Isaac Mizrahi, and Aparna Nancherla.
People who tune in to Zoom comedy shows can be as active and visible as they want to be, with options to mute and erase their feed from the “Brady Bunch” like box line-up. Performers can hear your applause, laughs and jeers...or not. Lapides calls Zoom an “exciting creative challenge” and is happy with the results. “In some way it was a very natural extension of UnCabaret,” she says. “UnCab is built to be conversational and intimate. Which is what the Zoom experience is at its best. I’m in conversation with the talent. I’m laughing. So there isn't the weird void.”
UnCabaZoom donations are welcome, but not required. They also host a “backstage after show thing” to reward VIP donors. They plan to continue with the experiment, true to the song that Lapides sings to start each show: Change.
Technical know-how has helped recoup some intimacy lost from live shows. For instance, drive-in theaters may be inherently the safest way to watch comedy in-person during the COVID-19 crisis, but that insulation comes at a comedic cost. Veteran comedy special and TV producer Brian Volk-Weiss explains their approach to the Rose Bowl shows, saying, “It’s very important that the comedian is able to hear the audience, because it affects their rhythm.” With that in mind, his team wired 50 cars with microphones at the Tribeca Drive-In that fed audio to speakers at the foot of the stage so comedians could hear the crowd. “Luckily for us, it worked.”
Better yet, the audience ignored his team’s calls to silence their horns and lights. “It really helped the comedians get a gauge for how they were doing,” Volk-Weiss says. “We had about 180 cars every night flashing their lights and honking their horns. It was emotionally and creatively very beautiful.” He hopes to record six more drive-in sets on the East Coast this fall.
There’s nothing like live laughs for performers
But there’s no substitute for the collective energy, infectious laughter, and camaraderie that live comedy generates, and comedians miss other aspects.
“I miss the instant feedback,” says Iliza Shlesinger, who has five Netflix specials and launched The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show in April. “I miss being able to practice my craft. Stand-up has been a constant in my life for 15 years and it was part of my daily life.”
Shlesinger particularly misses The Comedy Store, which she calls home. “I miss bringing my friends and hanging out with other comics for a few minutes in the (haunted) green rooms,” she says. “I just miss the feeling, the buzz of doing a few sets and getting the reps in and leaving knowing I murdered a whole room of people. If I was having a bad day, stand-up always made me feel better.”
“I miss being surrounded by some of the most unique minds in the world,” says comedian, actor, and writer Ron Funches. “I miss seeing my friends get better and watching crowds fall in love with them and I miss people applauding for me when I walk into a room.” He also misses making new friends and exploring new towns while touring, which is the lifeblood for many comedians.
Diversification is one key to achieving financial viability during the pandemic. Performers are creating new opportunities to draw eyes and dollars. “I'm an artist and the creativity doesn’t stop just because the outlet changes, I just pivot,” Shlesinger says. During the pandemic, she launched “Don't Panic Pantry” on Instagram Live and Facebook with chef-husband Noah Galuten -- resulting in an Alfred A. Knopf book deal -- continued her Ask Iliza Anything podcast and hosted “Comedy Revolver” on Zoom with three other comedians who tackled topics viewers submitted in real time. She also finished a feature film that she wrote and starred in, pitched, auditioned, and continued writing. She’s also working towards a new one-hour comedy special and will be kicking off a national drive-in tour soon. “I just chose to look at this time as an opportunity to pay attention to all my other projects,” she says. “There’s always work to do.”
“I just miss the feeling, the buzz of doing a few sets and getting the reps in and leaving knowing I murdered a whole room of people. If I was having a bad day, stand-up always made me feel better.”
Funches had a ticketed September 5 livestream comedy event on YouTube titled “Awakening.” To prepare for the new format, he started doing some Zoom shows. They’re “a different experience timing and reaction wise, but feels better than doing nothing.” He also launched a Twitch comedy night to break down sets from favorite comedians. Funches says. “Watching and just being a fan has helped me rediscover my love of comedy and its ability to provide escapism.”
The longer the pandemic goes on, the harder it will be for these clubs to bounce back
If comedy clubs continue to grapple with monthly losses, expect to see far fewer venues survive, a prospect that even the most gifted comedian can’t mine for humor.
With traditional stand-up opportunities dwindling, so has the comedy ranks, which not everybody sees as a bad thing. “Lots of comics are moving away and I think less people will do it to just get famous, which I consider a positive,” Funches says. “In a pandemic you can really see who loves it and who just does it for a job.”
Leaving possible intentions aside, a timeline for comedy’s return to “normalcy” remains a mystery. “I don't know when people will be able to pack into The Comedy Store or the Improv or a small alternative space again,” Shlesinger says. “You've already seen bookers pivoting. Whether it's my friend/opener Hunter Hill with his digital space or comics booking parking lots for social distance shows, comedians are adapting. For those of us who love stand-up, the work always finds a way.”
So does humor. Lapides says, “Whatever happens that makes it safe to be with groups of people again, people will get together to laugh and tell stories.”
Ways to support local comedy venues and comedians
Ron Funches: “Be active online and buy tickets. Buy T-shirts. Don’t think just because you see a comic on TV they are okay because most of us make our money on live touring and that has been completely taken away.”
Iliza Shlesinger: “Keep up with comics on social media, support them where you can. Whether it’s a Zoom show, a live streaming event or a live social distance show. Of course money is important, but letting that comic know, "Hey, I’m watching you do your thing" online helps with morale. Likes, retweets, favorites and shares convert to eyeballs and dollars. Thoughts and prayers do not.”
Brian Volk-Weiss: “A lot of the venues have GoFundMe accounts or something similar. I would definitely recommend giving some money to the GoFundMes. That’s really, really important. As it relates to artists, some artists are starting to tour. They’re also doing parking lots and barbecues and stuff like that. If you are confident in your safety, I would recommend going. Also just reaching out to the artists on social media just to say, “I know this is a tough time for you, but the next time you’re in town, believe me, I’m going to go buy tickets.” Just stuff like that is very helpful to the comedians. Some comedians are starting to do “live” shows on social media, on YouTube, on Facebook, whatever. Supporting those is an absolutely fantastic way to support comedians as well.”
Beth Lapides: “Show up to the online versions of shows you're already a fan of. Try shows and comedians that were out of reach geographically, time wise or financially...Almost every show has a system for giving. Venmo or actual ticketing. Don’t feel like you need to give a lot to make a difference...Almost every comedian, show and venue has merch. Some of it is amazingly creative. Buy it, enjoy it, and gift it. (Estoy has a lot of comedians on their site)...Any way you can spread the word helps. RTs and reposts. Shoutouts. Screenshots. Organize watch parties. Catch up on content, Netflix specials and CDs. Share those links.”
LINKS TO SUPPORT
Improv: Buy tickets, including Improv Live Comedy Drive-In shows in Irvine.
UnCabaret: Buy tickets to UnCabaZoom shows through Eventbrite, ranging from $10 general admission to $100 angel status that includes post-show, backstage after party. Purchase merch. Sign up for The Beth Lapides Workshop.
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