During the past year, comedians were forced, like so many others, to get creative.
For some, Zoom shows were a fate worse than hell—the prospect of being faced with silence while making jokes to a screen sounded soul-crushing at best. But for others, the digital space offered a unique opportunity to connect and support comics who they wouldn’t have otherwise met or performed with.
Producers Karmen Naidoo and Sonal Aggarwal, respectively based in New York and Chicago, turned to Zoom to start their own show after what Aggarwal called a “very romantic” but brief in-person meeting between them pre-pandemic. Gimme the Light highlights underrepresented, LGBTQIA+, and BIPOC comedians (with the rare white token performer), and in recent months has transitioned into a live show. But without the new focus on remote performance, who knows when they might have been able to work together in this capacity, let alone create a community among people who may not have otherwise met.
“Jeff [Rice, an audience member], would come on the Zoom show every week, and he’s like, ‘I’m so grateful for this because I can tell you how funny you were, and I can write to you in the comments,’ and they don’t feel like they can do that at a live show,” Aggarwal says. “There were times when I literally left the Zoom call and it would just be like our audience just hanging out.”
Dave Helem, producer and host of the Dope Comedy Summer Series, had a wrench thrown into a major career milestone and had to quickly adjust—instead of filming a traditional stand-up special as planned, his first hour-long special, DJ The Chicago Kid, was filmed at a drive-in outside the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
“It was a very interesting thing, because they had only so many of the cars miked up. You could hear them laughing, but you could also hear them eating nachos,” Helem says. “Maybe right now, people don’t want to be reminded of the pandemic. But they’re going back into doing regular specials now with live audiences, which is cool, but I think I think mine is kind of like a time stamp. This was recorded in the goddamn pandemic.”
For comedians Clare Austen-Smith and AJ Marroquin, now the producers and hosts of Yard Party, the past year and a half provided a much-need break to rest, reset, and refocus.
“Comics love to post the hustle and grind culture, and to each their own,” Austen-Smith says. “But I realized for me that when the pandemic started, I was incredibly close to burning out, I was doing way too much. And I was doing stuff that wasn’t necessarily what I felt like was the best representation of me and my comedy on stage.”
In the past few months as the world around us has gotten a little bit safer, a slow trickle of live comedy has returned, in both indoor and outdoor spaces, reminding audiences and comics alike that we made it through this together and it’s OK to laugh again. Maybe it’s that rediscovered sense of togetherness that is causing many of these shows to feel like so much more than a comedy performance.
A Dope Comedy Summer Series
Fri 7/23-Sat 7/24, 9 PM; Sun 7/25, 8 PM, North Bar, 1637 W. North, liveatnorthbar.com, $30 for weekend pass, $15 per show.
Wednesdays, 9 PM, Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, hideoutchicago.com, $10.
Gimme the Light
For more information about upcoming shows in Chicago and New York check out @gimmethelightcomedy on Instagram.
Helem, now based in LA, is returning to Chicago for a three-day festival of his monthly Dope Comedy Show at North Bar. From July 23-25 he’s not only featuring some of his favorite local comics but local musicians and surprise drop-in guests as well, encouraging folks to stay and hang with him all night. Yard Party, now every Wednesday at 9 PM on the patio at the Hideout, also includes a musical element with a rotation of DJs providing pre-show tunes and the soundtrack for an after party at the bar. And Gimme the Light has included music, a small market of local vendors, even a brisket slow-cooked by Thomas’s dad for all who came to enjoy the show. It’s not just about jokes anymore—it’s about connecting on as many levels as possible and appreciating every tiny moment.
“Doing comedy you’re watching people’s faces all the time and to see certain people I hadn’t been in front of in like a year and a half at the show, slapping their knee or having a good time or lighting a cigarette, I was like, ‘This is so romantic, I’m writing a little poems about all of you guys in my mind,’” Marroquin says. “I want it to be more than just 45 minutes of comedy. I want to be like a three-hour, four-hour hang at a place you really like with people that you really like.”
That being said, the jokes are still important, especially coming off of a universally terrible year. Aggarwal laughs, “My mantra is: be funny, not scary. I was like, ‘Max, do you have any notes for us?’ And he was like, ‘You know, a lot of your jokes, I feel like you’re kind of saying a lot and like just get to the joke.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, you mean like, do stand-up?’” And the audience needs to step up and be on board as well. “To all the scream laughers out there who feel like you’re maybe a little embarrassed, your time has come,” Austen-Smith says. “We need you.”
A fear when returning to these shows as an audience member is an onslaught of pandemic jokes, already cliched punchlines about baking bread or working from home. Worse yet, a fear that some things would have stayed exactly the same, with certain comics still telling sexist, racist, homophobic, fatphobic jokes as if nothing had happened. What has come to fruition instead is insightful sets about the nuances of being stuck inside and a newfound support of jokes tackling important issues.
“With everything that happened last year with the pandemic, Black Lives Matter movement, Asian hate, we wanted to create a space which was for everyone, so everyone that’s the other was able to feel comfortable to express themselves artistically,” Naidoo says. “Before last year, people would be like, ‘Oh, you always talk about race and colonizers’ and white people are watching your show and being polite, but they’re not really laughing. Now I bring up some of my oldest stuff that I’m like, I guess this works now because people are talking about this. Now everyone’s laughing.”
Some of the biggest changes, of course, come with the logistics. Many performances require attendees and performers to show vaccination cards. Awkward conversations are being had about who should be allowed to attend a show based on their careless pandemic activities or refusal to get the jab. Some go-to venues aren’t yet hosting performances or worse yet, no longer exist.
Helem knew he wanted A Dope Summer Series to be at North Bar to support the small venue after a hell of a year for venues, especially because in the past the bar’s manager, Jim Weber, had financially helped him out. “He had my back when when my back was kind of fucked up,” Helem says. “I know that he’s had a rough time with COVID and stuff like that so anytime that I could put money in his pocket, because he’s definitely put money in my pocket, I want to do that.”
As priorities shift in our new world, there are two major points on which all comics agreed: all performers should be paid and everyone should be much more intentional with their time. The weeks of hitting every open mike or every showcase every night just to make sure you’re showing your face are over—as are, for many, the nights of being the only woman or person of color or queer person on a lineup just to check someone’s box. Instead performers are focused on creating the spaces they want to see and spending time in rooms with those who share their values, performers and audience members alike.
“I think that it’s just so powerful, that when people come to our shows, if you’re an Indian American person, you’re able to come and not only see a Black person tell jokes, but you’re also able to come and vibe with them and be reminded of damn, we share so much together instead of being of course in this segregated city, being in your segregated pocket, and judging from the outside, but you’re able to come together,party, laugh and eat together,” Thomas says. “That right there is grassroots organizing.”
And this reset is only the beginning.
“One thing I really hope happens is people who have been sitting on ideas for shows, or have been dwelling on possible things that they want to pursue goal-wise, I hope that they just go and fucking make it happen and do it,” Marroquin says. “I don’t want people to lose that tenacity and lose that zeal for being creative or making an event happen, because right now there’s so much possibility out there beyond the venues that people are used to. And I appreciate the trickle of shows but I hope eventually it’s back to a flood of things to choose from.” v