A Year in Comedy

Looking back at 2021.

A Year in Comedy

It was the year of new beginnings, some more promising than others. A cooperative improv theater called Union Comedy opened its doors outside Boston, while another called The Comedy Co-op held its first shows in Los Angeles. After the 2020 closure of the beloved Pawtucket, Rhode Island theater Wage House, Kismet Improv rose up with a commitment to accessibility and fair pay. In Chicago, a private equity firm bought Second City and two real estate executives bought iO. The disgraced owners of the New Movement, a theater and conservatory that collapsed amid abuse allegations in 2018, returned with a new venture in New Orleans and nary a word about their past. Storied Queens venue The Creek and The Cave reopened in Austin, booked Joe Rogan, and stood by him after a transphobic set that drove a popular drag show to leave the club. “[W]hen you sell as many tickets as Rogan does you have a lot of pull,” its co-owner said in a Facebook post. “Yaaa well book him when he wants.”

It was the year of recovery. Thanks to the tireless advocacy of the National Independent Venue Association, comedy venues received millions in relief through the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program. The grants were a needed lifeline for clubs forced to operate at limited capacity or not at all. The Comedy Cellar received $4.2 million. Carolines on Broadway received $4.5 million, while its owner’s production company received $1.6 million. The Laugh Factory received $3.8 million across four locations. The Groundlings got $842,000; the Annoyance got $405,000; Second City got $10 million. American Comedy Co. in San Diego, an outspoken opponent of pandemic restrictions that in July 2020 rebranded its indoor shows as “protests” to evade an indoor entertainment ban, received $1.1 million. Hyena’s Comedy Nightclub, whose locations in Fort Worth and Dallas hosted packed, unmasked shows well before vaccines were available, received $966,000. Side Splitters, the similarly unconcerned Tampa club that tweeted “We have something special going on” when Tim Dillon sold out four shows in October 2020, received $897,000. Wiseguys Comedy Cafe in Utah, one of the very first clubs to resume indoor shows in May 2020, received $1.6 million. Stubb’s, the Austin barbecue joint and amphitheater where Dave Chappelle was mid-residency when he tested positive for Covid in January, received $5 million.

It was the year comedy became lucrative again—for some comedians, anyway. After a year in Yellow Springs, Chappelle took his “Dave Chappelle and Friends” tour to clubs, theaters, and arenas with the likes of Chris Rock, Joe Rogan, Louis CK, Michelle Wolf, and Tom Segura by his side. Russell Peters hit the road. Jim Gaffigan hit the road. Nate Bargatze hit the road. Jeff Ross, Dave Attell, Dan Soder, Taylor Tomlinson, Laurie Kilmartin, Mark Normand, Sam Morrill, Tim Dillon, Andrew Schulz, Louis CK—everyone who’s anyone hit the road. As college students returned to campus, campuses reopened their coffers: SNL co-head writer and memoirist Colin Jost made $70,000 for a set at the University of Illinois; Jimmy O. Yang made $60,000 and $40,000 for performances at the University of Maryland and the University of Central Florida, respectively; Whitney Cummings made $40,000 at Ferris State University. Things were somewhat tougher for unestablished comedians. By springtime in New York, it was the norm for open mics to charge a cover. Stand Up NY, recipient of more than $1 million in federal relief, announced in March that it would start paying six bucks to comics who perform unpaid “check spot” sets at the end of shows, then changed course: actually, it would only cover train fare. Improv and sketch comedians were left with even fewer advancement opportunities than before the pandemic. While Second City, the Groundlings, and the Peoples Improv Theater resumed some in-person classes and shows, a smoking crater remained in place of the vast community once centralized at UCB, which, like iO, has yet to reemerge.

It was the year of second chances. And third, and fourth, and fifth. Chris D’Elia resumed podcasting, reached one million TikTok followers, and performed live again in Los Angeles. Bryan Callen returned to the podcast he left in 2020 after several women said he assaulted them. Jeff Ross performed regularly at the Comedy Store and at arenas with Dave Chappelle. Louis CK toured with Joe List, Bobby Kelly, Shane Gillis, Jordan Jensen, Adrienne Iapalucci, and Dan Naturman, was the subject of an unreleased New York Times documentary, directed a movie penned by List, and released a new special. TJ Miller took his "Best Medicine Tour: Doing It Right" to dozens of cities in the US and Europe. Al Franken played the Comedy Cellar, Union Hall, and launched a national standup tour. JP Sears’ set explicitly calling for violence against trans people made no dent on his upcoming dates at clubs like Helium, Cap City, and Skyline. Shane Gillis went up at the Comedy Cellar with Dave Chappelle, Colin Jost, and Michael Che. Tony Hinchcliffe called Peng Dang a “filthy little fucking ch—k” at Vulcan Gas Company in Austin and continued recording his podcast there every Monday. A court overturned Bill Cosby’s conviction on a technicality and set him free.

It was the year no one learned anything. Joe Rogan promoted anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, refused to get vaccinated, got Covid, recovered, and promoted anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. In January he and Brendan Schaub acknowledged that comedy shows are Covid spreaders. In August he confirmed an outbreak at the Comedy Store that affected at least a dozen vaccinated and unvaccinated comedians. That same month, Andrew Schulz and Live Nation asked a Los Angeles theater to waive its vaccine requirement for his shows. Over in New York, The Stand offered a discount to unvaccinated patrons before official mandates took effect. A few days ago Stand Up NY hosted the roast of a rabidly anti-vaccine comic, produced and attended by his friend who tested positive eight days earlier. In the weeks after Gutty’s Comedy Club in Indiana hosted a “Clean Comedy Challenge” in July, five unvaccinated attendees were hospitalized. Three died.

It was the year nothing changed. When Just For Laughs, the comedy megafestival founded and run for decades by a serial predator, acknowledged an outpouring of stories about its longtime booker’s racist, sexist, and homophobic behavior, it cited its no-tolerance policy forbidding the very conduct it tolerated for years. The booker resigned; his bosses remain some of comedy’s most powerful gatekeepers. The stars already set for next year’s festival include Bill Burr, Tig Notaro, Tom Segura, Hannah Gadsby, Trevor Noah, and Fortune Feimster. Second City, recipient of more than $13 million in federal relief, invited the service workers it unceremoniously laid off in March 2020 to reapply for their jobs, though it wouldn’t commit to hiring any of them. After pledging in June 2020 to reorganize as a nonprofit, UCB conspicuously did not reorganize as a nonprofit. In fact, it didn’t do much of anything but peddle classes to students who may never be able to perform on its one remaining stage. “We’re basically using the fire of Covid to start some new version,” Amy Poehler told the New York Times in February, a week before hosting the Golden Globes. "Whether or not we'll be able to get there, I don't know.”

It was the year power flexed itself. When Dave Chappelle quadrupled down on transphobia in his sixth Netflix special, Netflix suspended a trans employee who publicly criticized the streamer and fired another on the uncorroborated pretext that they leaked internal data. Spotify stood vigilantly by its $100 million talent Joe Rogan as he consorted with anti-vaxxers, platformed right-wing ideologues, and said in March that people transition because they’re “marginalized for being genuinely dumb people… but then they become trans, and now all of a sudden we think they’re amazing.” Before Lorne Michaels pressed Saturday Night Live’s cast and crew to power through a Covid outbreak, the show was accused in state court of looking the other way as Horatio Sanz groomed and abused a teenage girl 20 years ago. Before that, it welcomed billionaire robber baron Covid denialist Elon Musk as host. Before that, it paid its audience members $150 apiece in order to comply with state health guidance that, oddly enough, didn’t actually say you could have live indoor audiences so long as you paid them.

It was not the year Dave Chappelle got cancelled. It was not the year Joe Rogan got cancelled. It was not the year Tony Hinchcliffe got cancelled. It was the year Norm Macdonald got cancelled, only after which his history of sexually harassing waitresses and female comedians came to light. It was not the year comedy’s gatekeepers saw it in their hearts to stop working with abusers and bigots. Nor was it the year any comedians of note said no, enough was enough, they would no longer tolerate the predators, reactionaries, and enablers in their midst. It was not the year mega-manager Dave Becky was held in any way accountable for his role in Louis CK’s abuses. It was not, alas, the year comedy workers organized their workplaces in pursuit of higher pay and more equitable conditions.

So what was it? It was just another year in comedy. The year Dave Chappelle received four Emmy nominations and lined up two more Netflix specials. The year Lorne Michaels received the Kennedy Center Honors and said he might retire in three years. The year Louis CK thanked a litany of venue owners and managers at the end of his new special: Vinnie Brand of The Stress Factory, Andrew Unger of Magooby’s Joke House, Gary Abdo of Atlanta Comedy Theater, Colleen Quinn of the Omaha Funny Bone, Dave Stroupe of the Columbus Funny Bone, Chris Lange at Zanies—all the good-hearted, joke-loving people who stood by him through his sordid trials, who made comedy safe for his return. It was the year of rebirth, of disease and death, the year Ted Lasso went to therapy and Gary Gulman played Carnegie Hall. It was the year we laughed again.