"Everything that was bad about comedy got worse."

"Everything that was bad about comedy got worse."
Image c/o Whitney Wasson.

Today I’d like to share a conversation with Chicago-based comedian and artist Whitney Wasson. The creator of Sober Rabbit, a webcomic about recovery, Whitney was gearing up for a tour throughout the Midwest just before Covid shut everything down. In the years since, they’ve pulled back from live comedy and focused on their work as a cartoonist. They recently published their first collection, Scars and Strips Forever, and they’ll be exhibiting at Cartoon Crossroads Columbus next month.

We talked about their experiences adapting to the pandemic, watching their peers keep doing road gigs as Covid raged, and what the Chicago comedy scene lost over the last few years.

To start, could you tell me about where you were at with comedy before Covid?

I live in Chicago now, and I've been here since 2015, but I started stand-up in Fayetteville, Arkansas in 2013. I started with open mics, then transitioned to shows and then paid shows. And I had gotten into a couple of festivals and was doing out-of-state road gigs. I moved to Chicago to level up and I did all the things that comics in Chicago do, which is do unpaid bar shows and then angle for paid club bookings. I did about a dozen festivals, indie theaters, the bigger venues, Laugh Factory, Second City, Zanies. As a recovering alcoholic, a big part of my focus was also the recovery community. So I also did private gigs at conventions and conferences and that sort of thing.

I was a well-rounded performer and I did a lot of emcee work. I did a lot of indie shows. I co-founded a show called Strip Joker, which is a queer, body-positive show that did really well for a while. And then I started a show called Serenity Now that was all-sober performers in non-bar spaces.

And the other thing that's relevant is I was hit by a car as a pedestrian in 2019, on the way to a show. I was injured five months before the pandemic began, and I had a full Midwest tour planned. I was going to headline a fairly new club in Detroit. I really felt like things were on the up and up, and I thought that I was recovering from my broken foot when the pandemic began. I literally performed a casino show in Oklahoma with a broken foot in a wheel cart. I really was giving it hell.

A panel from Sober Rabbit in which Shelby, a squirrel, ponders the cycle of relapse and recovery.
Image c/o Whitney Wasson.

And then the pandemic hit.

We were supposed to go on tour March 11th, and my friend Angel, who's a wonderful comedian and magician, he was like, "I have cold symptoms and I don't know if I have this new thing that everybody's talking about, but let's cancel it the first two days.“ Because they were small shows, and then we were supposed to perform at a Grand Rapids comedy festival and then close it out with a conference show. We really did have this full tour planned.

And I was like, "Okay, we'll cancel these bar shows, and then hopefully you'll be feeling better and we'll get on the road." So then it turned into being like, it's March 13th and we're getting these reports that people are dying in New York. We were like, "Fuck." And it was just like dominoes. The next week, everybody locked down in Chicago. I just went from having this full roster to, "Oh shit, this is for real."

I knew that I wasn't going to be performing. I was done.

And then the other consideration I had immediately was that my husband is immunocompromised. So we locked down starting in the second week of March for almost 18 months. It was a really long time. I had lost work because of being injured, day job work, and my husband's work closed temporarily and he went on medical leave. So it seriously went from, "Here I am being a comedian, leveling up” to “Okay, we're in our 600-square-foot apartment, not doing anything."

How did you adapt?

I was kind of in a good position, because having been run over by a car, I couldn't put weight on my foot for a while. So I lost a job that I had just gotten, I was working retail. I'm a visual artist as well, so I very quickly pivoted to, "Anybody need a logo?" Just literally anything I could do. I did a lot of posters, coloring pages, and then in a fortuitous way that got me back into making comics, which has become my main focus. But at the time, it really was scrambling. I had a GoFundMe from the car accident, and I knew that the settlement from that would be a year out. So it was a combination of charity, luck, freelancing, all the things.

But I knew that I wasn't going to be performing. I was done, and I hoped not to be done for good, but there was no talk of vaccines. There was no talk of anything coming. So unlike a lot of people here, I just said, "Okay, closing shop." And it was interesting to me that a lot of people did not stop whatsoever. That was surreal to watch.

Can you say more about that?

Having done stand-up for some time at that point, I knew that a lot of people would come to open mics sick if they had a cold or something, and they would make it a bit. That always grossed me out, especially after I got sober. It was like, "Wow, everybody's so unhealthy."

I went from seeing this big active scene of people to only seeing four or five people in person, if that. But going from their online presence and knowing comedians internationally and all over the States, the talk immediately was like, "Man, this is inconvenient, but I hope I can do my show in April and June."

And that was really surreal, because obviously nobody knew the severity of the pandemic at that point. But what quickly happened is that a lot of Chicago comedians started going to my neck of the woods to perform. Either to Indiana or Michigan where there were no Covid mitigations, or they would go to Arkansas and Tennessee.

And they would advertise that. There were people that were advertising their shows and saying, "Well, I got this Michigan date, I'm gonna keep it." And then there were people that were just quietly doing it and not advertising on Facebook in the way that they would've before. And I kept checking around with people that I was close to and being like, "Are you seeing this?" This is kind of scab behavior.”

I immediately clocked that, oh shit, these people are going to keep doing this.

So that was surreal and that was immediate. I had people who I considered close friends going to Arkansas and Oklahoma, which was astounding to me. Because you're going from this metropolitan place where there's all this international travel, and especially even if you're not driving your shitty car down to the South or something, to be able to board a plane—it really wasn't people who needed the work. It was people with a day job, as I perceived it anyway, who could afford to travel.

That was where my resentment towards a lot of the Chicago scene started growing. I had a lot of friends who had moved to New York or LA, they don't have a safety net. They've got a year of shows. They've calculated like, "Okay, how can I pay my car payment? How can I pay my rent?” I had less shitty feelings for them, because they really had put all their eggs in the basket of stand-up.

But to the people that had a day job, or worse—and this is the part that really gets me—who had family, like a baby at home or young kids, I immediately clocked that, oh shit, these people are going to keep doing this. They're really not going to let a global pandemic stop them.

How do you feel about things now, as you see comedy get back toward a relative status quo?

Everything that was bad about comedy got worse, by my count. I feel like a lot of people had stopped performing because they were outed as sexual predators—everybody’s back in full force. And the thing that really grosses me out is that a lot of people who were either new to comedy or very not established, they slid into those club openings that opened up when a lot of better performers weren't performing. They really said, "I'll be your emcee every night of the week. I'll do whatever." And so I feel like a lot of—I don't know, it's hard not to say bad actors, either predators being back in action or people known to embezzle from comedy clubs or from indie shows and stuff, they found all these new venues.

I'm mourning what the scene used to be, and I'm mourning the total disregard for public health.

And that's the thing that I'm seeing now. A lot of places in Chicago closed, a lot of really wonderful shows folded. And in their space, people could approach a new bar and be like, "Let's have a stand-up show. There's nothing going on right now."

And now they’re the scene.

My thoughts about this are all over the place, but I’m mourning multiple things. I'm mourning the scene as it was—really diverse, lots of options for shows, lots of options for mics, a lot of queer shows, a lot of women-led shows—which went to this weird homogeny that is, to me, the worst-case scenario, of only the same kinds of people putting on shows.

So I'm mourning what the scene used to be, and I'm mourning the total disregard for public health. To my knowledge, I haven't seen anybody talk about new filtration systems. If somebody has one, that's great. I just haven't seen it. And so I'm just sort of at an all-is-lost moment. Because when the mask mandate ended in Chicago, that was it. Everybody was going to return to the status quo.

It's really difficult. I did one open mic in April 2021. There were seven people that were all my friends. It was a bar down the street, and it was that moment where it was two weeks after the booster. We all went there masked and did our little open mic. We were like, "Well, are we going to keep doing this?” “I don't know." There was no consensus of, "This is great, we love it."

I just feel like there could have been a moment where there was a sea change. Comedians have died from this. My husband always talks about when everybody saw that video of DL Hughley falling at the Nashville Zanies, the response was not, "Oh my God, we're in danger." The response was kind of, "Look at this guy. That seems okay, I'm fine with that." It's horrifying.

That's the thing that I keep coming back to. There was a point where everything could have changed if people wanted it to, and it didn’t. And now what?

Maron talked about this in his latest special, and I really love the conversation he had with Dana Gould fairly recently. He was like, "There's comedy shows and then there's comedy rallies." At this point, it feels like what people are angling for is to have a successful comedy podcast, which doesn't involve any skill in performing. You've written about this, but the turnover in the Austin scene from having these majority-queer cool DIY spaces to literally having a face-scanning fascist nightmare Ayn Rand theme park—what is even happening?

Is this the expectation? Is this normal? Is getting Covid just gonna be the way to do it?

Do you think there’s any hope for the industry?

I like to think so. It’s not like everyone is bad—I have several friends who perform and test and have mitigations in their personal life. They'll do a weekend of shows and then live in their apartment for a week, just making sure that they're safe. And it really helps me to see Laurie Kilmartin post her HEPA filter situation. But I think there's such delusion involved in doing stand-up that the delusion about pandemic safety is just—all the meters are red.

I've had two waves of disillusion. The first was becoming disabled and being like, oh shit, a lot of these friendships I thought I had in comedy were actually just circumstantial. We went to the same bar three times a month and saw each other. And then the second wave was the public health thing—people would rather tell dick jokes in a plague environment than they would anything else.

It's really fun to do stand-up, and I love making people laugh, and I really miss being in a room with people laughing. But I can't see a way to do that safely without such a tremendous overhaul that no one's discussing.

I talked to someone the other day who said he went back to do his first show in Manhattan last year and got Covid at it. And he was like, "Okay, I guess that's just how it’s gonna be.”

Is this the expectation? Is this normal? Is getting Covid just gonna be the way to do it? And worse, it was really weird to see people get sick, feel like it wasn't that bad, and then stop masking entirely. Comedy is laughing in a small room where people are spitting on you from the stage. I just can’t—I'm not even particularly a germaphobe, but I can't envision a scenario where this is safe. I live in an immunocompromised household. I can't risk it.

People are using this transitional moment for nefarious purposes.

Do you have any desire to write for TV? Is that a route you've ever tried for?

I have a few friends that are TV writers and they're all just totally fucked by the—very necessary—strike right now. Luckily I am happy drawing comics, and I will be folding in my brutal comedy experiences more into that as a way to just vent about how surreal the past couple of years have been. But no, I don't think so. I know that some people get ousted from in-person comedy venues and wind up writing for TV, so that's another hesitation for me—standup’s toxicity transferred to something else competitive and exclusive.

Oh, great.

So there's a part of it that's also just like, I don't really want to go into all these environments with these middle class, dangerous rapists. It's tough. People are like, "Well, you could write humor books or something." And I'm like, it's really bizarre to have trained in one art form for 10 years, and then just say, "Okay, that's done." I'm very shell-shocked and bitter, and that comes out when I'm talking about this stuff, but I don't really know of another way to be.

There’s a strain of thought that because the state left us to face Covid by ourselves without any meaningful public health safety net, we shouldn’t blame people for engaging in various risky behaviors. Obviously it’s a nuanced issue, but I’m wondering where you stand on it, at least with respect to live comedy.

I think a lot of people have said stuff like, "You can't blame individuals for a government-wide national policy failure” or whatever. I hear that, that makes sense. But at the same time, I have seen such monstrous behavior specifically in the stand-up comedy world and people are using this transitional moment for nefarious purposes. For example, I've seen ads all over the city for a comedy festival that features a few "known" (to comedy fans, anyway) predators as headliners.   I literally don't understand how this keeps happening. I don't understand. How can people be so online and miss this stuff?

So I do blame individuals and I do blame this system that has never been a meritocracy and is a weird, dysfunctional, high school friend hangout system. That hasn't changed, and I think it's gotten worse.

This strange thing happened with all these people like Jeff Ross and Chris D’Elia, where they suffered no consequences and as a result everyone seems to have decided they don’t need to suffer any consequences.

I lost a lot of respect for a lot of performers I loved who are so talented. A lot of people became Louis CK openers during the pandemic. I couldn't think of a more evil thing. Somebody's outed for being a serial harmer of people in your industry, and you're like, "Well, even though I could have this wonderful career of people who respect me and create these great shows, what I'm going to do is just tag along behind this terrible famous man." So then you've got sexual predators, you've got plague, and then strangely, this class stuff with a lot of people paying $800 or whatever to go see Louie or Chappelle or any of those guys. It’s just become this bizarre Heinlein novel of classism and weird gender stuff.

Alright, let’s wrap it up on the lighter side: anything you want to plug?

I'd love to plug my comic, Sober Rabbit, which is an ongoing, darkly funny series about recovery, addiction, mental health and disability.

Thanks for reading! I'll also take this opportunity to link directly to Whitney's Patreon, which you can subscribe to here. And as always, if you'd like to talk about your own experiences working (or not working) in comedy these last few years, please shoot me an email anytime.

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