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On last week’s paid edition of this newsletter I discussed the dangers of comedy clubs reopening. I just made that post public, in case you would like some context for today’s post, which will go a little deeper into the thinking of two comics who returned to the road.
Those comics are Jeff Dye and Brad Williams, who last weekend headlined at Wiseguys in Salt Lake City and Bricktown Comedy Club in Oklahoma City, respectively. This week they went on Theo Von’s podcast This Past Weekend to chat about their experiences. The conversation was illuminating and disturbing. What it suggests is that the comics who initially return to live performance will be those least afraid of the coronavirus and those who least understand it. You will see shortly why this is incredibly frightening.
A bit about the clubs who booked them. Both are operating at 35% capacity: Dye says there were about 100 people at his shows, Williams says there were 100-125 at his. Both clubs are performing temperature checks on staff and customers, maintaining distance between tables, and seating guests only with their own parties. Wiseguys requires staff to wear masks and gloves, while Bricktown only mandates masks; neither requires customers to wear PPE. (Dye describes audiences members wearing masks as they entered and left the club, but taking them off during the show.) Both clubs disinfect high-touch surfaces like tables and chairs between shows, and Dye says Wiseguys disinfected microphones as well. Both comics complain about the low pay necessitated by reduced admission.
Otherwise they had a great time performing for audiences that seemed starved for a good time. “This weekend, dude, people were so generous,” Dye says. “One dude tipped our server like 200 bucks. All these people were gushing to me, like, oh my god, thank you. They were just so happy. I was crushing on throwaway lines, it was very generous.”
Neither comic was particularly concerned about the risks. For them it was all about getting back to getting laughs. “I wasn’t worried about the shows,” Williams says. “In terms of you look out at the audience and it sounds different because it’s at a third capacity or half capacity or whatever it is, my philosophy is: okay, or I could stay home and there’s no show. There’s no one getting laughs, there’s nothing.”
“I was more worried about the travel,” he continues. “I loved the shows. The audiences, much like you said, were great. They were so starved for content, they wanted to go out, they wanted to have fun. But traveling, that was weird, because you had to wear the mask the whole time… That’s six hours of wearing a mask. And they’re not serving food on the plane, so if it’s a long flight you’re like, okay, I gotta snack up before I get on.”
“I dealt with it pretty selfishly,” Dye says. “I’m not afraid, I wanna go tell jokes. I’m wearing the mask out of respect for others, but if you want to come hug me I don't give a shit. I don't care… The people that come to my shows obviously don't seem to care either. So if they get me sick or I get them sick, fuck ‘em. They came out. It's like, I’m not hurting gram-gram, she's at home. And I know that that's a selfish take, and I'm admitting that I'm selfish, because I just want to get back to comedy so bad. And I'm so tired of being at my house with my dog. I tried to do one of those virtual shows, had a great time, but it wasn’t the same… I needed it. I need my hotel rooms, I need to flirt with girls, I need to tell jokes. I needed some sort of semblance of what I’m used to.”
Williams and Von eagerly co-sign Dye’s swim-at-your-own-risk approach. “Yes, the safest thing would be to stay in your homes and throw a blanket over your head and never leave your house,” Williams says. “Yeah, that’s the safest thing. But there are ways to do these shows.” He applauds temperature checks and distancing measures, but doesn’t seem to mind that customers aren’t required to wear masks. When Dye mentions a patron who kept his mask on during the show, Von pokes fun: “How brave is that guy, though? Think about that, if in your head that's where you are fear-wise, and then you go to a place and you're like, I'm gonna rough it out! It's my wife's birthday!”
It’s an odd attitude toward masking—certainly not a cure-all, but still crucial to the preventing the spread—which no one at the table seems to take all that seriously. “Afterwards at the meet-and-greet, they’re like, hey, can we get a photo with you?” Dye recalls. “And I was like, you want a mask or no mask? And they were like, dude we don’t care about that, and they were all touching. It did get a little irresponsible.” Von asks if he started to get nervous at that point, and Dye says no. “If they get sick, they get sick. It’s on them.” (I reached out to Dye with several questions, including whether he’s concerned about asymptomatic transmission, and will update this post if he gets back.)
Dye and Williams stress that if people go out and act responsibly, everything will be fine. They also don’t seem to care if they or anyone else act irresponsibly. “I think you just gotta make your decision,” Dye says. “I would never judge anyone for wearing gloves out in public and doing the mask, I think that’s great. I think that’s awesome. I just, if you don’t want to do that, what’s that one guy, God? He gave us like, free will? And we love that about him? We love that he lets us do whatever, whatever the consequences are?”
“My parents are both like 75 and my dad’s immune-compromised,” Williams replies. “He should not be going out—”
“And if you’re gonna go hang out with him, you shouldn’t be,” Dye says.
“Exactly, I should go get tested,” Williams says. “If grandma's living with you at your house, then you have a different responsibility. So we’re not saying just everyone go out. But if you’re young, healthy, 30-year-old, 20-year-old, and you’re like, I wanna go just have a little bit of fun and be responsible, good.” They observe that comedians, with green rooms and stages to themselves, are probably the safest people in the club, although Williams did try to stay toward the back of the stage, so his spit would not fly into the audience.
It’s hard to tell whether their blithe attitudes are informed more by their individualist philosophies or just plain old ignorance about the virus. At one point Williams says he was reluctant to post about his shows on social media, fearing other comics would criticize him “for earning my goddamn living.” Dye says he’d welcome the conflict. “Go ahead, Nikki Glaser,” he riffs. “Talking about being—you’re such a hero for staying at home with your parents. Go ahead, come at me. Oh how heroic, you millionaire. You haven’t had sex for two months, get a life. Nikki, you do grosser things all the time, bragging about anal sex, you’re worried about a virus nobody’s ever seen. Shut up.”
Later he describes a joke from his set at Wiseguys. “Are we really that scared?” he asked the audience. “Even the people that are the most scared, who claim that they’re the most scared of this, they’re all at home going ooh did you watch Tiger King? and sending each other big black guy dick memes. Nobody's really that afraid. If this is the end of the world, no one seems to really be that scared.” In response, the audience cheered “We’re not afraid!”
Maybe the ignorance is itself informed by the individualism. About an hour into the podcast, Von asks what his guests think about places of worship reopening. “It's kind of like standup, man, you gotta go to that responsibly,” Dye says. “That’s one of my biggest things, and this might make some of the listeners annoyed. People don't take their own responsibility. So they'll smoke for 40 years and then go, isn't it sad I have cancer? It's like, no, dude. Yes, we love you, mom, but you don't get to smoke for 40—and they go, oh well I need disability because I'm a big fat lardo and I eat McDonald's 75 times in one day for the last 30 years.”
“No responsibility,” Von responds.
“They all want health care, but like… you don't even take health precautions,” Dye says. “That's the beauty of freedom, is that we get to do what we want. You don't get to do what you want and then be a victim.” Williams agrees, offering that if you’re a lion tamer and a lion bites your arm off, you can’t sue the circus. (Well...) Then he and Von conclude that the risk borne by comedians right now is just like the risk of brain damage in football. “It would be way safer if no one played professional football,” Williams says. “But these guys, it’s their choice.” (Well…)
The masks really come off when Williams, who has a four-month-old son at home, marvels at the couple who brought their baby on one of his flights. “I just kept thinking to myself, why does that baby have to fly right now?”
So I would say, oh, maybe they should have drove, you know? Like, don't be on a crowded plane where we share air with other people. Maybe they should have drove. Rent a car drive to wherever this emergency destination is that you're taking this infant. Right? And then people would say, Oh, Jeff, what if they can't afford it? Well they should get a better job! They should have worked harder. Like even those things—they say, well some people can't—well then work hard!—just take your burden and bear it. If you're broke, get rich. If you're fat, you don't like it, lose weight. If you're fat and you're happy, great, flaunt it. Just do whatever is working for you—I mean, do better.
Maybe you think that’s a little harsh? Think again. Dye speaks from experience. He used to be poor. He lived in his car. Then he found a job “where morons can make money.” Now he’s a successful comic; the meritocracy is real. “The fact that I’m rich is ridiculous,” he says. “It makes me go, just figure it out.”
“There has to be some social recourse,” Von says. “There's no responsibility… we always just keep helping the lowest common denominator, which in America you can be.” He recalls traveling to India and seeing “handicapped people dragging themselves on the ground because they don’t have a wheelchair.” In America, “we don’t make people have to be better themselves, really. You know, it’s like we’ll just keep making it more comfortable. We don’t challenge, it doesn’t seem like we challenge.”
“Look at food,” Dye chimes in. “People will just eat for taste. All they care about is the mouth. Food is to fuel you. It's supposed to make your body operate at a high level. But we just, all we care about is the taste part.” He draws an extended metaphor in which someone puts Mountain Dew in his car instead of gas, ignoring the mechanic who warns him the engine will need constant repair. “That's what we do with our own bodies. We get one body in our entire life and we just put shit in it. And then once we get to 40 we realize we've got problems and we need pills and medications. It's like, yeah, stupid. You've been doing it to yourself.”
“And we get ‘em,” Von laments. “That's the thing, in the US we get 'em. I feel like—I wonder if we didn't have those things to help us, you know, if we didn't know that there's some bailout program that's gonna be there.… if we all went completely broke, we know there's probably a way we're gonna get housing somehow. and we're gonna probably be able to be able to get medicine… it doesn’t make us challenge ourselves.”
Dye agrees. “We all know that worst case scenario, you can go stay with your parents until you get back on your feet.”
If you’ve been wondering what type of comic would return to the road before the pandemic ends, you have your answer: the type is “idiots who don’t know shit or give a fuck.” As I wrote last week, it’s impossible to overstate how dangerous this is. These guys spent at least ten minutes of this podcast dressing up eugenics in the language of personal responsibility. They have no idea how class or poverty works, let alone the coronavirus. Williams at least recognizes some duty to the collective good—staying to the back of the stage, avoiding the elderly, declining to do meet-and-greets—but not enough to see the risk he puts himself, his family, and the entire country in by performing live comedy. If he thinks smokers with lung cancer do deserve healthcare, or that people with disabilities shouldn’t have to drag themselves across the ground, he doesn’t say so. Which makes it hard to imagine he cares all that much about the risk posed by 125 people gathering in a comedy club to eat, drink, and laugh for a couple hours.
Comedy clubs should not reopen. Live comedy is not important enough to endanger comics, audiences, service staff, and the communities surrounding them. So long as they do reopen, the circuit will self-select for comics who don’t understand or care about that danger. This weekend Dye is performing at the Laugh Out Loud Comedy Club in San Antonio. Williams will be at Wiseguys. After their shows last weekend, both received a flood of texts and calls from other comics—at least 40, Dye said—asking what it was like. “It’s the same,” Williams told his friends. “It’s just a few less people.”
If other comics follow their lead, we’re in for a very bad time.