One interesting (read: horrifying) phenomenon I’ve noticed is comedy clubs claiming to provide a COVID-safe environment for workers and patrons while transparently failing to do just that, often in laughably obvious ways. Here, for instance, is a tweet by Vinnie Brand, owner of the Stress Factory in New Jersey and Connecticut:
And here’s a closer look at that photo:
As you can see, the club’s distancing measures do not include any masking requirements. More distressingly, it’s placed a pair of fans right behind the comics. While I’m sure these fans provide a welcome cooling effect inside the body-filled tent on a humid summer night, the laws of physics hold that they also blow any particles expelled by the comedians’ mouths right into the audience. As a refresher, the novel coronavirus is spread primarily through particles expelled by mouths into the air.
Maybe other clubs are taking the pandemic a little more seriously? Let’s take a look. Here’s the Houston Improv’s description of its safety measures:
We are asking all our patrons to wear a mask when they are not eating or drinking. Staff members will also wear masks. If you don’t have a mask, one will be provided to you upon entering. Customers who refuse to wear a mask will not be allowed to enter. Our facilities are cleaned and sanitized between shows. Additionally, commonly touched surfaces such as doors are regularly and frequently cleaned and disinfected. Disposable menus are utilized. In addition to these practices, we’re asking our customers to stagger their exit after shows and we appreciate our guests allowing us to take their temperature before entering the showroom. Seating is generally at a table with only your group. Both preferred and GA tables are single party seating. Some locations have the option for shared tables. If your location has shared tables, those are clearly marked before purchase.
Seems pretty serious! Surely the club’s tagged photos on Instagram will demonstrate its commitment to safety:
Ah, whoops! Well, maybe the Tempe Improv:
Okay, well, surely the manager of the American Comedy Club in San Diego was being honest when he said it was taking “every effort to be safe” before local authorities shut it down last week:
Spend a few minutes looking and this is what you will see again and again: Clubs declining to enforce masking policies, and unmasked comics making physical contact with unmasked fans. People are of course free to assume whatever level of risk they please, and I tend to agree that individual mask-scolding of private citizens is a canard that distracts from the failures of governments and institutions. But comedy clubs are institutions, and they have a duty to protect their workers and patrons from needlessly stupid risks. Comedians likewise have an obligation not to put their fans in mortal jeopardy. The risks aren’t even hypothetical. In late June, the comedian DL Hughley collapsed onstage at Zanies Nashville and was subsequently diagnosed with COVID-19. He’s headlining this weekend at the Houston Improv. In July, Brendan Schaub contracted the disease after a run of shows at the Laugh Out Loud Comedy Club in San Antonio. His co-headliner Bryan Callen said on their podcast, “Brendan and I did everything wrong in Texas,” and urged anyone who took a picture with them to get tested. Here’s Schaub a few days ago:
This is all insanely reckless and totally predictable. Comedy clubs are COVID outbreaks waiting to happen. They’re enclosed spaces where people go to impair their judgment, spew particles into the air, and take photos with famous people. Unfortunately it doesn’t matter much if a few clubs actually “do things right,” with appropriately distanced outdoor shows and strict masking. The nature of the business is that half its workforce is itinerant; the comic who goes from safe outdoor show to unsafe indoor show to safe outdoor show is still potentially transporting the virus around the country, endangering every service worker and audience member he encounters, and through them, their entire communities. It’s gotta be all or nothing.
The sad, obvious truth is that a lot of these comics don’t seem to care. They’re back on the road specifically because they don’t take the virus seriously—even, apparently, if they say they do. TJ Miller boasts that he chose only clubs that are “doing it right” for his “Best Medicine Tour,” whose very first stop was at the Skyline Comedy Club in Wisconsin. Skyline’s COVID preventative measures include “Capacity Reduced to 80%,” “Staff Will Wear Masks” (nothing about the audience), and "If your party is smaller than 4, you will likely be sat with other guests" (not a preventative measure at all!). I asked Miller if he really thought these were sufficient; he responded by asking how I got his number—it was listed on his Instagram—and didn’t answer the question. Which, okay, fair, but the point remains. When you invite your audience to come sit with unmasked people from outside their household, you’re inviting your audience to risk their lives. I may be a bit persnickety, but I don’t think anyone has the right to make that ask.
There is only one plausibly compelling reason to reopen comedy, a form anyone can make and consume from the comfort of their own homes: to get unemployed service workers and comedians back on payroll. Without getting into all the broader failures this represents, it’s a meaningless consolation if clubs are letting Joe Rogan shake their workers’ hands, and booking comics who literally caught COVID while touring a month ago. I also cannot help but notice that many comics returning to the road, like Rogan and Schaub and Tim Dillon and Andrew Schultz, make five figures or more each month from their podcasts. They have no excuse to put working-class club employees in danger. If they are as invested in the return of live comedy as they claim to be, maybe they could actually invest in the return of live comedy by helping to float clubs until the crisis ends. This might give everyone involved a fighting chance to survive, as opposed to the nightly threat of doom they face now.
I find it difficult sometimes to see through my own desensitization to every overlapping disaster and remember that the stakes have not gotten lower. I imagine the same is true for many comics, club owners, and fans. We’ve been living in this unreality long enough to fall under a tyranny of wishful thinking, where doing something right can all too easily feel like doing everything right. But there are no half measures appropriate to a horror of this magnitude. All it takes is one slip-up, a cough, a fist-bump, a fit of laughter by an oblivious super-spreader. The risk is too great, and comedy isn’t worth it.
-I also loved O’Malley’s new video.
-Also this video by Sam Taggart.
-In the absence of anywhere else to put this: I recently asked the Comedy Store if it has any comment on the Jeff Ross story, and if it plans to continue working with him. It declined to comment.
-Neal Brennan addressed the “kerfuffle” over his non-thoughts about Ross. Come for the bit where he likens tweets quoting his podcast to cancel culture, stay for the bit where he plugs his movie while explaining how cancel culture caused his friend’s death.