The People Trying to Reopen Indoor Comedy in New York Know It's a Bad Idea

“We just can’t socially distance in a club like Carolines."

The People Trying to Reopen Indoor Comedy in New York Know It's a Bad Idea

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This week Caroline Hirsch, owner of Carolines on Broadway, signed her name to a proposal to reopen comedy clubs in New York City. Sent to Governor Andrew Cuomo by a coalition of club owners and stakeholders, the proposal requested that the state immediately allow outdoor comedy shows, and that comedy venues receive the same treatment as restaurants, which reopen later this month for indoor service at 25% capacity. The clubs pledged to adhere to strict safety guidelines, including distanced seating, a ban on congregating other than at tables, and the use of ticketing software that will allow for contact tracing. In a letter prefacing the proposal, sent to reporters on Monday, they stressed that “arts venues have and can continue to operate safely and legally within existing guidelines.” The document itself warned of dire consequences if the state turns them down: “It will likely mean the demise of venues across the State and the lost jobs and revenue that follows.”

A few days before the New York Comedy Coalition announced their proposal in an East Village press conference, Hirsch said her club can’t meet the guidelines it proposes. “We just can’t socially distance in a club like Carolines,” she told the hosts of Len Berman and Michael Riedel in the Morning on Friday. “To open at 25% of capacity, as they’re letting the restaurants do right now, and we'll see if that works out—I really can’t open up and then turn around and close down again.” This isn’t the end of the world, she clarified. She has a landlord “sympathetic” to her plight, and though other bills are piling up, she’s joined a national group of independent entertainment venues lobbying for federal relief. Ultimately, she doesn’t expect to reopen until next year. (She did not respond to a request for comment.)

Hirsch isn’t the Coalition’s only member whose previous statements conflict with the proposal they signed. West Side Comedy Club’s Felicia Madison downplayed fears about live comedy’s demise just last month. “People are always saying, you know, some clubs won't open, they won't survive,” she told Mecha Swain in a stream produced by Slapstik Comedy Entertainment. “And I think the clubs are gonna be fine… The landlords are not gonna kick them out, because they know they're good establishments, and who are they replacing them with now anyway?"

What’s really dangerous, Madison went on, is if clubs go the same route as restaurants. “The problem’s going to be when they open, and they need to staff up, and they only go 50 percent. That's where they're going to run into problems keeping their, you know, ends meeting, when their expenses have to be a base level. You need a manager, you need a booker, you need a, you know, and then you need to pay rent. But then you can only do it at 50 percent capacity, that's when they're gonna start bleeding money.”

When I asked Madison about these statements, she walked them back—somewhat. “The quote is based on the presumption that if we do not reopen we will definitely close no doubt,” she said in an email. “WE cannot open the club for 15 audience members. We will need at least 50 percent capacity. But unlike other clubs we need more of a staff to run properly as we are a restaurant and a club[.] Also since we are a restaurant above, unlike other clubs we are lucky to have the restaurant above us running so our club is not in jeopardy of closing... As of now we are shut down with no costs.” I asked her to clarify why, if West Side is shut down with no costs, it will close if it doesn't reopen. She said she meant other clubs will close, assuming they're currently not paying rent and have minimal expenses: "Once they open they have to start paying full rent, overhead, staff, expenses promotion comics- at small capacity will be hard to make money."

Which brings us back where we started: some clubs will be fine if current conditions persist, but face immediate struggles if they reopen. “Many feel it is just a good way to get comedy up and running for the comedians not necessarily for the clubs,” she said of the proposal. In the meantime, she’s producing online shows to keep her comics employed.

Madison’s perspective speaks to the Coalition’s competing interests. Some members, like Carolines and West Side, can endure a longer shutdown, and their imminent survival does not depend on the rule changes they’re lobbying for. (Paul Italia, co-owner of the Stand, told Newsweek that his landlord is also “working with us.”) Others cannot—especially those that aren’t also restaurants. “I need to open in some way or it’s over,” Kambri Crews, owner of QED and an organizer of the effort, told me over email. “If there were support in the form of rent relief and grants, I would stay closed. I don't want to do anything to jeopardize the health and safety of my community.” She added that she’s personally advocating for outdoor shows, and that reopening at 25% with food and beverage service would be “economically feasible” for QED. She was less rosy about the prospect of reopening without food and beverage service, and of reopening indoors. “I would not be interested in 50% with no F&B as most income is from F&B,” she said, “and 50% capacity indoors right now would make me have a panic attack probably even with doors and windows open. But outdoors should be allowed immediately and I would continue that for as long as weather permitted.”

This all makes good sense. If New Yorkers can gather outdoors in groups of 50, one of those 50 should be able to tell jokes while the others watch and laugh behind masks. Safe outdoor performances are one of the few, vital ways people can come together in these alienating times, to say nothing of their role in keeping arts workers afloat.

But the Coalition is not pressing only for outdoor shows—which, as Crews notes, may only be possible for a few more months. It is also pushing for indoor shows, which involve a whole new host of concerns. As we all know by now, this pandemic is airborne. Indoor spaces with lots of strangers are among the riskiest places you can go, and there is no mechanism by which clubs can ensure that patrons seated together all maintained proper distancing on the outside. (Current guidance allows restaurants to seat as many as 10 people at a table; they all must be members of the same “party,” but they don’t have to be from the same household.) For the proposal to work, every single venue has to follow every single guideline to a tee, and even then it might not work: the promise to use contact tracing software acknowledges as much. Every club owner has to take the threat of Covid-19 seriously enough to ensure rigorous compliance at their venue, or else put their comics, workers, audiences, and extended communities in mortal danger.

Unfortunately, they don’t all take it that seriously.

Al Martin is the owner of Broadway Comedy Club and Greenwich Village Comedy Club, both members of the New York Comedy Coalition. Over the course of the pandemic he wrote and published a memoir, Did It on a Dare: How I Created a Comedy Empire in 30 Short Years. In podcast appearances promoting the book, Martin downplayed the risk of Covid-19 for young people, suggested health measures in New York and other cities with Democratic leadership are politically motivated, questioned why his club cannot reopen while unhoused people are allowed to ride the subway, and said that if researchers don’t create a vaccine, then the economy will have to reopen. (He declined to answer questions about these statements.) The following is from his conversation with comic Mike Robles on August 20th, in the midst of a longer polemic about state and local policy:

MARTIN: In Westchester they're allowed to have indoor dining. And Long Island they're allowed to have indoor dining. And reduced capacity. So how can you sit there and tell me you don't want to open indoor dining in New York City because there are droplets of air that go through the air and, you know, go through the air conditioning system and are recirculated, but that doesn't happen in Westchester? Or in Long Island? Or upstate New York? And what about an airplane? Can you think of anything unhealthier to get on than an airplane with recirculated air? I mean, you know, you can disinfect that airplane all day long, if some asymptomatic person gets on there, and you know people don't always behave that great on an airplane, the lights go out, they pull down their mask for a second to breathe, you know what I mean? You could get exposed to a lot of stuff on an airplane, an airline terminal, Grand Central Terminal. Listen, you could sit there and disinfect the New York City subways all day long, you get somebody, some homeless guy that comes in, you don't know what he has. He's not wearing—he's not, you know, socially distancing or wearing a mask all the time…

ROBLES: It's amazing it's the biggest cities, like, New York is shut down, LA is shut down. And I tell you right now—all the comedy clubs in Texas are open. Fifty percent capacity, you have to wear a mask, they do all the guideline rules, and so far so good.

MARTIN: Which leads me to believe there’s a good chance this all might disappear right after election day. It sounds sort of political to me, doesn’t it?

ROBLES: It does. That’s what I’m saying. The biggest cities, like New York, LA, shut down, and then you have Texas, which is also big, but they’re operating the comedy clubs—

MARTIN: And then half of Florida is open, the other half is reduced capacity. Listen. There are some things I don't see being able to open in a long time. Like bars where single people hang out on top of each other and they're talking to each other. Or when you're shoulder-to-shoulder watching a football game. That's one thing. But, you know, you come to a comedy club that—if my room seats 160 people and you let me open up 40 seats, I’m pretty sure I could get people six feet away from each other, you know. We could disinfect the room like any other business does. We can have hand sanitizers all over the place. Plexiglas. We have protocols in place to protect the comedians. So why don't I get an opportunity to open like other businesses? You know, bowling alleys. You're telling me that's a—you're sticking your fingers in a bowling ball that's been used by 20 other people, or you're putting your feet in a shoe—and the air conditioning system, you think they're spending a lot of money on air conditioning filtration systems at bowling alleys? I mean, come on. The whole thing’s crazy.

A few points of interest here. One is the general thrust of Martin’s argument, that all these other businesses get to do all these obviously dangerous things, making it unfair that he can’t take the same risks. If the Westchester restaurant with recirculating droplets gets to reopen, so should his clubs. Second is his apparent belief that subways, airplanes, and train stations are all terrifyingly unsafe. How will a comedy club filled with people fresh off the subway be any safer? Then there’s the assertion that clubs in other states reopened without issue—as if comics didn’t get Covid performing in them—which Martin uses to suggest that New York’s health guidelines have no basis in reality. This is nonsense, and it doesn’t even reflect the full depth of his delusional attitude toward the pandemic. Here’s his answer when Robles asks if he expects clubs to reopen:

I think we're going to go back. I think, you know, people want to get out of the house already. You know, if you look at the demographic for comedy clubs, it's generally early 20s to early 40s. I mean, there are people in their 50s that go to comedy clubs, you know, they're, you know, 40s too, but the heaviest demographic are the demographic of people that are not that concerned as much about Covid because they recover from it very quickly if they got it. And most young people, probably, if they tested a lot, would find they have the antibodies and had it already. I think what's eventually going to happen if they don’t—if they don't figure out a vaccine, or you know, medical things that can make you feel better once you get it, then a decision has to be made at some point that we have to start opening up the economy.

Let’s not get into the danger Covid indeed poses to young people, or recent studies that suggest the virus might be growing more contagious as it mutates. Martin’s contention here is that his customers don’t care too much about Covid, will be okay if they catch it, but probably won’t, because they can’t. This raises a few questions, namely: do you trust someone who assumes you’re immune to protect you from transmission risks in his business? How about someone who thinks “if they don’t figure out a vaccine, the economy must reopen” is a coherent line of reasoning? How much do you trust the people lobbying to reopen his clubs?

With respect to the people reasonably pushing for the right to gather outdoors, Martin reflects a potentially fatal miscalculation in the Coalition’s efforts. The clubs are not a united front. They are not all seeking the same outcomes, they do not all agree to the same set of facts, and they do not all have the same risk tolerance. My experience reporting on club comedy, a famously conservative business, leads me to doubt Martin is the only New York City club owner with his beliefs, but it doesn’t matter either way. Like restaurants, clubs share audiences and workers. One weak link endangers everyone. Whether they mean to or not, the Coalition’s righteous members are fighting for that weak link.

It is important to be clear about the risks Martin represents because one of the Coalition’s central arguments is that reopening comedy is a public health interest. Here’s how the proposal puts it:

While licensed venues have since been re-shuttered, public gatherings of <50 and private parties are still allowed. This is how speakeasy culture starts. New Yorkers are already seeking out spaces to skirt the rules and create their own private events outside the purview of government. This endangers public health in the precise ways the SLA and Department of Health (DOH) are attempting to eradicate.

“There are comedy shows going on tonight in private homes, in backyards, in parking lots,” comic Christian Finnegan added during the Tuesday press conference. “The only thing Governor Cuomo’s guidelines do is prevent them from being done safely by licensed venues who know what they’re doing.”

Smart pt made by @ChristFinnegan at club press conference: There are already tons of shows in NY going on every night. Making them legal will make them safer.September 22, 2020
Like prostitution!September 22, 2020

This is also nonsense. Comedy is not drugs or alcohol. Nor is it sex work. Nobody’s going to get sick or die without it, and its practitioners aren’t at risk of police violence or arrest if they get caught. The people doing these unlicensed shows are grown, clear-thinking adults telling jokes in parks and on rooftops; in many cases they’re the same people behind this campaign. If they feel those shows are unsafe, they can stop whenever they please and pressure their peers to do the same. Short of that, nothing is preventing them from implementing almost all the safety measures they propose. (The exception is ticketing software that enables contact tracing, but there are many other ways to obtain an audience’s contact information.) Even more disingenuous is the implication that reopened clubs will book every single comedian who might conceivably perform comedy in New York City, and serve so many customers at 25% capacity that New Yorkers will stop seeking out private shows. There simply is no reason to believe one thing will meaningfully affect the other, nor that these shows pose a meaningfully greater risk than indoor shows run by people like Al Martin.

Live entertainment venues face a real, urgent threat. They do not deserve to go under, and their employees don’t deserve to lose their jobs. But at the heart of the campaign to reopen indoor comedy is a fundamental misattribution of the problem. It is not unjust that New York let restaurants reopen while keeping live venues closed; it is unjust that New York let restaurants reopen. No nonessential businesses should be open, no one should be forced off unemployment, and no political ground should be ceded to the forces that want to sacrifice our lives to the economy. (I find it rather bleak that New York Senator Mike Gianaris, who lent his voice to the Coalition, is the same official whose rent suspension legislation has languished in committee since March.) The Coalition’s proposal notably omits the many private entities suffocating entertainment venues. Landlords, utility companies, insurance companies, lenders, and mortgage-holders all bear responsibility for this mess, yet conversations about reopening inevitably frame them as immutable facts of nature rather than the human villains they are—willful actors whose greed in the face of crisis has done as much harm to working people as the state. By holding them up as reasons to get back to work, we pervert the fight to save comedy into a fight to save the vultures destroying it.

That’s the wrong fight. “Reopening” has always been a con designed to maintain the upward flow of wealth as society collapses. The short-term incentives to go along with it—urgent as they may be—are outweighed by the long-term incentives to reject the permanent entrenchment of a violent social order. Those inclined to participate should consider the possibility that this will not be the last world-halting calamity in their lifetimes, and probably not even the last pandemic. Then they should ask themselves if they want to fight the same losing battle for the rest of their lives.

Don’t do it. The vultures don’t deserve our money. They don’t need it. They only want it because we have it. We can either stop feeding them now or feed them until we die.

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Header image via Shawn Collins.