- Courtesy Wiseguys Comedy
It feels like a hundred years ago, but local stand-up comedians remember it was only March when they were performing in front of large audiences, and able to find laughs in this strange new concept called coronavirus. "I had shows in Ohio [in early March]," recalls comedian Steve Soelberg, "and I remember joking with them, asking the audience, 'Are you guys afraid of this coronavirus thing?' And they were like, 'No.'"
"I did a show at Wiseguys [on March 11]," says comedian Travis Tate, "and by the time I got off the stage, the NBA season was suspended and Tom Hanks had COVID-19. It was this weird 24-hour period when everything changed."
As was the case for performing artists of all kinds, professional lives changed almost overnight for stand-up comedians. Locally, Wiseguys Comedy's three locations all closed, and while the downtown Salt Lake City and Ogden location re-opened in early May—with a wide range of measures in place to insure the safety of staff, audience members and performers—the intervening two months left many comedians wondering what would come next.
For many of them, what came next was an attempt at doing streaming comedy shows—a stopgap measure that comedians viewed as a shabby substitute for performing in front of a live audience. "It was just comics who would kind of shuffle into the clubs, everyone separated and wearing masks, hand-sanitizing a ton," Soelberg says. "Those were just used to keep us sane a bit. When you're used to performing and you just can't, it's like having your water turned off."
"It was almost like going through the motions, like practicing your jokes while driving," Tate says. "The other comics in the room are just as nervous. Everyone there has heard their jokes, we were all trying to come up with new material. It was very nerve-wracking."
Comedian Andy Gold referred to doing comedy remotely as the equivalent of "air-guitar." "I said to myself, 'Well at least I get to say the jokes out loud, and hear the beats,'" he says. "But the beats in my opinion don't mean diddly squat without an audience."
Despite the fact that the streaming shows weren't ideal for the performers themselves, all of them noted that audiences were grateful that they were helping provide laughs during a difficult time. "People were very kind and receptive," Soelberg says. "I'd hear things like, 'I know you can't hear us laughing, but we are, thank you so much.' ... We've all been wanting laughs so much, to let go."
"Every Zoom show I've done, I've walked away saying, 'Holy shit, that sucked,'" Gold adds. "But the messages I get afterward are 'thank you, I really enjoyed it.'"
As difficult as it was playing to no audience, there was still some hesitation on the part of the comedians to getting back on stage once Wiseguys reopened. "I've been drinking the Kool-Aid pretty hard about the severity of the virus," Gold says. "I've been sufficiently frightened. But we [Utah] are doing a little bit better than other places. Wiseguys is run by somebody I know and trust, and they're taking what seems to be sensible precautions. I feel like it's being done in the safest possible way."
Once the comedians were able to get back in front of audiences in early May, they've found themselves with an adjustment process. For some, it was simply shaking off the rust of not performing in front of an audience for two months. There was also the adjustment of playing to a room that—because of the social-distancing and other safety measures in place—offered a very different crowd dynamic than one that is ideal for live comedy.
"There are people wearing masks and laughing behind masks," Soelberg says. "We had like 80 people, with everybody spread out as much as they can. So it was weird, because you felt like you were playing to 30 tiny groups."
"That energy doesn't hit you as much as a regular show," Tate says. "Spreading everybody out, the laughs were coming from everywhere. ... [But] I would much rather have smaller crowds for a year than nothing for a year. I look at the glass as half-full, that there is a crowd in there."
That sense of gratitude for being able to perform at all is something all of the comedians feel, especially with the realization that colleagues in many other cities are not yet getting this opportunity. "I would say I'm pretty fortunate I'm living in a state that's doing so well," Gold says. "I have friends in L.A. and New York who would probably slap me if they heard me complaining."
And while no one knows how long we will be dealing with measures that limit crowd size and present other performing challenges, there's a general sense of optimism toward a future that resembles what the comedians saw during those performances back in March. "There will be a time when those events are going to happen again," Soelberg says. "And it's going to be huge, because we're social animals. You can't deny that we're a bunch of happy monkeys who want to hang out together."