The business of comedy clubs is a perfect combination of activities unthinkable during a pandemic: packing into tight, cramped spaces; enjoying dine-in food and drink services, and laughing while doing these things. In the past, a patron's spit-take would be seen as a commendation; in the future, it might be seen as a biological attack.
"The best live comedy shows are usually an intimate environment with a certain density of people where the laughter is shared," Bert Haas, Executive VP of Zanies told VICE. "If all of a sudden you have people spread out by 6 feet, especially if they have to wear a facemask, that might not be a very conducive environment," he said.
As the coronavirus spread across the United States, clubs were directed to cut their crowd sizes, and even before shelter-in-place orders were enacted, both comedians and customers were both hesitant to attend shows. Some club managers are hopeful that people will be desperate for the salve of live comedy when it's allowed again, whenever that is. Others think would-be customers will be wary to return to these spaces, known for their coziness and intimacy. Like anything else, live comedy will have new rules when it's allowed again, though it's unclear what those rules will be.
VICE spoke to comedy club managers across the United States to hear their experiences of what it was like to be open then hastily close during a pandemic, their expectations for the future, and their current concerns.
Bert Haas, Executive VP of Zanies (Chicago, Nashville)
The numbers were pretty strong, up until the very end. Governor Pritzker of Illinois, on Friday, came out and he said, I'd like everybody to stay home this weekend. And that was the Friday before St. Patrick's Day. St. Patrick's Day is big in Chicago, and so there were all these scenes in the media of people that were lining up to get into bars the Saturday before St. Patrick's Day. Then the next day, Governor Pritzker came out and said, 'That's it, we're just shutting everything down.'
First, it was through April 3rd, so it was just gonna be a couple of weeks. And then they extended to the end of April. Now, people are talking about [it lasting] to the end of May. So you're closing a club for 10 weeks with no revenue. Zanies has been here for 42 years now, so we're in pretty good shape. We've been through a lot of crises over the years. I've been with Zanies since 1980. I've seen the Reagan recession. There was a recession under George Bush. We survived 9/11. We're gonna reopen. The two biggest questions are when they're going to let us reopen, and how many seats they're going to allow us to have.
Zanies in Chicago was built on intimacy, and the problem is, will people be willing to sit close together again? Or will they want to be spread out across the room?
My fear is that some of the smaller clubs with limited cash reserves are going to have problems because they just can't weather the storm. Now, if the SBA [Small Business Administration] and the government gets their act together, and starts to distribute the funds that we've been promised to take care of that, that'll help us weather the storm. But I don't know what you're hearing from other clubs across the country. Unfortunately, the SBA program is not going smoothly.
Brian Dorfman in Nashville organized has generated a lot of money for support staff. We in Chicago have organized a GoFundMe page that has been successful to help us distribute some money to the staff. We kept as many people on payroll as we possibly can, and we're going to continue to do that as long as we possibly can.
Wende Curtis, Owner of Comedy Works (Denver)
It wasn't even on my radar in any kind of an urgent way until Wednesday the 11th. On Tuesday, the 10th of March, I signed checks for my business with the accountant. And I wasn't going to be able to sign early morning, like I usually do. I wasn't going to get there until mid-morning. And so I said, 'Hey, I'm sure this is overly paranoid, but let's not pay extra on our loans right now, just in case we might need our cash.' In one of my clubs, we had five sold out shows for the weekend. In the other club we had six sold out shows for a weekend, and we were a partner with Iliza Schlessinger for two 5,000 seat concerts on Saturday night, so it was a huge weekend. It's weird, and it's hard to remember the specifics. I really wish I would have journaled it day by day because some of it changed, many times throughout a day, early on.
I had Russell Peters in one room and Bobby Lee in the other. They did Thursday night. And Bobby didn't want to stay after Thursday night. We didn't know until Friday afternoon, he was going to leave. And we weren't going to do a show with him that night. Meanwhile, earlier in the day, the governor had put a cap of 250 occupants on venues such as ours. We limped through the weekend. Russell Peters stayed for the rest of the weekend, but the shows that were originally filled out were oddly attended. And Iliza was cancelled on Friday for her Saturday night concert. Monday morning, we knew we had to close. Monday, that was the 16th. I just started laying people off, [we] might have about 200 employees and I think I went down to like seven or 11 something key people and then after that pay period, I went down to two and three quarters. One person's working at three quarters pay. And I've got two full time. And of course, I'm not on the payroll anymore. That's just to keep things somewhat up and running. It's not like we're aggressively out there and marketing our shows because that feels weird, spending money on marketing, and stuff that's already been rebooked and may have to be rebooked again.
What should I be doing? I don't know. I go to the clubs every day to get the mail so that I can immediately process unemployment claims, so I can immediately get the bills to the accountant, so that I can hemorrhage more cash. Or see if there's anything else that I can catch up on. And look at my email to see if there's anything from my bank or about my PPP or anything from the SBA about the other thing, what am I supposed to be doing? I don't know.
I don't want to put this out there to my customers and say, 'Hey, times are bad and I can't pay my employees. So will you help?' I don't share my profits with them. I feel odd about that. And I think that the stimulus check and the unemployment will be late. But I feel like that we do have something set up where they will be taken care of. They do get unemployment based on their tips as well. I figured at over $55,000 a year in Colorado, you're gonna make more on unemployment than you will make in $55,000 working for me.
I'm dually worried about two things. I'm not in immediate need of the EIDL or the PPP stuff. But how long is that going to take? Will I not get that until January or something crazy like that? And we know that when this country opens back up, venues like mine will not just open back up, we'll be given limitations. And so all of those big acts that we have big deals and ticket prices and contracts on, we won't be able to fulfill those contracts with reduced capacities. It's almost like we get a couple of questions answered, and then like this whole new set of questions comes up.
Judi Marmel, Co-founder of Levity Live (California, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania)
We're looking at it probably similar to a way a lot of folks are. I think as soon as people feel that it's safe to go out, they're gonna get back out there and the live experience is going to be as important as it ever has been. In the decades that I've been doing this business, post 9/11, post the wars, all of these different things that have happened, comedy has always sort of been the antidote and ointment for healing for a lot of this. So I think business is going to be back and it's going to be brisk on all different scales in comedy, because history tells us it will, so we're very optimistic about it. Laughter is a pretty healthy release valve. We feel like it's very much going to boom once it's back. How is it going to come back? From the research and the folks that we spoke to, we feel like it's going to come back, state by state, there's going to be people, you already see it in the restaurant and other industries, where they're starting to talk about when they're going to come back and what sort of measures are going to be put in place for social distancing for them to be able to operate.
The comedians always have a close bond with the staff that works in those clubs and there's not a lot of turnover in that profession. So a lot of these artists have seen the same, the same bar and waitstaff take care of them year after year as they've built. And so you're going to definitely see a number of successful artists come out and say, 'How do I give back to those people?' I know, certainly, there's been a number of my clients that have brought it up very early on in the conversation.
I've been at this over three decades. The amount of people that I've known for my entire career is quite a few folks. Everybody's pretty supportive of each other. Everybody's using it as a time to remind each other that we're all in the comedy business for a reason, which is because we have a love of it.
I was in Florida at the time, in the middle of the exhibition baseball game, on a Friday. It might have been the 14 of March, the usher came over to me and said Major League Baseball shut down the rest of spring training. This is in the middle of the game. He goes, we just got a notice. So I said, 'Oh, my God, this now is going to really cascade.' I didn't think the reality of it. But when that was announced, very shortly thereafter, the city of New York announced that comedy clubs can only operate at 50% of their capacity. So that's what we were forced to do. We had to rearrange our seating, make it look less crowded.
We had to start thinking in terms of protecting the comedians. We were swapping the mic in between sets so nobody would be exposed, and at that time, that was the best you could start thinking of, because there weren't a lot of guidelines yet on those things.
Broadway Comedy Club's about 15 employees. Greenwich Village comedy club's about four or five, and it's very sad, here's the issue facing businesses like mine across the country. We've laid (our employees) off, we couldn't afford to keep paying them, there's no revenue coming in. You're now being asked to close for good reason, obviously, we're in a major crisis. You really don't get any relief on your rent. You don't get any relief on your expenses, they all continue. So, it's very, very bad. We've been around a long time and we have good relationships with our landlords, and I'm hoping that we'll be able to get through this thing with their cooperation. But if a landlord's gonna stick to the guns, you're gonna see a lot of businesses go under.
With that new bill that's in the city council [which proposes to suspend personal liability on commercial loans] if that's passed and comes to fruition, now the landlord can't go after your personal assets, that might make the decision of some business to say, 'is it worth it to pay this guy back the 80 grand, or do I just go belly up, corporate wise, and start another business, and possibly a lower rent?' Everything is a mess. Some people might just make the decision. It's just not worth this bullshit.
Cris Italia, Co-owner of The Stand (New York)
We went from thinking that we maybe have a week left, to not having anything at all. That's how it wound up. And really, for us, it too short notice to really plan anything. We spent the next two weeks just trying to figure out what's next. In early April, we started streaming content. We're adding comedy programming, we have comedians taking over social media for a day and stuff like that. So we have some more programming coming up. We really don't have any idea when this is all gonna come to an end. First it was May 15, now it's June 8.
It's really a combination of two things. One is, what our government decides is appropriate, we're waiting on their leadership to kind of give us an idea of how it should be done. But also I anticipate that even if we were fully operational, that it wouldn't just be a mad rush back to operating on full capacity because people want to dip their toes in. They're not gonna just go out every night, all of a sudden; you'll see a lot of hesitation out of the gate. I do think that there will be restrictions. Governor Cuomo has stated there'll be phases to this. We've been thinking about obviously thinking about those ideas, like how we would do that, the restaurant or we have a restaurant portion to the club, and a bar. I think that we would just keep, we wouldn't really fill those areas up because it would be tough to keep people separated, just standing around at the bar and drinking and for the most part, we would kind of shut those areas down.
We raised a little over $20,000 for our staff and we started a gift card program where basically supporters of the venue can buy gift cards for a later date, and a portion of that going back to some of our staffers. To see that kind of support was incredible. It makes a big difference. it definitely paid some bills for people. We just had Sal Vulcano on our Monday's livestream. It was incredible, all his fans came, and bought gift cards. It's really what we're asking for because it's hard to ask for donations for a business, because we're not a charity. We know we're not destitute. But we have a business we need to keep afloat. And we want to give something back. We don't want to just, we don't want to just accept donations. So really, what we've been doing is the gift card program to us seems like the most fair way, you get a discount and it allows you to have something to hold.