There's no telling when standup comedy will return to bars and clubs, because with over 143,000 coronavirus deaths in the U.S. to date, this concern is not high on the list of public priorities. But standup comedians who were used to performing multiple times a night, several times a week, have found themselves without their usual outlets, save for Instagram and Zoom, and comedy fans are actively seeking out live shows. As comedians struggle to find stage time while bars and clubs are closed, some like Daniel Louis Vezza and Santiago Angel are getting creative.
"Dan and I went to Coney Island, and realized there were a bunch of people hanging out with speakers. I was like, 'this is all we really need for a show.'" Angel told VICE.
Inspired by what they saw, the pair started Take It Outside Comedy, a roving show that's giving comedians and fans a way to scratch their itch for standup. The shows run in outdoor spaces around Brooklyn multiple times a week, in Fort Greene, Bed-Stuy, and Crown Heights. Angel and Vezza met while living in Berlin and being part of its comedy scene around 2015. During that time, Angel told VICE, the two got experience in how to "do things yourself." Before the spread of COVID-19, they co-produced recurring comedy shows in New York, but their latest endeavor is a bit more DIY. Angel, who has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and busked in New York, drew upon these experiences for the idea for Take It Outside.
Advertised mostly via Instagram, comedy fans must keep track of the upcoming Take It Outside show dates, and DM the account for the exact location (the organizers requested that the actual locations be withheld), which keeps crowd sizes down to dedicated fans.
Angel and Vezza are careful to take the appropriate precautions; the microphone is sanitized and covered between each comedian's set and they ask audience members to wear their masks, and it appears that for the most part, they do. Despite the low production value, and the price of admission (free, but donations for the comedians appreciated), you can see some regulars on New York's comedy scene coming out for these shows, with recent performances from Lindsay Theisen, Nimesh Patel, Sean Patton, Pete DeAbreau and more.
"Comics in general are always desperate to get stage time, so even if you run a bad show inside, comics will hit you up to be on it," Vezza said. To build the lineups, they reached out to friends and other comedians they'd worked with in the past, and Vezza said almost every New York comedian who didn't leave the city said yes to their request. The two hired photographer JT Anderson to shoot the shows, which has helped build buzz, and now comics are reaching out to get on a show.
Atheer Yacoub, another New York based comedian, described getting on stage for her first Take It Outside show "like coming back into my body after 4 months of crazy shit happening around the world."
She also described the return to performance as overwhelming.
"It felt like all the feelings at once. Nervousness, it almost feels like you're a beginner again," Yacoub said. "Standup is one of the rare art forms where after a week [off] you feel like you don't know how to do it anymore."
There are some quirks that come with producing outdoor comedy. For one, Angel said, is weather. "You book a show, and if you're trying to get better comics, you need to book a couple days in advance. I've never paid so much attention to weather apps in my life," he said.
"It's an outdoor space, you can't control the variables," Vezza said. "You can't kick someone out if they're being rowdy. It's everyone's space, you have to respect that." The Take It Outside shows started the same time fireworks were "going nuts," he said, with instances of a comedian's set being interrupted by 30 seconds of explosions.
Another challenge is that not everyone is using the space for a comedy show. Vezza recalled one time where a kid approached the performing comedian and gave them an elbow bump. These moments, Vezza said, are rare, but become part of the show.
"Just a bunch of kids showed up, and they ran up on stage. What are you gonna do? There's nothing you can do about that. I was hosting, and I was like, 'well, I don't know what to do about this.' And it got a laugh," Vezza said.
"To even find out about these shows, you have to be a fan of comedy," said Napoleon Emill. Emill is a Brooklyn-based comedian and has performed at two of the Take It Outside comedy shows.
"I try to be optimistic, I don't want this to turn into Shakespeare in the Park, where we can only do live comedy in the summer. That's the fear. If we don't get it together soon, we're doing these shows, but COVID still exists. So you gotta go out, check yourself, prep yourself before and after you get off stage," he said. After performing for the first time in months, Emill said he felt overwhelmed, both from being on stage and seeing his colleagues for the first time, wondering when he'd be able to do it again.
"If there's any optimism, it's that once fall comes in, we can go back inside. I wish I knew more of what's about to happen. I think that's across the board for everybody," he said. "This is a real game of patience right now."
Ian Fidance rode his bike to the last Bed-Stuy Take It Outside show, after performing at another outdoor comedy show in Central Park hosted by Stand Up NY. Two performances in one night made him feel "like a real comic again," he said.
Even though the comics might feel like they're still shaking the dust off after several months without performing in-person, the audience is enthusiastic and understanding. "It's like parents watching their kids play Tee-ball. They're just happy we showed up and we're trying."
"Everybody's guard is down in terms of wanting to be impressed," Fidance said. "If you're showing up to a free show outdoors and you're a dick? Nothing is ever going to impress you. Move back into your parent's house because the world is not meant for you."