For months, New York’s stand-up comedians have been deprived of what they love the most: taking the stage of a dingy comedy club, grabbing the microphone off the stand and staring out at a sea of people whose laughter has the power to determine their own self-worth.
During the months of the coronavirus pandemic, all of this became obsolete, leaving comics to try out their new material on video or in outdoor settings, as Dave Chappelle did in a newly released special.
But some performers in New York are fed up with the situation, and at least one club in Manhattan is welcoming them back in.
Despite current rules limiting bars and clubs from opening to the public, the live comedy club Stand Up NY on the Upper West Side held an invite-only show for professional comics on Wednesday night. The club was not exactly sneaky about it. Outside, there was a sandwich board with the words “illegal comedy” and an arrow pointing inside.
Dani Zoldan, a co-owner of the club, said he felt that it was time to start opening gradually so that comedians could work on the material that had been percolating over the months of lockdown.
“I’ve enjoyed the pause, but now I’m getting antsy and a lot of comics are, too,” Zoldan said. “They just want to get onstage again.”
At Stand Up NY’s first indoor mic, on Wednesday, about a dozen of those antsy comics entered the club on West 78th Street. “They wore masks but were all hugging each other!” said Chloe LaBranche, a comedian who first had the idea for the event. Zoldan had gathered her and other comedian friends at a park in the West Village when LaBranche asked, Why not move this into your club?
The show was deliberately not publicized, so the audience members were the comedians themselves. The club welcomed in a passer-by, and a few curious neighbors walked in.
The first comic was Usama Siddiquee, who, like many of the stand-ups there, hadn’t performed a live set since March. Siddiquee adjusted his mask around his chin so that people could see his expressions and got up onstage, where Zoldan had placed hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes and five microphones to minimize germ sharing.
“I felt so happy to have my voice amplified through a microphone that I just started screaming,” Siddiquee recalled.
About then, a woman the comedians didn’t know walked in, and Siddiquee found himself doing a strange kind of crowd work with just one person. When she explained that she herself wasn’t a comic, the entire room of comedians burst into cheers.
Everyone was thrilled to see a “real” audience member.
From about 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. the comedians performed, hung around and celebrated a real flesh-and-blood audience.
At the same time, for comics used to doing multiple shows a night before the pandemic shut everything down, returning to live sets felt slightly off-putting.
“You don’t remember your act — it’s like you haven’t been to CrossFit in a while and you suddenly pick up a weight,” said Brian Scott McFadden, who performed on Wednesday.
Technically, the show itself was illicit, and the comedians knew it. The city is only in the first stage of reopening, which means that construction workers are back on the job, manufacturing sites have opened again and retailers can provide curbside pickup. New Yorkers have been standing outside bars with drinks in hand, but it will probably be a while before restaurants and other spots allow indoor activities. Theaters will take even longer to open.
A spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Health said that the governor’s executive order allowing gatherings of up to 10 people “for any lawful purpose or reason” anywhere in the state did not apply to comedy clubs but that the department was reviewing the timing of reopening for those sites.
Zoldan said he felt it wasn’t clear where comedy clubs fell within those guidelines. He plans to continue to do small, invite-only mics with professional or amateur comics four days a week. In mid-July, at the earliest, he expects to be able to invite about 25 audience members. And in January, if everything goes well, he hopes he can start selling out shows again.
Zoldan, who has co-owned the club for more than a decade, was aware of the risks of putting on his first indoor evening of the pandemic: the police could shut down the show or he could have been subject to a fine.
“I’m just doing it the way I want to do it — and responsibly,” he said.
Comedians in the city have been finding other creative ways to work on their material as the numbers of coronavirus cases and death have slowed in recent weeks. LaBranche, who hosted Wednesday’s show, performed at a drive-in comedy event in Queens where audience members flashed their headlights as a stand-in for laughter.
And on May 31, Stand Up NY sponsored a show on the sidewalk and parking spaces on West 78th Street, using a pickup truck bed as a stage. Police officers showed up toward the beginning of the show, then left without doing anything, Zoldan said. But toward the end, they returned to shut down the show (which might have had something to do with a woman complaining from her apartment window, he said).
The comedian Gianmarco Soresi was on the truck bed holding the mic when the police returned, about a minute into his set.
“I had opened with a joke that crushed on Zoom and bombed in real life, which is my nightmare,” he said.
But that’s when the police sent the audience home, leaving Soresi wondering if he had actually bombed. Regardless, he was ready to get onstage and try his “dad joke” again. (It went something like this: “I tried going on a Zoom date but there was no connection.”)
He laughed, “You’ve got to start up somewhere.”