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How Will New York’s Standup Scene Weather the Winter?

Gerard Zarra’s short film “Is New York Comedy Dead” explores how comics and club owners in New York City are trying to survive the coronavirus pandemic.

These past several months haven’t exactly been the greatest time for laughter. In the presence of widespread illness, death, and despair brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, mirth has been perforce muted, though comedy has been made scarce for more practical reasons, too. In New York, in March, at the pandemic’s onset, comedy clubs were shut down after Governor Andrew Cuomo decreed them, along with many other businesses, nonessential. Restaurants and bars have since been allowed to reopen, albeit under stringent restrictions, but comedy clubs have remained closed. (In late October, a number of them sued city and state officials, arguing that the continuing closure was arbitrary.) In Gerard Zarra’s short film “Is New York Comedy Dead,” Rebecca Trent, the owner of the Queens comedy club the Creek & the Cave, says, “Every club in New York City is fucked.”

And, yet, laughter—or, at least, comics’ onstage attempts to solicit it—always tries to find a way. Although many members of the comedy community have moved the bulk of their activity online—making jokes on Twitter, going live on Instagram, streaming standup sets on Zoom, even hawking personalized videos on the celebrity-shout-out app Cameo—others have continued, against all odds, to hold fast to real-life comedy, with some club owners, as Trent says of herself, “trying to preserve this business while this madness unfolds.” The ad-hoc setups sometimes have their own dark humor. We see Trent keeping a washer-and-dryer unit on the empty stage of her darkened club, while she tries to keep shows going outside, in a parking lot; there, the comic Shane Torres delivers jokes from the bed of a truck, cracking that he has “another set at a hot-dog cart in Central Park.” A show outside the Stand, a Manhattan restaurant and comedy venue with an outdoor area abutting a Citi Bike dock, gains popularity with cyclists who, when returning or picking up their rentals, sit astride the now-stationary bicycles and catch two or three comedy sets at a time.

The situation, in other words, is one part absurd and two parts rickety—“It’s outdoor comedy. There’s no fucking logic to it,” one comic says. “It’s not supposed to be out here!”—and the comedians who have found themselves performing under these new conditions feel this precarity keenly. “I’ve never felt less essential in my life,” the comedian Maddy Smith says, while a second comic, Ian Fidance, mutters, “Nothing will make you feel less essential than them rolling out the different phases and your line of work is not even in a phase.” These words, all lightly articulated, gesture, however, at the serious heart of the matter at hand: the lack of support for businesses that, unable to operate at regular capacity, find themselves forced to survive the pandemic on their wits alone, if they manage to survive it at all. As the days grow colder, and the possibility of staging performances outdoors wanes, the chance that these businesses and the comedians whose careers depend on them continue to endure grows ever slimmer. “The little theatres need some sort of government grant in order to survive the winter,” Trent says. “And we wouldn’t be asking, you know, if we were able to open. But we won’t be.” Meanwhile, in one of the performances on his truck, Torres joked, with a hint of bite, “Seinfeld started certain places, too. Maybe I’ll write an Op-Ed about how New York is great—when I have a billion dollars.”



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