In their first experience at a live comedy show, Kyle and Samantha Hunt learned a valuable lesson: Having the best table in the house comes with a catch.
Since the couple from North Branch, Minn., were seated closest to the stage, the improv performers at Stevie Ray's Comedy Cabaret incorporated them into their act, teasing them about everything from his bald head to how they met at an Applebee's.
The Hunts, who were celebrating their two-year anniversary, didn't seem to mind. They were just happy to be out of the house.
"We've mostly been playing board games and cribbage," Kyle said during intermission at a Friday show earlier this month. "She got sick of me beating her."
While most entertainment venues have been forced to shut their doors for more than a year, several local comedy clubs have managed to stay open, attracting people who might otherwise be buying tickets to rock concerts and theater shows.
Joe Harstad, who directs the improv shows at the Chanhassen-based Cabaret, said that before the pandemic about half of a typical audience had never been to an improv performance. These days, the number of newbies is closer to 85%.
"I think we're going to have a lot of new comedy fans coming out of this," he said.
It'll be some time before clubs can even dream about laughing all the way to the bank. Due to limited capacities — and caution about venturing out — comedians have often found themselves cracking jokes to only a couple of dozen people at a time.
Acme Comedy Co. reports that total sales for the first three months of 2021 are down 50% from that same time period a year ago, although numbers for the Minneapolis-based club have been steadily climbing since this past January, thanks in large part to groups coming out to celebrate birthdays.
Those in attendance have made up for their small numbers with big guffaws.
"We have more response from an audience of 20 than we used to have of 100 because they are so anxious for it," said Cabaret co-founder Stevie Ray. "Before the pandemic, people treated an evening of comedy as frosting on the cake. Now there's near desperation for a laugh."
Some attendees have been a little too enthusiastic
When clubs first reopened last year, servers had to work double time to satisfy drink orders. During his recent sold-out shows at the Mall of America's House of Comedy, Andrew Dice Clay spent more time trying to calm down rabid fans than telling dirty nursery rhymes.
"Everyone has lost their minds," said veteran comic Jessica Kirson. "It's like people have been in cages, and now they are out. There's just been more rowdiness. They are laughing a lot, but it's out of control."
Dealing with overly excited audience members is just one of the challenges comics face these days.
Acme general manager Derick Johnson said even veteran performers who have been on the sidelines for months are initially having trouble remembering the structures of jokes. Their first shows back on stage are often twice as long as they usually are as they work out the kinks.
"I'm still rusty," Rell Battle said after wrapping up a recent set at the House of Comedy. "I forgot how to do polished comedy. You have to relearn it."
Like most national headliners, Battle had stayed off the road for the past 14 months.
Others still aren't ready.
"I have a lot of anxiety about going back to the clubs," said stand-up Marina Franklin, whose recent battle with breast cancer was documented in the film "Hysterical," now streaming on Hulu. "I actually had to talk to a therapist about how to approach it, not just for the safety reasons, but also because for all of the emotion out there. We had a lot of racial tension this summer, and I'm not sure if I'm ready to hear white-guy comics make fun of it. And I'm not sure how I'm going to respond to it. My therapist told me, 'Just take it one step at a time. Maybe walk by the club. Maybe take a picture of the club first.' It's like baby steps."
Steve Hofstetter was also hesitant.
Whenever he thought about breaking away from his home base in Pittsburgh, he would notice a picture that a fellow comic would post online from a gig.
"In every one of them, someone was breaking the rules," he said. "In most of them, only 10 percent of the people were wearing masks. I wanted no part of that."
Hofstetter's concerns have subsided enough that he's organized a tour that will stop next month at the Parkway Theater, where he'll perform for no more than 100 people at a time.
During the slowdown, Hofstetter noticed that his social media followers rose from 200,000 to almost a million. However, when he gets to Minneapolis, there's a good chance the crowd will include fans who had never heard of him before the pandemic.
"I used to host a show on Fox. Maybe I've been recognized four times in my life because of that," he said. "But I can sit in an airport, and I'll have several people tell me they watched me on YouTube and Facebook. Social media is where 90 to 95 percent of my audience comes from."
Steffan Musoke, 23, spent so much time watching stand-up on Netflix this past year that he decided to see live comedy for the first time. He checked out Andy Haynes at Acme last month with his girlfriend, whom he started dating during the early days of the pandemic.
"We don't know what it's like to be out on a date without masks," he said.
After the show, Musoke was certain he'd be back.
"It's a lot more interesting when there's interaction," he said.
Musoke should have more opportunities to get his comedy fix in the upcoming months as more headliners start booking dates.
They're just as eager as the rest of us for things to get back to normal. And maybe more so.
"I want to go back out to clubs," said Sherri Shepherd, former co-host of "The View," who has been feeding her desire to perform with Zoom shows and parking-lot concerts in Los Angeles. "I'm going crazy not being on that stage and being able to talk about the fact that I want my 15-year-old out of the house. I need to talk about that."