Caleb McEwen had done well over 100 productions from the Brave New Workshop stage, but his one-man show last Saturday was one for the books.
“This is sure to be the weirdest performance I’ve ever been involved in,” said the comedy troupe’s artistic director, facing completely empty seats in the downtown Minneapolis club. His only companion: a cameraman beaming the one-hour routine to nearly 2,000 home viewers, desperate for snickers in solitude.
“It was the antithesis of everything I’ve done in my professional career,” McEwen said two days later by phone. “It takes an awful lot of energy to maintain your energy when there’s no one there to support it.”
McEwen is one of many comics, local favorites and nationally known names, trying to keep the laughs going during the Big Lockdown.
“I am not a scientist, I am not a health professional. I am a clown,” said former Minneapolis-based comedian Jackie Kashian, who now works out of Los Angeles. “I can do my job, which is hopefully to keep people up, to cheer people up a little bit.”
Kashian recently did a private show on Zoom for a fan who she’d connected with four years ago through Snapchat. Now she’s working on a set for a woman’s 85th birthday.
“It’s a whole new market,” said Kashian, who is also keeping busy with her podcasts, “The Jackie and Laurie Show” and “The Dork Forest.” This week, she did a benefit for a Canadian teen mental-health facility via Zoom.
Local comic Ali Sultan has started the “Virtual Distancing Live Comedy Hour,” a show that simulates a regular night at a club. His weekday shows on Instagram work much like open-mic nights, with his peers testing out new material. Saturday’s programs on Zoom are a bit more polished. The one last weekend raised $200 in donations, which Sultan shared with the three other performers.
“It gives me a sense of purpose again,” said Sultan, who has attracted between 40 and 100 people for each program. “I can now fill my schedule with a routine that’s meaningful to me.”
Sultan is learning to adjust to the new approach, experimenting with what works and what doesn’t when you can’t play off an audience’s response.
“If you’re a one-liner guy, or one who builds tension and then defuses it, it’s going to be super-awkward,” he said. “Those are good forms of comedy, but they’re hard to do in this format.”
Sultan and his guests lean more on storytelling, the same approach McEwen took in his Brave New Workshop show, in which he shared tales of near-death experiences while working on a cruise ship and visiting Tijuana with friends.
Sultan came up with his “Virtual Distancing” show just before venues started closing and a fellow comic told him that he was heading out to an open mic. Sultan urged him not to go. “But I really need this,” the other comic said. “I really need an outlet for my anxiety.”
Babs Gray, an L.A.-based comic, discovered just how much comics were hungry for “stage time” when she co-founded Comedy Quarantine, a virtual comedy club open every weekday night. More than 40 stand-ups signed up for the first show, which lasted 3 ½ hours.
“[Comedian] Chris Garcia was talking about how he started crying afterward — because he felt like comedy brings everyone together,” she said.
For the first show, the comics raised around $1,000 for Ground Game L.A., a nonprofit helping with community relief during the coronavirus pandemic. Now viewers are encouraged to tip the comedians via Venmo. Gray is hoping to get $20 per comic, which she said is more than most in-person shows in L.A. pay.
Late-night hosts are also trying to do their part to lift people’s spirits.
“The Daily Show” returned this past Monday with Trevor Noah working from the couch in his apartment.
Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon have been doing mini-shows from their homes, recruiting family members to do everything from operating the camera to playing sidekick.
“Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” returned on Wednesday with Bee’s husband, Jason Jones, filming the episode from their home.
“Doctors, nurses and grocery store clerks are fighting on the front lines, and the least the rest of us can do is stay home,” Bee said in a statement. “Even if that means my husband just became both my cameraman and makeup artist.”
“The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” will return Monday, as will “Conan,” with Conan O’Brien hosting from home. The Team Coco production staff also will be working from their homes.
“Our first priority is the health and well-being of everyone in the Team Coco family,” executive producer Jeff Ross said in a statement. “Our second priority is to try and find a way that we can do our jobs safely, from home, and contribute some entertainment for our fans out there who may be hungry for silly distraction.”
L.A.-based comedian Jenny Lorenzo has been making videos featuring seven female Latina characters dealing with quarantine and the coronavirus. In her first corona-video and the last one made with a full crew, her character of Abuela showed up armed with Vicks VapoRub, a topical cough and congestion medicine that’s super-popular in the Latinx community.
Now that she’s locked in, she’s focusing on going live with her personas. She anticipates the next two months being busier than ever.
“Shirley Temple got people through the Great Depression,” said Lorenzo. “She’s before my time, but it’s like that.”
Other comics are struggling to find an audience — and a way to pay the bills. Acme Comedy Club hosted a fundraiser for local comedians not eligible for unemployment benefits.
Club owner Louis Lee said that even when he’s allowed to open again, he will limit capacity to 30-40% so customers can distance themselves from one another. That means only 75 people in a venue that can normally accommodate 275.
If other clubs follow suit, he predicts, up to a third of them across the country are “doomed.”
“If you have a dramatic decrease in income, how long can you last?” he said.
Despite the bleak future, comics aren’t about to stop practicing their craft.
“In times like this, you can be the worst version of yourself or the best version. It’s time to step up,” Sultan said. “It’s swim or die time. That’s the way comedy has always been. You have to adjust.”