Kelechi Jaavaid was losing his cool. The usually unflappable stand-up got so annoyed with three drunks who kept interrupting his Saturday night set at Bob's Comedy Bunker that he broke from his routine to deliver a few stern words about club etiquette.
The lecture had about as much impact as a bottle of O'Doul's.
Still, a rude crowd — if you can call 10 people a crowd — is better than none at all.
"I missed the stage tremendously," said Jaavaid, peeling off his gloves at a table in the club, which is hidden in the basement of Welsch's Big Ten Tavern in Arden Hills. "I'm so used to having human contact."
While music and theater venues remain shuttered, spots like the Bunker are cracking open the door.
"Production for a comedian is so much simpler than it is for a five-piece band," said Rick Bronson, owner of the Mall of America's House of Comedy, which relaunched last Friday to 33 paying fans. "At the end of the day, all you need is a PA and a working microphone. Plus, there's this incentive. When people are this sad and heartbroken, there's a need for comedy."
Not that any of the clubs expect to rake in money. The House of Comedy, like most of its competitors, is capping attendance at about a quarter of normal capacity. At the Bunker, host Bob DeMaris waited nearly 90 minutes for the first patron to show up.
"I don't expect to make money until we see a treatment or a vaccine. That's probably when we'll have full houses again," Bronson said. "The goal right now is to break even."
Clubs will also cut costs by relying mostly on local comics for the foreseeable future, forgoing the expense of flying nationally known names into town. Besides, it's uncertain just how many performers are willing to get on a plane.
'No room for error'
Some die-hard fans are a lot less concerned about venturing out.
At local clubs last weekend, it was all too easy to mingle with spectators more interested in getting their beer goggles on than donning face masks.
"You get cabin fever," said ticket buyer Buzz Richardson while stepping outside the Arden Hills bar to have a cigarette in the parking lot. "With everything going on, you just need some laughs."
Richardson, who works in the demolition business, was so unconcerned about picking up the coronavirus that he was hugging strangers between sets.
Most comics were more cautious.
The Comedy Bunker's headliner, Eugene Meaux, spent a whole minute wiping down the microphone and its stand before telling a single joke. At the Mall, emcee Ashli Henderson sprayed down the stage with disinfectant between each act.
"We've got to do it like the strip clubs," said the high-energy comic, sporting a "We Can't Breathe" T-shirt on stage.
Acme Comedy Club, which opened up this week with headliner Greg Coleman, has installed floor markings so people waiting in line don't stand too close together. Reservations are required ahead of time to limit the amount of face time with box-office staff. Hand-sanitizing stations have been added.
"There is no room for error," said Derick Johnson, general manager for the nationally recognized Minneapolis comedy institution. "We wanted to make sure all of the work we put into this place the last three months will not go unnoticed."
Bob Edwards, who runs the Comedy Corner Underground in Minneapolis, is insistent that spectators bring masks.
"Do it out of respect for the staff who are trying to find a way to get back to working without putting themselves in extreme risk," said Edwards, who is making sure comics don't share microphones. "I don't want to go back to normal and I don't think any of the artists coming to the club are seeking that. I think we're all trying to find a new normal, a better normal, whatever the hell that means."
Sense of relief
Shows this weekend at the Comedy Corner featuring Bryan Miller and Emily Galati are already sold out, which right now means only 26 people in the audience.
But for comics hungry to get live reactions, that number might as well be 2,600.
You could sense the relief they were feeling last Friday and Saturday while testing out new material, even when their lines only elicited a few polite chuckles.
"I selfishly needed to get out," said Wendy Maybury, who is itching to promote her debut album, which comes out at the end of this month. "Have you had your emotional breakdown today? I started crying at 10 this morning and couldn't stop."
Maybury and many of her peers spent a good chunk of the quarantine doing streaming shows from their living rooms and accepting invites to backyard barbecues, where they performed for tips and hot dogs.
It wasn't the same — but there were teachable moments.
"It's hard to make 10 people laugh in someone's backyard," said Ahmed Khalaf, hanging out at the House of Comedy bar before his set. "I learned how to bomb better. It was educational."
Few performers seemed more delighted to be in front of an audience again than Fancy Ray McCloney, who bills himself as the Best-Looking Man in Comedy. During his set at the Bunker, one of the drunks who would later rattle Jaavaid yanked $50 out of his pocket, promising it to the comic if he would stay on stage just a bit longer.
McCloney gingerly accepted it.
"I'm going to donate this to one of my favorite causes," he said, slipping the cash into his pocket. "Myself."