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Comedy Clubs and Schools Confront an All-Too-Serious Future

Flappers Comedy Club
Courtesy of Flappers Comedy

Upright Citizens Brigade permanently shuttered its New York City theater and training center April 21, another economic victim of the ongoing coronavirus crisis that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and put millions of Americans in unemployment lines as businesses keep their doors closed. From New York to Florida to Los Angeles, comedy clubs and schools across the country have been grappling with how to survive. With live events ceasing to exist and the timeline for reopening local economies deeply uncertain, those that want to make it in a post-coronavirus world are being forced to reinvent.

Flappers Comedy Club in Burbank, Calif., for example, has begun offering virtual shows and online comedy classes. The 10-year-old venue, built on a former Macaroni Grill, operates a full-service restaurant that has transitioned to offering takeout and grocery delivery in order to get by. Instead of welcoming crowds for comedy shows, it now offers pickup and delivery of pizza, pasta and industrial-size rolls of toilet paper. Still, that’s not enough to stay afloat.

An “enormous, enormous amount of time and effort” has been spent applying for several small business loans, says Flappers co-owner Dave Reinitz. He has pored over the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to figure out the nuances of the Paycheck Protection Program, which offers forgivable loans to small businesses to keep their employees on payroll. Reinitz and co-owner Barbara Holliday are frustrated with what they characterize as a complicated process that has not yet yielded a check.

“When I’m sitting in my living room, having just gotten off the phone with my Wells Fargo banker telling me he has no honest idea what the hell is going on with the PP program or when we can expect to have our application looked at, and I’m watching the president tell everybody in a press conference that the money’s flowing — that is a surreal reality,” says Reinitz. “It’s a reminder that the only thing that’s real are the people around you and your ability to help them and receive the help that you need.” 

Noam Dworman, owner of New York’s Comedy Cellar, echoed Reinitz’s frustration with the PPP. The way the program is set up, Dworman says, the loans could expire before clubs are able to reopen, “meaning that we would not get any forgivable loans at all.” Loan applications are being processed through the end of June, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

“The businesses that never closed will get two months of free payroll and expenses, and those forced to close might only get further into debt,” says Dworman.

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Flappers’ server staff (left) includes Jeff Helligar (right), who has worked at the club since 2010. Courtesy of Flappers Comedy

Flappers has been forced to lay off 40 of its 51 employees — “a hard thing to do,” says Reinitz — though he and Holliday are supplying those staffers with $200 gift certificates every month and half-off discounts to shop for groceries and supplies. They have also started a “gift-a-meal” program, soliciting donations for comedians who need food and groceries. 

“We’re juggling money,” says Holliday. “We’re balancing. We’re taking money from one credit card and putting it on a lower-interest credit card, and then we’re borrowing there and putting money in and making measly amounts every day. But I cannot say enough about our staff. I want to cry, because it’s one thing for the owners to not make money and to work because it’s our business. But our core staff has done the same thing.” 

Meanwhile, for the first time in its 45-year history, Groundlings Theatre & School, in response to the shutdown, is offering online classes. Trying to refine the logistics of teaching improv — a physical medium — through a digital buffer has taken some work.

“So much of it is about energy and contact and listening, and Zoom is limited in how it can succeed in those places,” says Groundlings managing director Heather de Michele. “But we’re learning, and some teachers are coming up with some really great tools to help further the urgency of some of the rules of improv.”

One upside to the new format is that it has attracted out-of-town students in Denver, Houston and Chicago, and even as far away as Germany and Australia. More than 400 students have enrolled in Groundlings’ online classes over the past three weeks. 

“We hope to continue when we reopen,” de Michele says. “We hope to continue to be able to offer some of these more successful online formats to the outside-Los Angeles community, which would be a great win at the end of all of this for us.”

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Joshua Snyder, Flappers’ booker since 2009, with co-owner Barbara Holliday. Courtesy of Flappers Comedy

For most comedy clubs though, online offerings are not as easy. Given the plethora of social platforms available, comedians can find success putting up content online from home for the time being. 

“Normally we provide a top-notch physical space and a live audience,” Dworman says. “I don’t think we have much value to them now.” 

But some venues are making a go of it. The Comedy Store in Los Angeles staged an online benefit show on April 21 to raise money for the club’s employees and comedians. It featured several major stars, including Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr, Whitney Cummings and Chris D’Elia. 

The shutdown is also affecting the filming of comedy specials, such as Netflix Is a Joke Fest, which was scrapped in mid-March as California began instituting its shelter-in-place order. The weeklong comedy festival was set to feature more than 100 live events at venues across Los Angeles, with many of those to be filmed for future Netflix specials. 

For club owners, figuring out how to get back in gear remains abstract, given that it’s hard to tell when the world will reopen for business. The survival of these comedy clubs and schools will largely depend on how much longer the shutdowns continue, and how willing audiences will be to return to confined, crowded spaces for entertainment. 

“I think people are going to tread lightly for a while,” says de Michele. When Groundlings throws open its doors again, its leaders are floating the idea of selling only 50 tickets at a time to their 100-person theater, so that audience members can be more socially distanced.

Dworman adds, “I don’t expect long-term consequences to comedy. The Spanish flu was followed by the Roaring ’20s. But that won’t happen until, in whatever way it happens — be it effective therapies, instant testing, more precise risk data, a vaccine or any combination thereof — people feel basically safe going out again.”

Bonkerz owner Joe Sanfelippo produces comedy shows in about 20 resorts, casinos and other venues across eight states: Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. His roster of regular comics runs upwards of 400. For him, the question of reopening involves a web of decision-making that will not only have to factor in the policies set forth by the various counties, states and Native American sovereign nations in which Bonkerz operates, but the widely ranging sizes of each venue.

Like his peers, Sanfelippo is considering spacing out show attendees. But that may not be economically viable if he can allow in only 100 guests in a space that requires him to sell 150 tickets to break even. At the Margaritaville Resort in Orlando, located next to Walt Disney World, Sanfelippo is looking to move the usual Bonkerz performances to one of the larger banquet halls that would have housed a now-canceled event.

“If the state of Florida sticks with what they’re saying right now, we would reopen Memorial Day weekend and move the 200-seat [show] into an 800-seat venue, but still only book 200 seats,” he says. “We’re also talking about getting non-invasive thermometers and taking people’s temperatures at the door and having them sign a waiver. It sounds crazy, but what do you do? We don’t even really know. It’s going to be trial and error.”

Sanfelippo, like Dworman, Reinitz and Holliday, has applied to the PPP, though he too has not received any money yet. He has put some staff on half-pay and is buying them groceries and offering other support.

For many of these businesses, the lack of clarity around when they can rev up their show schedules again is the toughest part. 

“We have money put away for a rainy day, but the rainy day can’t be a rainy year,” says Sanfelippo. “The gray area is not knowing. Once you know, you can plan. And if [the reopen date moves] farther away, then you have to sit down with the employees and figure out a way to keep them with you when you’re not able to pay them a lot of money.” 

Moreover, there’s no telling how long-lasting of an impact this will have on the careers of stand-up comedians working the club circuit — or for up-and-comers who need an opportunity to break onto the scene. Working 40 weeks a year would mark a solid schedule for a stand-up, says Sanfelippo. Assuming that venues and audiences return at half strength, that would translate to less work for comics.

“It’s gonna be really hard to get somewhere to go up [to perform],” he says. “And if you can’t go up, you can’t get better.”