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London Hughes, Chelsea Handler Reflect on Filming Stand-Up Specials Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

London Hughes Stand Up
Courtesy of Greg Gayne/Netflix

The pandemic brought TV and film production to a screeching halt last spring, and even when it restarted, it put the kibosh on live audiences for a while. For stand-up comedians from Kevin Hart to Chelsea Handler, figuring out how to make people laugh — safely — in the middle of one of the toughest years in modern history was a feat unto itself.

British comedian London Hughes moved to the U.S. in February 2020 with big plans to film a Netflix special the following month, before the pandemic brought all of that to a screeching halt. By the time she finally got the call that her special, “London Hughes: To Catch a D*ck,” had an October shoot date, she had gone nearly the entire year without telling a joke on a stage.

“I’ve gone through this life-changing experience. I’ve moved to a whole new country. I haven’t told a joke [since January], and I’m expected to do this special in a month,” Hughes recalls.

Hart, the producer behind Hughes’ special, had crafted and released his own special during the pandemic, “Zero F*cks Given,” which was filmed at his home in Los Angeles. He set up Hughes at a hotel where he had been practicing his own set for a tiny, socially distanced crowd made up of hotel guests. The rest of it came together frantically: she ran through her set just twice. She didn’t have a stylist, hair or makeup artists booked until the day before her performance.

Built to look like an indoor stage, Hughes’ location was actually an open-air venue at Universal Studios. (Police choppers overhead interrupted her set several times.) Audience members were tested for COVID-19 and seated at spaced tables equipped with microphones and lights.

“I’m so glad, because that’s the only way I could hear the crowd laughing,” says Hughes, who typically performs her shows in an intimate, party-like setting. “The venue was so huge and everybody had masks on; without those microphones, I wouldn’t even be able to tell if they were enjoying themselves. I just saw shoulders and eyes.”

Nevertheless, she could feel the crowd’s energy. “I could tell the audience [was] really pumped for a comedy show because they went through all of that just to get there. I hope I gave them a good time.”

Handler’s plans to film her next special, “Chelsea Handler: Evolution,” which she had sold to HBO Max around December 2019, were also waylaid by the pandemic. She and her team decided to film on the rooftop of the Central Railroad of New Jersey, a station through which immigrants from Ellis Island once traveled through. It was important to Handler to go back East to film the special, which felt like a “homecoming” of sorts.

Workshopping stand-up material in summer 2020 meant going to comedy clubs in Providence, R.I., and at the Stress Factory in New Brunswick, N.J, which were open at reduced capacity. Handler, who hadn’t performed in a comedy club in years, called it “a very humbling experience that I welcomed because it was very good for me.”

“Funnily enough, they weren’t clicking in those environments,” Handler says. “It was very off. The energy was wrong all the time. We are in such a tricky time.”

“Evolution” is a very personal show, through which Handler weaves her therapy breakthroughs and talks about the death of her brother. With spartan crowds, she had to stick to the material she developed instead of fine-tuning based on the audience reaction. When filming the special, there was a “tension in the air.” On-set crew were masked and zoned, and audience members took multiple COVID-19 tests.

But the emotionally charged setting was also cathartic for many. “People were so relieved to be out, some people were out but so scared to be out, and then having a night like that, when there hadn’t been many nights like that yet, was a very special experience,” Handler says.