The Comedy Time Capsule: Documenting Comedy Through COVID-19

On Sunday March 15, 2020 Alameda County in California began to phase in a quarantine by ordering all bars and restaurants to close by 9:00 that night. LuckiIy was able to squeeze in one more show that was booked in the early evening at a brewery in Fremont. A little over one week earlier I purchased a journal where I was going to record and reflect on every set I would have in 2020 in an attempt to be more intentional about my comedy and focus on becoming better. A couple weeks earlier I had just celebrated my tenth year in stand up comedy and my memoir, Stutterer Interrupted: The Comedian Who Almost Didn’t Happen, came out in 2019. With this behind me my goal was to focus on comedy. On the cover of the pink journal that was embossed with “2020/2021” I wrote in a black bold sharpie “365 Reasons To Quit Comedy.” After a decade in comedy and as a life long fan of stand up, I know that every time you are on stage there is something that can happen in yourself or in the audience to make you want to flee. Most people would, but if you love comedy it is like you have the opposite of learned helplessness – you fail yet still persist and you don’t always know why.  My plan was to document each time I went up and every show I attended as an audience member.

My first entry in the book was Tuesday March 3 when I attended the album release for Larry “Bubbles” Brown at the Throckmorton in Mill Valley. That first week I would question why I hated certain open mics, how my new “long vagina” jokes worked with an all female audience and observed that I could make the audience call-and-respond to my new “gluten free communion joke.” All in all it was a successful week of comedy.  My Uncle Fred’s funeral was also that week as he had passed away in the hospital the week before surrounded by his family. The funeral was held at the church with family, friends and the Italian Catholic Federation all in attendance.  Although my dad was there, my mom wasn’t. She has all kinds of lung issues and was recently diagnosed with squamous lung cancer. Although she does not have many symptoms of cancer, we all thought it was better that she stay at home so that she didn’t catch this new sickness that was going around. Naturally after the service, we all left the church to celebrate his life at my aunt’s favorite restaurant. Who knew that Uncle Fred’s timing was so perfect. He was able to have his family at his bedside and full service (which he would have loved), something that might not have happened a week or two later.

The week of March 8 (Sunday) I went to a few mics but there were warnings about holding events. Shows started to get cancelled.  Upon getting on stage I would bring wipes and wipe down the mic before doing my set. The Blue Lagoon in Santa Cruz had already thought of this and sanitized the mic between each comedian on March 12 when I performed. That week at the Punch Line in Sacramento, one of my favorite all time comedians, Emo Philips, was performing. Knowing that this might be my last chance to see live comedy that didn’t involve me, I traveled the 200 miles round trip to see what would be my last club show. I have been a fan of Emo since I was in middle school. The first fan letter I ever wrote was to him and I still have the autograph picture along with multiple phone camera photos from previous shows. That night in my journal I wrote a couple favorite jokes that he had including this one:

“Me and the other two comics are like the 3 Muskateers..because we prosecute French Prostitutes.”

I also remarked in the entry that Emo did not greet his fans as he normally did. He said that he could not because he is 64 and in that age group who had to be careful of the Corona virus. Although he added he wasn’t “heat wave old.” I stayed for both shows and messaged Emo on Twitter that I appreciated him coming and how funny he was.

Then the next day that was it. I did my set in front of 15 or so people at a brewery and then after less than 10 times on stage to enter in my journal I am forced to quit comedy. When I wrote this, it is May 23 and my journal that I vowed to write after every set is bare.

What has been happening since the quarantine….

Once the quarantine started I attempted to quickly regroup. My intention with the journal was to continue to improve myself as an artist of stand up comedy. Without a live audience I doubted that this could happen but I looked at other avenues. Since then I have done a few open mics and showcases online and started a “show and tell” style show with my co-host and friend Mean Dave. All of it made me wonder where comedy was going for myself and the United States. As I broadened my perspective, I saw that people from all over the world were all experiencing the same phenomenon…fear of disease and dealing with the isolation of a quarantine. I started doing research on how humor was changed after other pandemics but could not easily find research on the topic.

Stand up comedy is in its infancy when compared to other art forms (maybe even in it embryonic stages!). There are paintings on walls that date back before Christ but what about a person on a stage telling jokes as an art form? Some might say court jesters or vaudeville could be the origins, but as far as I am concerned stand up comedy didn’t start until the late 1950s/1960s with comedians like Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory. They changed how comedy was delivered and received. And since the birth of modern stand up comedy, we have not had a pandemic that impacted the general population. As a life long comedy nerd I saw a need (and an obsession) to document what was happening.

That is how I came up with the Comedy Time Capsule where I interview comedians about their experiences pre-COVID, during COVID and what changes they predict will happen. Collecting their oral histories has been fascinating for me. Some of the questions have included:

•Can you do stand up comedy on Zoom and other internet platforms?  Do you need a live audience?

•How do you know you are doing well if you are doing an online show?

•How will our profession and art form change once we are able to do live comedy in person again?

•Will the sensibilities of humor change because we are collectively facing more fears of sickeness, actual sickness, death and interruptions of the traditional grieving process (due to lack of death rituals)? Will our humor get darker?

•What has the impact of the quarantine been on creativity?

•For newbies, what is it like to have your first year of comedy hijacked by a pandemic?

As I have been interviewing comedians, their own personal histories come to the foreground and COVID and the quarantine seem to play a less significant role. Everyone has a story and the Comedy Time Capsule is capturing exactly this.

I am up to over 1000 minutes of interviews at the time I write this and plan to document this experience until I can go out night after night telling jokes at dive bars, comedy clubs, colleges and whoever else will have me. I long to get onto a stage. I miss being around smart, funny and often strange people who occupy the stand up comedy world. Until then I am grateful that they lend me their stories.

All interviews will be posted at http://www.ComedyTimeCapsule.com.  “Virtual Tips” are greatly appreciate to support the captioning and editing of videos on Venom: @NinaGcomedian (look for the Doggie Diner head)!

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