Just a few short weeks after being told comedy clubs could open once again, Khadijah Cooper was onstage in front of a sold-out crowd at The Comedy Corner Underground. But it didn’t quite look the same as it used to.
“The room seats like 70, so the new capacity is like 30,” she explains of the club’s new, post-quarantine layout. “They took out the chairs, wipe down the mics between the comics, there’s no green room because it’s such a small space. But it still feels good to be like, ‘I’m selling out shows!’ even with all those changes.”
From smaller clubs like Comedy Corner Underground and Sisyphus Brewing, to marquee locations like Acme Comedy Co. and House of Comedy, COVID-19 has forced clubs, comics, and audiences to change the way they approach stand-up.
When Minnesota gave the green light for bars and clubs to reopen last month, there were strict guidelines set down in regards to capacity, masks, and other protections designed to keep everyone safe. At many clubs, audience members are only allowed to sit with their own small groups, as opposed to mixing in with the crowd, and with Governor Walz’s executive order going into effect on Saturday, masks will now be mandatory for all audience members and staff inside clubs. Meanwhile, other clubs are finding ways to turn a negative into a positive.
Even before reopening, Acme Comedy Co. decided to convert the club into a performance space and production studio hybrid, allowing audiences to watch their favorite comics perform over Zoom in a slick, polished set-up that feels more like watching a Netflix special than a grainy FaceTime video. Now that the club has reopened (with a capacity of 75 audience members per show), they have continued to offer Zoom tickets for people who want to catch a show, but aren’t quite ready to step foot inside of a club just yet.
While in “normal” times before coronavirus, on any given night you could see a number of national comedy acts performing in clubs and theaters all over town. With the change in travel restrictions and the financial hit that all clubs have been forced to take in order to reopen, right now the focus is mostly about what’s happening here at home.
Bob Edwards, who runs The Comedy Corner Underground, says that his motivation for reopening the club was in support of local comics.
“The local comics are stretched a little thin financially right now for the same reasons that everyone else is,” Edwards explains. “We wanted to help get some money into their hands as soon as we could.”
Local names like Kjell Bjorgen, Maggie Faris, and Greg Coleman have served as headliners at Acme and Camp Bar, while House of Comedy (the only national comedy chain in the state) has been offering a mix of local showcases, like the monthly “Day Drinking with Mom” shows with Wendy Maybury and Karen Pickering, along with national headliners like Shane Gillis and Chris Franjola who are both scheduled to come to town in August.
For Edwards, he is also mindful of the time and effort it takes to bring in an out-of-town performer, and the potential payout he can offer in exchange.
“I don’t think it’s worth the money for comics to drive here for a 26-seat show,” Edwards says. “So from our side we’re planning to pivot in August or September to allow some headliners from out of town to come perform. But to me, encouraging people from higher-risk places to travel further and further makes less and less sense, so we might book someone from like Chicago or Omaha to start.”
For the local comics, like Cooper, just having the ability to get back on stage has been a welcome return to some sort of normalcy.
“I’m only in my third year of comedy, so when everything shut down I was like, ‘Well, there goes my comedy career,’” she says. “But the good thing that has come out of this is that local talent is getting more opportunity for shows at bigger places. I got to do six shows right out of the gate at House of Comedy with a lot of other local comics who I love, so it’s nice to see us getting to put our stakes in the ground again.”
As for the future of comedy clubs, much like the rest of the world, everything is day-to-day. However, more comedy shows are being added every week, and open mic nights have started up once again, as comics and audiences get more comfortable with the idea of stand-up comedy in times of COVID-19.
“I feel like comedy clubs are among the safer places for people because it keeps people a little bit more isolated,” says Edwards. “Comedy clubs have a single point of entry, you get brought to your seat by someone who can tell you the rules, people are seated six feet apart and once they’re seated they aren’t going to be up and wandering around. Coming to a comedy club is probably about the same risk as coming to an Applebee’s for dinner, except I don’t think Applebee’s is used to kicking people out who can’t follow the rules.”