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Comedy Clubs Are Closed, So To Reach Audiences, Comics Have To Improvise


We could probably all use a little humor right now. But if comedy clubs are your thing, you're out of luck. They're closed indefinitely. Here's a reminder of what you're missing. This is Colin Quinn riffing about social media.


COLIN QUINN: If somebody told you, even 15 years ago, we have this idea where everybody is going to be able to give their innermost thoughts all day every day...


QUINN: ...Minute-by-minute updates to the entire planet...


QUINN: ...You would say, oh, God, no. Please don't do that.


KING: And here's Mike Birbiglia.


MIKE BIRBIGLIA: I don't know anything for certain. I think it's entirely possible consciousness is a hallucination. How do I explain that to a kid? See that juice box? Don't be so sure.


KING: For sure, we need to laugh right now. But for professional comedians, it's been a challenge. Here's NPR's Elizabeth Blair.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: In normal times, standup comedian Marina Franklin says she'd be at New York comedy clubs six nights a week.

MARINA FRANKLIN: Every night in New York City is an opportunity. You never know who's going to see you. You never know if someone's there that's going to ask you to, you know, be in a film or go on the road with them.

BLAIR: And clubs are where she can test out the jokes she's been writing.

FRANKLIN: There's certain jokes that if I'm laughing right away, I pretty much know it's going to translate to an audience. And there's other jokes that I don't know. I just know the premise is smart. But I don't know until I get in front of an audience.


FRANKLIN: Strong, black woman, that never felt like a compliment. That always felt like work.


BLAIR: Take the jokes Franklin told in her special "Single Black Female." She worked them out in small clubs for about 100 people before performing them for an audience of a thousand at the Vic Theatre in Chicago.


FRANKLIN: Someone was like, hey, what you doing on Saturday? I got this heavy couch. I need a strong, black woman.


FRANKLIN: It's like, I don't want to be useful.

BLAIR: The need for laughter works both ways. Now that the clubs are closed, Franklin says she's worried about some of her comedian friends.

FRANKLIN: Some comedians, you know, they have depression and mental illness. That's rampant in the comedy scene. It's rampant in the world. So I do worry the lack of feedback - a lot of them are going on Instagram because on Instagram Live, you're talking to an audience.


GARY GULMAN: So the joke is about Eminem's "Lose Yourself."

BLAIR: That's Gary Gulman talking to Mike Birbiglia for a series of Instagram Live videos where Birbiglia talks to fellow comedians about the jokes they're working on.


GULMAN: A couple of things are going on here. He says, you only get one shot, which I always tell people in show business, you get so many shots...

BIRBIGLIA: Not true, not true - so many shots.

GULMAN: Even within the movie, he gets a second shot.

BIRBIGLIA: (Laughter).

BLAIR: The Instagram Live audience is different. As the comedians are talking, a fast-moving stream of comments rolls by nonstop on the screen. Via Skype, Birbiglia says one comedian told him...

BIRBIGLIA: It's like watching, like, a thousand audience members, like, all talk at the same time.

BLAIR: The series is a fundraiser for comedy clubs called Tip Your Waitstaff, with GoFundMe pages setup for different clubs, like The Comedy Cellar in New York, The Stardome in Birmingham, Ala., and The Comedy Attic in Bloomington, Ind. Birbiglia might be relying on the Internet for now. But he says comedians need those clubs.

BIRBIGLIA: Comedians rely so much on audiences to relay their sort of deep, innermost thoughts and feelings about things. And when you can't do that onstage - if that's your job, usually - yeah, it's worrisome. It's definitely not great.

QUINN: There's just something about the live - the tension of the live thing.

BLAIR: That tension is vital to the live club experience, says veteran standup comedian Colin Quinn. Some comedians have been experimenting on the platform Zoom. Quinn says it's no substitute.

QUINN: Unless they find a way on Zoom for people to collectively shame you, which I'm sure should be easy to come up with, then comedy could work on Zoom. But it's got to have that element of like, oh, this could really fall apart. And this person could be collectively, publicly humiliated. That's part of comedy, you know? Or it's the thing you're trying to avoid in comedy. But it's got to be in the air.

BLAIR: Quinn's last Netflix special, "Red State Blue State," was filmed long before the pandemic hit. And yet, he was almost prophetic as he described how people have become so reliant on their devices and Amazon for everything.


QUINN: You want something? Tell us what it is, and we'll send it to you.


QUINN: We're sending you all a free pair of pajamas. Put the pajamas on...


QUINN: ...Start ordering stuff.


QUINN: Outside is over. It's inside from now on.


ROB CORDDRY: There will definitely be changes to everything.

BLAIR: Rob Corddry and some of his comedian friends have been making funny videos specifically intended to cheer up health care workers. Corddry says it is very sad to see comedy venues in dire straits. At the same time, he says, something this awful could lead to some great material.

CORDDRY: When comedians get this much of a glimpse at their own mortality, you can expect some pretty funny comedy coming down the pike.

BLAIR: And when it does, we'll be ready.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 6, 2020 at 10:00 PM MDT
In a previous audio version of this story, and in a caption, we incorrectly stated the name of Colin Quinn's Netflix special as Red States Blue States. It is Red State Blue State.
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.