Reopening A Comedy Club Is No Joke As The Pandemic Eases

The biggest risk in going to a comedy club used to be getting spotted as an easy target for laughs by the comedian on stage. But audiences now have to consider their health.

“This room seats close to 300 people, but [this] will be nowhere near there,” said Caroline Hirsch, a day before reopening her famous Caroline’s on Broadway on a Thursday night in late May after being closed for more than a year. She had to reconfigure her seats so groups were spaced six feet apart.

In April, the state health department allowed smaller venues to open at 33 percent of capacity, or up to 150 people indoors with proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. Those rules changed in May to comply with new recommendations from the CDC. Now, venues can go to 100 percent of capacity with proof of vaccination or testing. Individuals who can’t show proof must be socially distanced and keep their masks on.

Despite the confusion, many comedy clubs embraced the ability to reopen and are gradually seeing the crowds return. But they say the new rules have left them a little disoriented.

“It’s like one challenge after another. This has been like reopening a new business,” said Hirsch, who’s been running Caroline’s for almost 40 years.

Capacity is crucial in a comedy club because it affects revenue. Caroline’s waited to reopen until just before Memorial Day weekend and booked Donnell Rawlings, a regular from Chappelle’s Show. Hirsch’s venue is known for high-profile headliners, and she said she needed to get a better sense of the rules before reopening.

“It’s a chicken and egg effect when we’re booking talent,” she explained, because talent takes a cut of the door. “Are we going to be 30%? Are we going to be 50%? Are we going to be 100%?”

And Hirsch said she couldn’t afford to wait until September to reopen, like the nearby theaters on Broadway. “I wanted to gear up, even though we’re going to lose money for probably two months here until we can gear up to capacity. I felt I needed to take the leap and start to do it.”

A photo of Comedy Cellar

Timing wasn’t as much of an issue for some of the city’s smaller comedy clubs. On April 2nd, Jon Laster hosted the return of standup at the Comedy Cellar. “Isn’t this weird as f**k?” he said, as he took the stage to enormous cheers.

It is weird, said Noam Dworman, whose family has owned the Greenwich Village club since 1981. Comics are used to reading faces for cues to see if a joke lands — which is tough when people in the audience keep their masks on. There’s also the shared experience of sitting closely together and having no idea what the comedian on stage will say or do next.

“The biggest change is really just this awkward kind of seating, and the empty chairs which deflate the atmosphere and take the electricity out of the room,” said Dworman.

He also can’t do as many nightly shows because of the state’s midnight curfew on indoor venues. But Dworman is optimistic because he says people are coming back. Now that the state has adopted the latest CDC guidelines, he’s planning to go to 100 percent of capacity soon by requiring proof of vaccination.

“And judging by the number of people that we’re turning away, which is significant, I’m pretty sure we’d be able to fill up with just vaccinated people,” he said, adding that everyone on his staff has gotten the COVID shot.

Dworman just hasn’t figured out the timing yet, because patrons will need some advance notice of the vaccination rules.

READ MORE: Checking In: Comedy Cellar Owner Noam Dworman On The Future Of Comedy Clubs In Post-Pandemic NYC

At Stand Up New York on the Upper West Side, Dani Zolden is thinking of switching to full capacity in exchange for stricter rules on vaccination. He and his co-owner James Altucher—who wrote a much-maligned essay during the pandemic declaring NYC dead— sued Governor Cuomo over the shutdown rules this year because they thought they weren’t fairly applied to all kinds of establishments (this follows a similar lawsuit last year). Because his club is too small to follow all the social distancing rules, he said he’s allowed to put up a plexiglass partition around the comics, but they don’t like it.

“They feel like a clown when they’re standing behind the glass,” he said, adding only a comedian like the watermelon-throwing Gallagher could make that work.

Zolden said business is pretty good at limited capacity, but it depends on who’s on stage.

“When a club books a lower level talent, they’re still great comics, but they may not necessarily be a household name,” he said. “Those shows are much more challenging to market because obviously people haven’t heard of these comics and there are no tourists in town.”

That might seem like a major hurdle for all comedy clubs. But some claim they get enough regulars to fill most of their seats, especially if they’re not too expensive. It’s also easier for small venues to experiment with reopening. Broadway isn’t coming back until September when the shows plan to have 100% of capacity because otherwise, they can’t recoup their costs.

Caroline’s is the first theater in the Times Square neighborhood to reopen. She predicts she’ll do well because people are ready to go out, noting this week’s playoff game between the Knicks and the Atlanta Hawks was almost filled to capacity. “The stadium was packed!” she exclaimed. “Madison Square Garden. That’s over 15,000 people.”

That crowd had to be vaccinated or show proof they were COVID negative. Hirsh said she expects to adopt those rules too, and will eventually add more comedy acts each week.

Club owners are eager to fill their seats again after losing all their business during the pandemic. The ones who spoke to Gothamist/WNYC said they were grateful they had good deals with their landlords, but they couldn’t get Paycheck Protection Program funds if they didn’t keep their workers on staff. They’re now waiting for federal aid to start flowing from the shuttered venues program.

Hirsch said she’s had trouble hiring back enough staff. She believes the extended unemployment aid played a role in keeping workers away, as well as people leaving the city. Experts have debated the causes for the labor shortage.

Will comedy change after the pandemic? The club owners said the comedians and their audiences seem ready to laugh, but the pandemic is unavoidable, said Zolden.

“One funny joke that I heard from Brian Scott McFadden is he said he spoke to his agent and he can’t get COVID because he has a deal with Ebola.”

With jokes like that, maybe it is time for new material.