I’ve spent the better part of the last decade making my living as a touring comedian. Being a touring comedian is tough, but being a touring comedian that has a message & point to their comedy & makes you think can add extra layer of difficulty. As a younger comedian, I tried to become a regular host or feature at clubs, but the more “political” my act became the less the chain clubs wanted to book me. So I started to look for a different way to tour and make this work. I had to shift and adapt.
Over the last few years one of my goals has been to partner myself with specific venues, producers, bookers, etc, that give a shit. Not just about comedy and shows itself, but about the community they’re building around their venue and/or show. Sometimes places like that are hard to come by but I’ve managed to find some of these gems. They are usually smaller, intimate spaces run by amazing people that are now folks I get to call friends. And usually, I get to see them 2-3 times a year when I’m on tour for 40-45 weeks of the year.
Way back in March of 2020 – which even as I’m writing this in July 2020 seems like 400 years ago – there were whispers about this new pandemic we’re in. I was on the last leg of a month long tour working out my most recent hour of comedy “Politely Angry“. The last 3 shows were the ones that were most affected on that tour. Prior to that week, I had spoken with very few people about the “coronavirus”.
In February when I was in Austin, TX, Lee Camp and I talked about whether dates would cancelled by the spread of the virus. I didn’t think it would hit has hard and it would likely blow over. But predicting a pandemic is like predicting the weather – we’re kinda making this up as we go along and you should probably just bring a jacket just in case. My sister and I talked about the fact this virus is tough to figure out because it takes 2 weeks for symptoms to show up. In Des Moines, the host of the show, Sid Juwarker, joked about it using sanitizer on the microphones in between each comedian, but that was it. We knew something was there, but we all thought it would never happen to all of us. The Des Moines show was on March 11th.
The morning of March 12th panic had set in across the nation about the coronavirus. I had an inbox full of people asking me if I wanted to cancel my shows and reschedule it. I didn’t know enough about what was going on, so I pushed through the last leg of the tour in Moline, Chicago & Indianapolis. News of disappearing aisles of toilet paper and people talking about ‘Vectors’ and grandparents dying was trending around the nation. Yet bars and streets were packed full of people.
But at that point I figured this thing would mean 2 weeks of events shutting down and then we’d back in action. I was in contact with venues about reducing the number of tickets and ensuring social distancing is possible. But the panic was set in and all ticket sales had come to standstill. So even if I was to go through with these shows, I’d be up against some major fear from the public. By the end of that weekend, states were calling stay at home orders, restaurants & bars had shut down and all the contingency plans that I was looking at to continue being on the road were null & void.
By March 15th I lost 6 weeks of work, which included all of my album recording dates and 2 dates with Lee Camp. By March 16th another 2 weeks was out. By March 18th, every into the middle of May was cancelled and I was grounded for a minimum of 9 weeks. By the end of the March, June was looking unlikely. Like dominos, each month fell and it was looking less and less favorable to do live events with even a crowd of just 20-50 people.
By the time May had rolled around I was thinking about when I’d be back on the road again. A lot of comedians, musicians and performers had begun asking that question as well. Had I written this in May 2020, I would’ve said by August we’d see venues opening their doors with limited capacity and social distancing measure to bring back live performances again. But here we are in the midst of another spike in cases and that’s definitely not going to happen.
To be blunt, I think in 2020 we are not going to see many live events. Now this doesn’t mean people won’t try, they most certainly will. Humanity’s motto has always been “well let’s see what happens!” and this is no different. Some venues, bars and such can’t afford to stay shut down and work off take out and delivery orders. Some venues thrived because of live entertainment. Some venues were specifically built for the purpose of providing their communities with live entertainment. And when you mix a pandemic with a corporate duopoly that doesn’t give a shit about it’s people, you create conditions for early openings and a resurgence of cases.
As things went into phase 2 or yellow alert or partial opening or Booze & Cruises or whatever the states called them, there were some venues that said they weren’t going to open their doors till they knew there some kind of plan to put in place to take care of the people during a pandemic. They didn’t believe in putting their artists, patrons and employees at risk for the sake of profit. Besides even if they opened up at half capacity, would it be financially viable to open their doors, staff properly and run a show? To some it simply wasn’t.
There were a few places that went above and beyond the call of duty to ensure they can do shows, sell tickets and have a safe space for people to enjoy live entertainment. For example TeeHee’s Comedy Club in Des Moines, not only socially distanced their seats, but swapped out glassware for each show, had masks for their employees to make sure that people felt safe. This is a ton of work and dedication to ensure safety & comfort in uncertain times and Teehee’s is one of the places that gives a shit that I mentioned earlier.
Now it is important to recognize that not all places can do this. A smaller space doesn’t an option for the measures that were taken by TeeHee’s. Now all of this is on the end of the venues, restaurants & bars. There’s added effect of touring performers into the mix of live entertainment too.
One of the things to consider for touring performers is to keep the overheads as low as possible. Especially when you’re like me and built your career on being unbookable by mainstream clubs or TV. Usually if I’m on the road for a month, ideally I want to be on stage every night of the week, but I’m 31 and my body constantly reminds me of that. Which means if I drove to different city each night, to perform an hour (or more), I’d be a broken husk of man by the end of the tour. So realistically I like to be on stage at least 4 nights of the week. Then I usually post up in a city for an extra few days to relax, see friends, write and so on.
With that said one of the ways I get to not burn out on tour, keep my overhead low and make new friends is by Couchsurfing. I usually either stay with a friend in town, a comedian that’s on the show or use the Couchsurf app. Due to a pretty ravenous virus, this is not a possibility especially if you’re someone that goes from city to city, state to state, meeting new folks every night and then entering different people’s homes. I don’t feel comfortable doing that as a responsible human and it’s doubtful other people feel comfortable with that right now.
This means I’d have to get a hotel which would instantly almost double what I’d need to make a show to ensure that I don’t go flat broke on tour and can pay my bills. There are 2 major issues with this. Firstly, if I’m working with a venue that has halved its capacity I’m definitely not coming close to what I’d like my income to be, especially if I’m getting anywhere form 50-100% of the door. And this would also mean that I can’t pay the openers. I try to do this as much as possible. Sometimes comics turn me down, other times they’re excited they get paid, other times I’ve had comics demand I give them more. Regardless I do my best to pay the openers and the nights I can’t I usually feel like shit. Those nights are usually the nights where I made 30 bucks and am considering sleeping in my car.
Couchsurfing usually also gives me access to a kitchen so I can make some decent food and not be a restaurant every single night. And I’m not cooking lavish meals or anything. We’re talking chili, Mac & Cheese, some basic pasta, cereal and of course coffee! Unless it’s Memphis where my friend Brian Balough will gift me some dope cold brew from Wiseacre Brewing Co.! But the lack of a kitchen now means my overhead increases again.
So just on a financial level, in order for me tour I’d have to clear 3 times what I did before at venues that have halved their capacity to just to ensure I can pay my bills and food on my table. And that might be a possibility if were to give up on my principles and write jokes about stereotypes to get booked as a host at a mainstream club, but the days of giving up my beliefs for stage opportunities are long gone. And in my opinion you shouldn’t be doing that anyway. Be you, not what some club booker who used to comedy in 70s says you should be.
2020 is not a year for touring artists, especially ones that tour like I do.
So where does this leave the bands, the comedians, the theater kids, the puppeteers, the singer-songwriters, the drag performers, the traveling freak shows, David Blaine wannabees and so on? There was a mass migration for the first month of the stay at home orders to the internet. For me personally, I had been doing podcasts and ranty videos about the oligarchy for a long time now, so the focus became to put all my energy into that.
During the first month of quarantine I put out new rant videos everyday! I’d talk about a new story, the history of the labor movement, why Joe Biden & Nancy Pelosi suck equivalently as Trump and so on! But there was still something missing about it. It wasn’t the stage where you had some kind of instant feedback that what you were saying was funny. In the midst of these videos and the stress of the quarantine itself, I got a few migraines and I hurt my eyes from starring at a screen for that long. Now it could’ve also with withdrawal symptoms from not wearing a vest and a tie for that long, but I’m almost certain it was the extended screen use.
So I had to figure out something that was going to be a better for my long-form comedic style. So I ventured into the world of Zoom shows at the end of April. I did a test show with visuals and commentary on videos and tweets with a small group of folks. The show went really really well. There’s a little delay in the laughter but it got my writers brain working again and I was having fun with some kind of a performance. It was a fun new challenge. Since May I’ve been doing these virtual shows that I’ve been calling the “Citizen Revolution“.
And then it dawned on me, that this can be the way I revive on of my podcasts and keep the show fresh every week. So each week I wrote a new show about a new topic and perspective. And once the protests were pushing forward I decided to move forward by donating half my ticket sales to a grassroots organization or venue around the country. This gave me a good schedule to work within and a goal to aspire to each week.
Shift and adapt. I’ve done this at every aspect of my comedy career and this is no different. I’ve seen many artists pivot into the digital landscape and they’re doing it amazingly!
The fantastic duo When Particles Collide do weekly concerts.
My friends Lee Camp & Eleanor Goldfield have added a weekly livestream to raise money for causes on top of their own shows.
My friend Pierre Vachon is doing a bunch awesome shit!
The Robin Theatre is producing online shows and one of the best damn educational shows I’ve seen since Mr. Rogers – and Dylan’s last name is ROGERS!
This is the new direction of entertainment in 2020. Is it what we’re used to? No. But it keeps our creative juices flowing and the people entertained. Not only that but this is the vehicle for art to push back again a government that has once again blatantly proved that it does not and will not give a shit about us. So it’s really up to us to help each other out. It’s up to us to support the ground level performers these days. The working class artists are creating some really amazing things, so support them over the celebs!
Touring performers won’t be back on the road for awhile. I think I saw this coming earlier than I was willing to accept. Once all the Fringe Festivals I was in started switching to a digital platform, I think in my head, I knew that touring would be an impossibility this year. Really it not only depends on the financials, but also the comfort of our friends, family and fans that support what we do. And to me that comfort is probably not coming back till we see some kind of viable treatment, mixed with a financial plan to help the citizens of this country.
My very optimistic view on that is that by late January 2021 we might see some touring artists get out there, but most likely not till later in 2021. If venues are able to open their doors to patrons and those patrons feel safe and comfortable to be out and about it’ll be more about supporting your local favorites. My recommendation for when things open back up is that we spend on our local communities, like we should’ve been for the last 20 years, instead of corporations and celebrities.
Stay safe and See you online for now.