For entertainers in the stand-up comedy industry, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a severe blow to their livelihood. The fallout has forced stand-up comedians to refocus their daily routines, look for new projects to take on and in other cases be a little more creative than usual.
To gather more insight, I decided to find out straight from the source, how four different comedians are dealing with the upside down world we are currently in. From Jeff Leeson trying to get back to Canada, Detroit’s own T-Barb expanding her repertoire, Windsor comedian, Rob Kemeny losing a weekly creative outlet and to Toronto comedian, Dylan Gott, wondering if changes in the industry will see a surge in more outdoor events to ensure social distancing.
For Canadian comedian, Jeff Leeson he was on the road with his friend and opening act Tige Wright, just over 2,400 miles from home when ‘shit got real’ in the world. They were preparing for a weekend of shows at an upscale resort in Temecula, California when the state of California was preparing to close all non-essential businesses in mid-March.
Leeson had set lofty goals entering 2020. He was determined to make a name for himself in the U.S. market. For Leeson, the pandemic has left him frustrated with between 35 to 40 cancellations (at the time of this article.) Overall, with stand-up comedy as his primary source of income, it has left Leeson feeling uneasy. Some of his cancelled shows were scheduled in California, Arizona and Nevada.
“Honestly, it has been a weird time for me,” Leeson said. “After all of the travel plans, the bookings, to the touring there was all this activity. Then everything just came to an abrupt halt with everything in the world at a standstill.”
While in isolation and quarantined in Los Angeles for just over a week and a half, both comedians awaited word if they would be able to perform on shows that hadn’t been cancelled in both Wyoming and Colorado. At that point, with the number of cases of COVID cases still lower in those parts of the U.S., government officials continued to keep both of those states open for business.
After receiving word that those shows were cancelled, they began to travel back uninterrupted to the province of Ontario (Canada) with no further shows scheduled due to the lockdown.
It was no April fool’s joke on April 1, when Leeson and Wright had to agree and comply with all of the regulations that the Canadian Border Services Agency agent went over with the comedy duo when they crossed back into Canada.
“It was bit nerve racking. We were read a list of items that we had to comply with,” Leeson said. “The stipulations were if we didn’t adhere to the rules and regulations, there would be a huge fine, along with possible jail time. In total, we were probably at the inspection booth for close to 15 minutes.”
When Leeson made the decision to return to home, it was further complicated with him not having a permanent residence. Before heading to California, he didn’t renew his lease agreement at his apartment and left many of his personal belongings at his mother’s house.
In order to fulfill the strict self-quarantine conditions upon returning to Canada, Leeson decided to stay at a hotel and self-isolate. He decided to be cautious and not stay with his mom or anyone else that was willing to provide him accommodations.
“At points, it has been a jolt to my system,” Leeson said. “I had built such momentum for my career that I have had to go through a period of grief. That is the best way I can describe it, just from everything that I had put so much energy into and things were trending upwards, to ending up at a complete standstill.”
Presently, Leeson is focussing on still getting content out through podcasts, humorous videos on his social media platforms and keeping tabs on not losing the positive gains he has made during the beginning of the year.
Heading over to Motown, where the city of Detroit has experienced some of the highest cases of the COVID-19 virus in the U.S., we wanted to get the thoughts of the multi-talented, comedian and radio show host, T-Barb.
She best summarized and explained that during the global pandemic, how entertainers are continuing to find ways to be productive and relevant, is really speaking to an individual’s creativity level and tenacity.
“You have to be able to transition with the times. Right now is one of those times, as a comedian and an entertainer that we have to really use this creative gene that we rely on. T-Barb said. “When you analyze things deeper, there are all sorts of different types of comedy.
Currently, it is a time that stand-up comedians have to be able to transcend and adapt to utilizing other forms of comedy. In the big picture, now is the moment to be able to do things differently.”
She also suggested that in some cases comedians can branch out into other comedic genres and expand their fan base while gaining new skills.
Like others in the entertainment industry, the spring and summer of 2020 was supposed to be a very busy time for T-Barb, between live comedy shows, potential book signings and other promotional events that were in the works.
T-Barb was pleased to be a part of the Amazon Prime special ‘Gettin Off’ which was officially released in March. It has been a challenging path for her to communicate to both supporters and other potential new fans that the comedy special is now available.
With the strict stay at home orders in the state of Michigan, T-Barb was unable to do a full promotional tour with the Detroit media outlets. She has had to rely on her active presence on social media and word of mouth to get the message out.
In the month of March alone, T-Barb lost approximately 17 shows. On Memorial Day weekend, she was scheduled to perform at the Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek, MI which would have been her first show at a large multi-purpose arena, but yet she pushes forward.
In order to stay connected with her fans and supporters, T-Barb has been doing some comedy skits and has participated in a few virtual comedy specials.
“We have had to rely on our own self confidence of simply being funny, as I can’t see the audience laugh,” T-Barb said. “I can’t have that human connection that I would normally have during a performance.”
Even before the quarantine, T-Barb was adding to her repertoire with becoming a published author, starting her own morning show and looking into other genres.
“Right now, I am happy that I chose to diversify my comedic experience,” T-Barb said. “Looking back, I am glad that I chose not to rely solely on stand-up comedy and be able to find other ways to entertain and still do comedy. Presently, I’m reinventing myself and the future of the world is online and you have to figure out a way to adjust or become null and void. ”
In downtown Windsor, stand-up comedian, Rob Kemeny is one of the organizers of the weekly open mic at Craftheads Brewing Company on Tuesday nights. Taking the comedy element and the location of the show, the official name of the open mic: mashes, then ferments, and mixes all together to be known as ‘Brewing for Comedy.’
Kemeny explained that the idea originated from Detroit comedian Bill Bushart, which utilizes his motto that every growing comedy scene, needs to have a really good open mic to expand the foundation of comedy in a city.
“From all skill levels, different people can come together and exchange ideas,” Kemeny said. “All of this plays a part in helping to start a whole comedic community this way.”
When reflecting on the last ‘Brewing for Comedy’ show on March 10, Kemeny pointed out, that most of us in the room weren’t taking it overly serious and a few of the comedians were already discussing some ideas and planning the following week’s show.
When Kemeny realized the next show would fall on St. Patrick’s Day, he had begun to communicate with Bryan Datoc, co-owner of Crafthead’s Brewing Company to move the night up in the schedule, to the following Monday (on March 16) instead.
As the situation in Ontario and other parts of Canada began to get worse with the number of new cases of COVID-19, Kemeny and Datoc mutually decided to cancel the Brewing for Comedy series for everyone’s safety. They came to this decision before the official shut down was formally announced by government officials.
While the live shows were on pause, the loyal group of comedians that were gathering for the open mics tried to recapture their creativity with online stand-up video clips. Be it with some challenges trying to deliver their jokes online, without crowd reaction.
“It is just not the same,” Kemeny said. “It is very difficult to recapture that dynamic of trying to be funny and not having an audience present for your stand-up. Also, the comedians miss each other, as they were able to gather and get out whatever angst they were feeling from their week in a creative manner on that stage.”
The long term impact for some industries won’t be known for some time, but Kemeny is predicting there will be long term ramifications for the entertainment and hospitality sectors.
“I feel there is going to be a change in the industry,” Kemeny said. “Right now, it is way too early to tell. With the fears from COVID-19 pandemic, I’m sure there will be a group of people still scared to leave their house. Then in the opposite camp there might be a huge exodus of people wanting to pack in to an entertainment venue to resume their lives. I guess all of us will have to stay tuned to see what is next.”
With the current layoff from performing, Kemeny is using the break to reassess what he wants to do creatively next.
Next we head eastbound down the 401 to the Greater Toronto Area, to check-in and catch-up with comedian Dylan Gott.
During the COVID-19 quarantine, Gott has been focussing on his Wrestling podcast and growing his Patreon account. Also, doing IG live Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3 p.m. with his gang of loyal wrestling fans, and next week his comedy album Dr. Plops is available.
Gott sighed, while mentioning, he does not have a drop dead number for the amount of shows he has had to cancel. The majority of these shows were bookings that were setup from a positive response to the Comedy Kings Tour, he did last spring and summer with comedian Peter White.
Things began to really sink in for Gott the week of March 12 – 14. He had a stand-up comedy booking at the Yuk Yuk’s comedy club in Niagara Falls and it was going to be a part of a birthday celebration for his mom.
With his family planning the birthday festivities, the number of COVID-19 cases began to grow. After some discussion and getting different opinions from family members, Gott’s family decided to stick with their arrangements.
While chatting during our phone conversation, Gott recalled arriving in Niagara Falls and the area was beginning to look like a ghost town with fears of the pandemic starting to amp up. After that weekend, Gott made the decision to shut things down and step back, before Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford, announced emergency orders for the province.
Gott has been doing stand-up comedy for 15 plus years and is concerned with what is next for the stand-up comedy landscape in Canada, when there is a return to normalcy.
He explained that it is already an uphill battle for Canadian comedians to get recognized. Gott precedes to run through a scenario with me to make his point.
“As a comedian, you are contacted and agree to terms to travel to the Halifax Comedy Festival. After it is over, chances are you are returning to your day job. Unless someone takes a liking to you and then you are rewarded with a nice little tour out of it,” Gott said.
“In Canada, the comedic landscape is different,” Gott continued. “There is no game-changer. There is no Tonight show. There aren’t the opportunities for a comedian to be literally plucked from obscurity to do a set on Conan O’Brien and then be able to make the rounds of other late night talk shows. Before you know it, you have an agent and get a bit part in a movie. This just doesn’t happen in Canada.”
With COVID-19 changing the entertainment industry, Gott joked “maybe he will have the opportunity to host a social distancing show in someone’s backyard.”
One revision to the industry, Gott feels maybe on the horizon, is an increase to the number of outdoor shows. With it being easier to mitigate the risk of the crowd not being on top of one another, as opposed to being cramped into a traditional comedy club.
Through the ups and downs of waiting to return to perform, Gott remains optimistic.
“I am hopeful that when there is some form of normalcy and people feel comfortable going out again, that they will still have an appetite for live entertainment,” Gott said.
To follow all of the comedians on Instagram, see the links below: