Live comedy, or dead? Sides were drawn this week in the debate over the future of stand-up, with a longtime Manhattan comedy club co-owner pretty much writing an obituary for New York City and its cultural nightlife, which in turn got him called “a putz” by Jerry Seinfeld.
And while traditional comedy venues won’t be taking reservations anytime soon – Caroline’s owner Caroline Hirsh told Deadline that comedy clubs like hers will likely take their cues from Broadway, and Broadway won’t be reopening until next spring, at the earliest – some comics are finding ways to reach audiences without Zoom.
Just today, comedian Iliza Shlesinger announced a nine-city tour of drive-in theaters across the country during the month of October (see tour details below). Iliza’s Comedy Tailgate Tour, presented by Monster Energy, will see the star of five currently-streaming Netflix specials delivering her jokes live to audiences, safely distanced in their cars, her voice transmitted via car radio.
“COVID-19 brought the stand up industry to a halt,” Shlesinger said in a statement to Deadline. “These drive-ins provide a way for me to connect with my fans across the country and continue to do my job that I love so much. I can’t wait to get back out on the road and see everyone.”
Steve Glazer, Monster Energy Outbreak Tour Founder, said in a statement, “In a year of firsts for many, the pandemic has forced the entire live event industry to find safe and creative touring solutions. Iliza is an amazing comedian who brings tons of energy to the stage. Partnering on a national drive-in tour will safely deliver her fans the entertainment they crave and is very much in line with Monster Energy’s ambitious spirit.”
Shlesinger is just the latest comic to attempt an alternative to the nation’s standard brick wall & drink minimum venues. Throughout the summer, Dave Chappelle has been staging relatively small-scale, sold-out performances at an outdoor venue near his longtime home in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Chappelle quickly released a June 6 performance as the surprise Netflix special 8:46, showcasing his response to the killing of George Floyd.
If the Chapelle ticket prices – the summer shows started at $100 per admission, climbing to $250 by August – didn’t indicate a hunger for live comedy, the celebrity co-stars certainly did: Billed as Dave Chappelle & Friends: An Intimate Socially Distanced Affair, aka Chappelle’s Summer Camp, the periodic shows at Ohio’s Wirrig Pavilion drew a remarkable line-up of eager-to-joke guest performers, including Chris Rock, David Letterman, Jon Stewart, Talib Kweli, Tiffany Haddish, Michael Che, Common, Michelle Wolf, Sarah Silverman and Louis C.K.
The controversial C.K. made his unannounced appearance on Aug. 5, following Chappelle, Michelle Wolf and Mo Amer. According to EW, citing an anonymous source who was one of the 250 audience members that night, C.K. was heckled after asking for improv suggestions. Wrote EW, quoting the source: “From the back, some guy was like, ‘How about the toilet seat you jerked off on?’ People were like, ‘Oh, crap. That was brutal.’ And then he had a pretty good comeback, which was, ‘I don’t do my best material on these shows.'”
Though no additional Chappelle’s Summer Camp performances are currently scheduled, Ohio news outlets report that Chappelle has received a local zoning variance that allows the shows to continue until Oct. 4. The variance was granted after the local zoning inspector received 400 letters and 2,000 emails in support of the shows, both from local fans and people who drove across the country to attend.
One of Chappelle’s guests – Saturday Night Live Weekend Update co-anchor Che – subsequently began staging his own outdoor performances closer to home with a recent series of socially distanced outdoor sets in Long Island City, Queens. In July, Che said on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, “I just wanted to do comedy when I was really stewing in the house. Everything was happening — the protests were happening and all this tension was going on — and I just wanted to be able to say something to an audience.”
Still, sporadic outdoor gigs can’t come close to replacing the traditional comedy club circuit, particularly with the summer season coming to an end, nor can Zoom shows compete. “Stand-up comedy without an audience,” comedian Ron Funches recently told the Washington Post, “is just an insane person at a bus stop just ranting.”
In the meantime, outdoors sets, at least for much of the country, will have to suffice, as they do for Stand Up NY, the Upper West Side comedy club stalwart co-owned by James Altucher.
Altucher, who has left New York for Florida, wrote a column on Linkedin earlier this month questioning whether the club would ever reopen following the COVID-19 shutdown. He declared New York City “completely dead.”
Seinfeld responded with an op-ed piece in The New York Times this week, calling Altucher a “putz” and noting, “This stupid virus will give up eventually. The same way you have.”
For the record, Altucher got in a couple more jabs after Seinfeld’s Times piece, tweeting “Jerry is a good guy but I wish he saw the actual reality of what is happening now. A ranticle will not solve the city’s issues.” The club owner, who performs stand-up himself, also tweeted, “I’m glad I inspired @JerrySeinfeld to finally write new jokes.”
Even the club, Stand Up NY, got into the act. The venue used its official Instagram page to respond to Seinfeld’s swipe that the club “could use a little sprucing up.”
“Jerry,” Stand Up NY said on Instagram, “we’re able to multi-task! We are sprucing up the club – see, we just stained our tables. We’re also currently the biggest live comedy producer in the country – 40+ shows per week in parks across NYC. You should swing by and do a set sometime. Oh, we just walked by your garage on the UWS where you house your Porsche collection and picked up some garbage we found in front of it. Heard you were in the Hamptons. See you at the club.”
On the club’s Twitter page, some comics slated for the outdoor Stand Up NY shows replaced their headshots in promo materials for those of a certain Manhattan neighbor.
Here are the dates for Iliza Shlesinger’s Comedy Tailgate Tour:
Friday, 10/2 – Pittsburgh, PA – Starlight Drive-In
Saturday, 10/3 – McHenry, IL – McHenry Outdoor Theater
Sunday, 10/4 – Fort Collins, CO – Holiday Twin Drive-In
Thursday, 10/8 – Austin, TX – H-E-B Center at Cedar Park Tailgate Series
Friday, 10/9 – Houston, TX – Moonstruck Drive-In Cinema
Saturday, 10/10 – Fort Worth, TX – Coyote Drive-In
Friday, 10/16 – Anaheim, CA – Drive-In OC at City National Grove of Anaheim
Friday, 10/23 – Pleasanton, CA – Alameda County Fair Drive-In
Saturday, 10/24 – Escondido, CA – The Drive-In at Westfield North County
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