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What It's Like to Return to Live Comedy During a Pandemic

Derrick Rush headlining an outdoor show at the Denver Comedy Lounge.
Derrick Rush headlining an outdoor show at the Denver Comedy Lounge.
Joshua McElreavy

Freshly sanitized with a DIY disinfectant that smelled of cheap tequila, the microphone felt comfortingly familiar in my grip. I began speaking, still unsure of what I was going to say.

I hadn't performed standup comedy in over five months, my longest hiatus since first taking the stage at the Lion's Lair open mic eight years ago. The last time I'd performed was on March 14, two days before Governor Polis ordered all non-essential businesses — including the bars, breweries, and clubs that comprise the majority of comedy venues — to close down in an effort to prevent widespread coronavirus outbreaks. While I fully understood the urgency of the statewide order, I couldn't help but bemoan the loss of income, camaraderie and sense of identity that comedy had provided me. 

My last set was suffused with fall-of-Rome energy. Fully aware that it might be months before I'd have the opportunity to tell jokes into a microphone again, I made an opulent meal of my stage time. I browbeat laughter out of an audience united in their uncertainty about the future. I saw my ten-minute light and kept going long enough to deliver a lengthy closer in its indulgent entirety — though not long enough to disrespect the headliner.

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That was a stark contrast to my first night back, which I began with a sheepish admission of my own discomfort. Though it took me a minute or two to shuffle off five months' worth of inactivity, I eventually managed to win over the small, spread-out crowd and deliver a performance worthy of pride.

I not only realized how much I missed comedy, but why I missed it. I missed making fleeting connections with strangers, the life-affirming energy of crushing, and the instructive power of bombing. I missed the way comedy keeps me humble, continually reminding me of how much I have to learn even after eight years of practice.

I've done four shows since, and while I'm grateful for another chance to make people laugh again, it's impossible to ignore the fact that we're still in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. I was initially reluctant to return to public spaces, and I declined a few bookings until I tested negative for COVID. Once I could be confident that I wasn't personally putting anyone else at risk, however, hitting the stage again didn't seem much riskier than interacting with people all day while working as a budtender.

I'm aware that many readers who regard any sort of public gathering as an unforgivable folly won't find my rationale persuasive, and I don't really have a retort for them. In the grand scheme of things, live entertainment seems like a minor casualty compared to the vastness of human suffering wrought by COVID-19. The coronavirus is persistent, cases are climbing nationwide, and laughter spreads airborne respiratory droplets. No amount of sanitizing and social distancing can assuage the uneasy feeling of sharing breathing space with strangers. If you don't feel safe going out to a comedy show, I'm not going to argue with you.

That's particularly true of indoor shows. I performed inside a spacious brewery with high ceilings to a safely spread-out crowd, and even though the place was well ventilated, I'm not certain it was the right move. Being in the open air greatly reduces the risk of viral spread, and I only feel comfortable performing at outdoor shows for the time being.

Comedians used to complain about al fresco performances, which tend to be fraught with ambient distractions and inaudible laughter. Ironically, now they're really the only safe(ish) way to keep doing what we love. The crowds may be smaller, and we may be taking a risk each time we leave our homes to tell jokes beneath the nighttime sky, but at least it'll be better than a show on Zoom.

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