Laughs return at East Bay venues
Two comedians walk into a bar.
Not during the pandemic, they don’t.
But “the whirlygig of time,” as master comic Bill Shakespeare put it—“I’m here all 400 years. Try the venison!”—has advanced, so comics, comedy and improv clubs, and comedy promoters are finding more ways to re-open the bar and get the laughs going.
Patrick Ford, co-owner of the Alameda Comedy Club, was planning to open the newest East Bay comedy venue in May 2020 when Covid-19 shut everything down. “We hung on in limbo for a couple of months,” he said. Then he and his partners decided to re-tool their construction plans, creating a large outdoor space with a lighting tower and radiant heating. The club reopened in Oct. 2020, had to shut down again as the pandemic ramped back up, then reopened outdoors in Feb. 2021.
Now, in May 2021, it welcomes patrons inside again, with a newly installed fresh-air intake system, limited capacity, 100% vaccinated staff, temperature checks at the door and socially distanced tables. For those still not ready to venture out to live shows, the club installed a 3-camera recording system to make performances available for pay-per-view streaming via Comediaplex.com.
Local comedy talent is featured in “Open Mic” and “All-Star Showcase” on Thursday nights. The “Drag Yourself to Brunch” show continues at noon on Sundays, and starting this month, the club is launching Wednesday “Variety Night” with trivia, Drag BINGO and karaoke.
Ford expects a “slow ramp-up” in attendance as more and more people are fully vaccinated. “By summer, we could see a full comedy club,” he said. See upcoming shows at www.alamedacomedy.com.
Berkeley Improv has held only virtual and outdoor classes since the pandemic lock-down. Member Heather Clague is a physician, so she recognized the Covid-19 threat would not be over in a couple of weeks. The company managed a quick pivot to online classes, but has been “barely surviving,” she said. Their popular “Improv for Teachers” is in demand as teachers return to classrooms, but nothing compares to the human connection, Clague said.
Pre-pandemic Berkeley Improv classes and performances took place at Berkeley’s Sacred Stream, where Clague said they hope to return in September. Meanwhile, the company continues to partner with the Black Improv Alliance, working toward a common goal of getting 100 more Black people into Improv 101 by July 2021. Clague encouraged supporters to buy gift cards on the company site, www.berkeleyimprov.com, good for returning classes and shows.
Despite patron reviews such as, “This place was amazing! They were hilarious!!! Also, very friendly and down to earth people. I’ll definitely be back,” another improv company, Oakland’s All Out Comedy Theater, has struggled even more, said Director Colleen Breen. The company’s last show in its storefront space was March 13, 2020. At first, Breen did not realize the extent and effects the pandemic would have. “We waited, and then we knew we didn’t feel safe doing live shows,” she said.
All Out’s landlord gave them discounted rent for several months, but with no show income, they had to relinquish the space in October 2020. “We did Zoom classes for a while,” Breen said, “but I’m Zoomed out.” There is, however, a small light at the end of the tunnel: All Out will begin offering 8-week Level 1 and 2 improv classes at PianoFight in Oakland starting June 7.
Though she is currently hunting for a new storefront home for the company, she reported that the pickings are slim. Many property owners have “agreements with the city that only permit big commercial or high-end restaurants,” she said, or are converting their buildings to condos. “They can hold out, and never [rent to] a commercial tenant, since they make all their money on rental apartments.”
Breen sees this as a problem for many artists and art groups in the city. “I want to fight for the culture of Oakland,” she said, encouraging anyone who has a lead on a site to email her through the company’s website, at [email protected].
“We were building a diverse community, offering class scholarships to lower-income people and people of color,” Breen said. “People are telling us, ‘We can’t wait until you re-open.’”
Comedian and comedy promoter Murahd Shawki, executive producer of Dope Show Comedy, has had a different experience. Pre-pandemic, his shows were scheduled in venues throughout the Bay Area—note: This series is not “The Dope Show,” where comics take tokes during their sets. When the lockdown happened, “I did no comedy for a month,” he said. But then, he “had to innovate by necessity.” And by August 2020, when outdoor dining was permitted again, he was ready, having established partnerships with restaurants and other venues that had outdoor spaces. “We could offer safe, live entertainment options” with socially distanced tables, he said.
These partnerships also pushed him into more dependable business strategies. “We had to guarantee that there would be butts in every seat, so we sold tables instead of individual tickets,” Shawki said. “People could come with their ‘pod’ and be safe.” And, he noted, “We could charge a premium ,because we are giving a premium product.”
Shows were promoted on Instagram, Facebook and other social media; ticketing, through Eventbrite. Even now, when he’s able to book indoor shows again, Shawki keeps his partnerships with Oakland venues such as Nido’s Backyard and rooftop at Oeste Bar & Cafe, with multiple dates booked. Find listings through dopeshowcomedy.com.
In Richmond, stand-up comedian JD Arandia had established a successful monthly series called “Homegrown Comedy” at Bridge Storage and ArtSpace. January 25, 2020 was its last show. Arandia was filming a promo for a show he was supposed to appear in at San Jose Improv, “when I realized that all the shows I had booked were canceling,” he said.
Arandia canceled the upcoming Homegrown Comedy shows and created a podcast, “Voice Party,” which for months was his only comedy outlet. Bridge allowed him to continue to use one of its spaces to film the podcast, and he gained more notice through them.
Now, he says, it’s time to get back onstage—outdoors. Bridge has an outside patio with seating that he used for Homegrown Comedy’s return on May 2. Masks were required, as was social distancing. “I don’t want anything I put together to get anyone sick,” said Arandia, who has family members who were affected by Covid.
The first show featured headliner Butch Escobar, along with Corde Snell, Duat Mai, Bud Bartlow, Juan Medina and Tammytea Love. “Everyone was excited to perform again,” Arandia said, “and audience members are saying, ‘Thank God, I haven’t gone to an event since the pandemic started.’”
Bridge is helping by obtaining a liquor license for the first time, and using its Community Kitchen program to offer food.
Asked if there is now “Covid comedy,” Arandia noted that comics can be funny about aspects of living through a pandemic without “punching down.” Poking fun at the stir-craziness of forced isolation, weight gain—“I can’t be trusted around the fridge,” he said—and other shared experiences are how people cope with a difficult time.
And, he added, “For once, I got my rent’s worth, because I spent so much time at home.”
Homegrown Comedy’s next show is June 27. Find listings for upcoming shows at eventbrite, stayhappening and newsbreak.
Two comedians walk into a bar.
One says, “Time to get funny again.”
The other one says, “Oh, you mean for the first time for you.”