By MacKenzie Coffman
Comedic relief was in high demand as we slipped into the pandemic almost two years ago. More than ever, we needed to feel unrestrained laughter — the kind that makes you wipe away stray tears and clutch your stomach as your abs strain.
Instead of seeing live standup or improv, we went to streaming services and social media sites in the hope of glimpsing that kind of joy. Watching comedy in this way wasn’t new. Comedy clubs have coexisted with the digital realm for a while now. Sometimes the two spaces overlap — we can watch comedy specials filmed in front of a live audience months after it happened.
But suddenly, these clubs had to decide whether to reimagine their business entirely in the digital realm or wait it out.
ABDELSAYED: “Back in my day, we had to come to Chicago, you know, to do comedy, and it was a while before LA and New York were even an option. But in all circumstances, there was a physical location you needed to go to and move to in order to participate. And so social media has definitely made it so that anybody from anywhere, you know, can sort of jump on it.”
NARRATION: This is Mike Abdelsayed. He’s the artistic director and CEO of improv team One Group Mind and owner of the Comedy Clubhouse. He opened the club in 2015 and moved locations several times before buying their current space at 1462 N. Ashland Ave. Abdelsayed shut down all operations when the pandemic began and didn’t open the club for 20 months. He runs a Facebook page to post updates about comedians he’s worked with before and info for upcoming shows. But besides that, he’s chosen to keep his comedy and the club offline.
ABDELSAYED: “Once the pandemic hit, every theater was just rushing out trying to figure out how do they get a virtual version of what it was that they do, most of them did incredibly difficult times, basically, because we were up against Netflix. Charging $7 For a single 30-minute show; they’re charging $7 are on limited content for a month. We didn’t really do that. And that’s because I kind of felt the same thing that what I sell isn’t comedy, it’s comedy in a live entertainment setting. It is something real specific about going on live.”
DOLAN: “Looking at every post and trying to metric out every sort of thing, like, ‘OK, when I said this, I got this many likes, this got this many reactions out of this,’ it gets to your head really easily. I prefer the sort of immediate reaction.”
NARRATION: That was Kevin Dolan. He performs with Abdelsayed as the duo Tricky Mickey. They blast “It’s Tricky” by Run DMC before and after their show.
ABDELSAYED: “It’s tricky to rock a rhyme right on time.”
NARRATION: Like Abdelsayed, Dolan didn’t go virtual with his comedy over the pandemic.
DOLAN: “I went home, and I stayed in and went to work, and there was not performing for 20 months, which was tough. Yeah, that was a hell of a period. And then, when we were finally safe enough to reopen, that was really exciting. It was nervous at first. But I think as soon as we got back up there, after all that time, you know, you felt that, like, reawaken in you. It was such a good feeling.”
NARRATION: About 2 miles east of the Comedy Clubhouse sits Zanies Comedy Night Club. Unlike Comedy Clubhouse, Zanies is a small chain of clubs. There are two other locations — one in Rosemont and one in Tennessee. The Chicago location at 1548 N. Wells St. has been open since 1978.
The club was active on social media long before we relied on the digital world for a laugh. In March of 2020, they posted several videos on Instagram called “How to stay sane during quarantine.” Commenters lamented the temporary shutdown of the club.
Zanies reopened just four months later with limited capacity but briefly shut down again at the end of 2020.
I spoke with Robby Flannigan, a manager at Zanies who was hired back in May. He told me that numerous comedians have joked about being thankful they’re not just performing on Zoom anymore. When I watched a show there that night, comedian Bridget McGuire did too.
MCGUIRE: “Have any of you seen a Zoom comedy show? Comedians hate doing them because you don’t get the live feedback. You don’t get the feedback that you’re used to. But I was a high school teacher for 20 years. I am used to people ignoring me when I talk to them.”
NARRATION: In October, the club installed four cameras throughout the room to sell tickets to livestreams of their more popular shows. This hybrid integration of livestreaming into their business model shows a path for comedy clubs to possibly increase show revenue while staying digitally relevant. Yet, the Comedy Clubhouse also portrays a model to survive without forging into the virtual world.
ABDELSAYED: “Other theaters are essentially treating performers as customers, and they’re making a majority of their money off of the classes in the training, which can be pretty prohibitive to people of color, prohibitive to women and just people from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
ABDELSAYED: “I feel like we’ve created a nice model here, where if you own the building, and you’re partnering with the members, you know, and it’s a cooperative arrangement, that is only good for everybody.”
NARRATION: Despite several setbacks like the delta and omicron variants, audiences are slowly returning to see live comedy. It’s unclear when these clubs will be packed to the extent that they were back in 2019. But for some comedians, it’s just good to be back.
DOLAN: “I’m not trying to take over the world. I’m just trying to make people laugh.”
MacKenzie Coffman is a video and broadcast graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @Mac_coffman and see her portfolio at mackenziecoffman.myportfolio.com.