Earlier this year, as awareness about the COVID-19 pandemic grew, Peng Dang noticed that the way he introduced himself during his comedy act was making audiences a little nervous.
As a stand-up comic whose jokes often poke fun at cultural differences between America and his home country, Dang typically begins shows by telling people he’s from China.
Because that’s where cases of the novel coronavirus first appeared, he initially worried that no one would want to watch him perform anymore. But he said comedy has been “the great equalizer”: If you can make people laugh, they love you. And over the past few months, he said, people have needed to laugh more than ever.
“I’ve had audience members come up to me after the show with tears in their eyes, telling me how much they needed this,” said Dang, who is based in Dallas and has still been performing at venues like the Addison Improv Comedy Club and Arlington Improv Comedy Club in front of masked, socially distant audiences.
He is one of many local performers who have had to adjust their routines as, over half a year in, the pandemic has taken a financial toll on the D-FW comedy industry, canceling a majority of in-person stages and permanently closing some venues.
While some comedians are adapting their work to new formats or mediums, all are figuring out how to stay funny in a time of uncertainty and hopelessness for many.
Finding the funny
For Richardson storyteller Sydney Plant, the past several months have been difficult. Plant took a six-week break from Facebook after the pandemic hit her home state, Michigan, and her feed became a constant stream announcing those who had died from COVID-19.
The killings of George Floyd and numerous others at the hands of police have also weighed heavily on her. She said African American history calls to mind the title of the Langston Hughes book Laughing to Keep from Crying.
She started a podcast this year called “Women of Candor” that features interviews with Black women and clips of their live storytelling. Storytelling, her specialty in comedy, has room for both laughter and tears.
Within the span of one story, someone might describe a suicide attempt or a parent dying, but also crack jokes and share their genuine love for Beyoncé.
“It just takes you on that ride that really is life,” she said. “Nobody’s giddy and happy all the time, and hopefully none of us are sad the whole way through.”
This month, she began teaching a virtual class for the Stomping Ground Comedy Theater & Training Center in Dallas with the theme “Stories of Privilege,” encouraging participants to explore potentially hard truths about how they benefit from their race, class or other aspect of identity. The course concludes in mid-October with a virtual showcase for family and friends.
“I’m really, really excited that even in this very tough moment, we found something that’s really timely and relevant — that we can start from that serious place and hopefully find some fun along the way,” she said.
Some comedians, however, are still grappling with tackling humor in 2020.
Aaron Aryanpur has been doing stand-up for over a decade, taking stages at venues across the country and on cruise ships. Growing up, Aryanpur was a fan of several comics who addressed social issues, including George Carlin and Bill Hicks. But he said he’s personally struggling to process everything going on right now in the world.
For him, live shows are an outlet for experimenting and letting audience laughter serve as a guide to “figure out where the funny is together.”
“To not have that has been pretty devastating,” he said, noting that online shows just don’t feel the same as a packed room. While the D-FW area has a number of clubs open with restrictions, and even drive-in comedy shows, he hasn’t personally felt safe enough to do in-person shows in several months.
He also misses the strong sense of community among comedians. They joke with each other, he said, and argue at clubs over who was responsible for making an audience member cry, or even wet their chair from laughing.
In comedy, “you have a lot of people who felt like they didn’t fit in growing up, and they all found homes in this place, sharing that pain,” he said. “How do you not love those people?”
Before the pandemic, the improvisational comedy troupe Four Day Weekend was on track to have its biggest year in 23 years. Its Dallas theater was averaging between 850 and 900 paying customers each weekend. “And then, overnight, the faucet just got turned off,” founding member David Wilk said, adding that they’ve had to scale back staff.
“Hopefully we can… come out the other side stronger, and with a better sense of humor about all of it,” he said.
Four Day Weekend’s two theaters in Dallas and Fort Worth are among several venues that are temporarily closed. After months of reduced business, others, like the Dallas Comedy House and the Plano location of Hyena’s Comedy Nightclub, have had to shut down for good.
Wilk said comedy institutions don’t view each other as rivals that need to fight over a couple hundred seats. Every loss, he said, has been heartbreaking.
Four Day Weekend is currently relying on corporate gigs to stay afloat.
They’ve used Zoom to adapt interactive shows to a digital format, and have developed dozens of games and virtual ideas.
For a recent client, they asked people to submit videos they then edited in the style of America’s Funniest Home Videos for everyone to vote on.
“It’s really easy to kind of get stuck in your ways… it was just autopilot for a while,” Wilk said. “[This just made us] really realize, ‘Oh yeah, we’re creative people. And there’s no problems, there are just challenges or disruptions in routines. It’s really forced us to get nimble again.”
Meanwhile, the cancellation of many in-person performances has opened up time to pursue side projects, said stand-up comedian Latrice Wilkerson.
She’s been learning to edit videos, and is preparing to launch Trice&D, a YouTube channel that will feature comedic skits, drawing on her background in theater. It’s something she’s wanted to do for several years, she said, but always put off.
It’s been hard to go from performing almost every weekend to not at all. Wilkerson misses interacting with people at shows, but is trying not to set expectations for when things will return to normal.
She hopes the comedy industry survives the pandemic. To get through any kind of problem, whether it’s financial, personal, or something else, it’s crucial that people have some source of happiness to hold onto.
“If you can’t get that anywhere else,” she said, “I want people to always be able to rely on comedy.”