Zach Zimmerman and Jay Jurden

It’s said that laughter is the best medicine, but with the cures for coronavirus and systemic racism nowhere in sight, comedians are questioning the role of comic relief in today’s world.

“It’s weird to hear someone tell jokes but then also hear sirens every 10 minutes in the background,” said Jay Jurden, a comedian in New York City. “There’s a bleakness to that.”

The coronavirus caused unequal suffering and death rates among members of Black and Latino populations across the U.S., and the police killing of George Floyd further shed light on systemic inequalities and threw steam behind the Black Lives Matter movement.

“The bigger question more than digital comedy shows for me is, ‘Oh, what is the function of comedy in this moment?’” said Zach Zimmerman, a comedian in New York City. “In both quarantine and the Black Lives Matter movement for me as a white comedian, how can I support in the short and long-term in my personal life, professional life?”

The recent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has propelled many comedians to question comedy’s current role in society. After George Floyd’s death, the white comedians who are currently taping live late-night shows — Seth Meyers, Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien, James Corden and Stephen Colbert — each scrapped scheduled celebrity appearances and replaced them with Black activists and entertainers. Dave Chappelle released a Netflix special touching on the protests sweeping the country; it was light on humor and heavy on social commentary. “This is not funny at all,” he acknowledged at one point, after an emotional outpouring about the police killing of Philando Castile. 

Jurden, who’s Black, and Zimmerman, who’s white, are also using this moment to discuss race and how it plays a role in who becomes a successful, well-known comedian. Though they knew each other before the coronavirus sent them into their respective homes, their friendship has grown over the last couple of months as they seek guidance and virtual companionship in an era of uncertainty. Now they talk on the phone almost daily to keep each other sane, but also to debate topics like the efficacy of digital stand-up comedy and how shows’ line-ups can better reflect the demographics of New York City.

“There’s so many people who don’t even think about that shit,” Jurden said. “Because if you’re surrounded by your white friends and you’re like, ‘This is what we should do to help Black people,’ the centering of the conversation is about Black people, but it’s still propped up by a group of white people. So it’s inherently on shaky legs already.”

Jurden, like some comedians such as Sarah Mowrey and DeAnne Smith, are using their comedic platform to raise money for organizations that support the Black Lives Matter movement. Other Black comics, such as Nore Davis, are using their social media platforms to inspire their followers to support the Black Lives Matter movement in whatever ways they can. “GOOD MORNING! HERE IS YO DAILY REMINDER TO CONTINUE TO PROTEST THE BEST WAY YOU CAN,” Davis tweeted on June 28. “DONATE. PROTEST. SHARE. LOVE YOURSELF.”

Zimmerman, however, has taken a step away from the comedy scene, saying he’s letting his stand-up muscles “atrophy.” 

“White ambition within white supremacy feels evil,” Zimmerman said. “So I had to reflect on my own ambitions. Comedy is so ego-driven. I feel like what’s challenging in this moment for a lot of comedians is decentering that ego — or for a lot of white comedians decentering that ego — and realizing maybe the ambition has to be on behalf of a culture and a society rather than individuals.”

Before Zoom became the conduit for comedy, the two frequently performed at venues in Brooklyn like Union Hall, or Stand Up New York in Manhattan.

Jurden gave Zimmerman credit for making Stand Up New York more representative of the city’s diverse population. “Zach actively made that place more queer,” he said. “It’s a place that I put in so many reps as a Black person, as a queer person, on the Upper West Side — I mean, like I don’t see a lot of people like me there. It’s a 15-minute train ride from Harlem, but it’s still not my stomping ground. So I like that place because the audience is reflective a bit more of a world that is different from me.”

When stand-up returns, Jurden and Zimmerman hope changes are made that democratize and diversify comedy shows — in both the line-ups and the audience make-up — while also ensuring everyone’s health and safety. Jurden says that Sydnee Washington, Marie Faustin and Aminah Imani’s Sunday night shows at the Knitting Factory do a good job of attracting a diverse group.

“It’s a show hosted by three Black women, and you look out and it looks like Brooklyn,” Jurden said. “It’s everything. It’s an audience that I wish I could see all the time. It’s so diverse: age, sexuality, race, income level.”

The two hope that other comedians are taking this time in quarantine to seek out close friendships within the industry that serve to alleviate competition and jealousy that they found was rampant in the pre-coronavirus industry, as well as develop closer relationships with their audiences. 

“There is a crisis of community happening and a lot of artists have just been pumping stuff out to adoring fans rather than building relationships with other artists, and caring less about your own career and making sure other people feel supported and loved,” Zimmerman said. “Then you get at what a real community might look like, like New York comedy’s community — do we hold each other accountable? Do we support each other? Are we good citizens? Do we call each other out? Or do we focus all of our love and attention on the person who we think is gonna give us a job.”