(Photo courtesy of Tara Cannistraci)

From the cold, slightly damp ground in Prospect Park, mild laughter dissolved into the Friday evening air in late September. Comedians stepped up onto the “stage” (a small hill) and competed for attention. If it wasn’t the music from the Zumba class 50 feet away that was stealing it, it was the child’s birthday party marked by large mylar balloons. Usually the most disruptive thing in a comedy club is the drunk heckler, but a heckler probably wouldn’t be heard here by anyone other than the family next to him with the baby on a picnic blanket.. The show was hosted by Tara Cannistraci, a comedian from the Bronx. “I have a show tonight because laughing is essential,” she tells people. “I’m basically a nurse.”

The unconventional audience did little to deter the comedians from their planned material—comedian Robert Dean wore a pigeon costume and delved into his own psyche, Jordan Raybould joked about being a successful uncle (not being a pedophile), Jeff Arcuri made fun of the audience’s tattoos, Matthew Broussard discussed the fear of posting photos on social media without wearing a mask, and Von DeCarlo asked if we could bring body shaming back to deal with her quarantine weight gain.  

Cannistraci, like many people, had big plans for her year before the pandemic canceled it all.  She was performing at casinos, traveling to Toronto, and was looking forward to headlining a show in Vancouver, until she wasn’t.  

What was your first show like after the quarantine?

I walked through the green room and then went on stage, and there was plexiglass all around me. Literally, I was encased. What came out of my mouth was like, “I feel like if the toy company, Mattel, made a Bronx Barbie, this is what she would look like.” And then from every night that I went on, I opened with that, and then started elaborating, like: “Her hair accessories include chewing gum, a banana clip, and a bad accent. She doesn’t date Ken, she dates Joey. He works in shocks and he gets paid cash. His accessories include sunglasses that don’t come off, even when he’s inside.” 

How much do you address COVID in your comedy?

I want to go out there and not talk about it so that people can escape it. But the reality is, we’re all living it.

Did you do any Zoom comedy shows before that?

In early March, late February, had you asked me to do it, I would probably have been like, “No, I’m not doing that.” You want me to do your Zoom show? I was supposed to be in a 1,400-seat theater. You always stay humble and have to do other things, but still, it was such a humbling experience to be like, “Yeah, I’ll do that.” I think it was just me ranting, which was kind of hysterical and sad at the same time. 

That sounds like it must’ve been cathartic.

Yeah. I was like, do I have to pay you guys for this?

How has your experience been doing stand-up in the parks? 

The other day I was in McCarren Park. It was really loud around us. And people just started clapping for one of my jokes really loud so that I could hear them. The laughing is not the force you think it’s going to be. There’s just so many other things going on. They’re laughing at you but they’re still hearing the guy playing his keyboard behind you.

Matthew Broussard (Photo: Sami Roberts)

So, I’ve been told that the one question that you should never ask a comedian is, “How did you get started in comedy?” 

No, I’m fine with that. I was always just fascinated by it from very early on. In my diaper, I’d be hitting the TV being like “Johnny.” I wanted the Johnny Carson show. Like, that’s how young I was. At age six I knew who was hosting Saturday Night Live. I was obsessed. 

What were you doing when New York City shut down?

I was supposed to be at the Valley Forge Casino in Pennsylvania. It was March 13. They shut down, and I was completely bummed, but obviously thinking like, “Okay, it’s just tonight.” We go to Philadelphia, I do two shows that Saturday night, and then by Sunday morning we were watching the news. We actually called the hotel, and we were like, “Can we stay another night?” We didn’t know what we were coming home to. This may be our last night out to do anything before we go home to quarantine. We went for a really good dinner and that was the last time we went out.

How did you spend your time during quarantine?

I kind of just slowly watched each gig pass by. You always say to yourself, “If I could just have three months just to focus on myself, I would do so much.” But like…I didn’t do anything. I didn’t work out and eat healthy. I watched Homeland. That’s what I did. I watched Claire Danes “ugly cry” on, like, however many seasons of Homeland, and it was worth it. 

Do you feel comfortable performing indoors?

Listen, we all have to feel safe, or I’m not going to feel comfortable telling the jokes. But at the same time, if people are sitting in a restaurant eating, there really is no difference. You’re not dancing during my set. Your mouth is open when you’re eating food. People are going to sneeze in a restaurant, and you’re going to sneeze in a comedy club.