“Do you like live comedy?”
You’ll soon be hearing those words on MacDougal Street again. After a year in the dark, comedy clubs are reopening this week, providing some much needed laughs.
Earlier this month, Governor Cuomo announced that on April 2, venues for under 10,000 people would be allowed to reopen with 33 percent capacity, up to 100 people indoors and 200 outdoors. New York Comedy Club is among those that have already announced daily performances starting Friday, with some matinees. The club notes that they’ll be operating at a lower capacity (“we want to share joy and laughter, not germs!”) and that reservations are required for entry. Gotham Comedy Club, in Chelsea, is also offering matinee performances on the weekends, with most of their grand reopening night’s tables already booked. Other clubs, like Comedy Cellar, have only been opening reservations to tables of four or more in order to follow the social distancing regulations.
The all-clear was welcome news to struggling venue owners, including Stand Up NY’s Dani Zoldan, who earlier this month announced that the Upper West Side club was suing the state for unfair treatment. Zoldan says that when the pandemic shut the city down, adaptation was key. In June of 2020, after seeing how alive Central Park was, he turned his focus to outdoor shows.
“I felt like, now’s our chance to do something different, and do something great for the comedy community, and do something good for the city,” he explained. “At the peak we were doing 50 shows a week in parks throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.” Shows on rooftops, in churches, on subway cars, and even under the guise of weddings on Valentine’s followed. “We were just trying to exploit every loophole possible to keep live comedy going.”
The shows didn’t always go as planned. “We had a show in May. An outdoor show,” Zoldan’s business partner, James Altucher, wrote in his notorious New York Post op-ed, titled “New York Is Dead Forever.” “Everyone social distanced. But we were shut down by the police. I guess we were super-spreading humor during a very serious time.”
Stand Up wasn’t the only club skirting the shutdown. On a recent night in March, before Cuomo announced the reopening of performance venues, a sidewalk barker invited pedestrians into a bar on MacDougal Street where a comedy show was being held in the back room. There were only a handful of audience members. None of the standups wore masks. Nearby, the Comedy Cellar has been hosting “dinners” that just happen to have comedians performing. In February, the subterranean club cheekily invited its Instagram followers to its upstairs restaurant, The Olive Tree, where “we are having ‘dinner’ with our funniest friends nightly around 7pm.” To spread out customers, the Olive Tree will now host official performances, along with the Comedy Cellar’s other sister venues, Fat Black Pussycat and Village Underground.
Fearing closure from a lack of government support during the shutdown, EastVille Comedy Club, in Brooklyn, started a GoFundMe in December to stay afloat. Owner Marko Elgart has been operating under the restaurant restrictions since February, and says that even with the new guidelines, he’s still taking some hits. “I had to get in all new people once we reopened…I’m most looking forward to finally making money, and getting a grant for some of our stages”
As Zoldan was going forward with his lawsuit against the state to allow for performance venues to have the same regulations as restaurants, social media picked up the story, drawing the attention of comedy lovers and even presidential hopeful turned mayoral candidate Andrew Yang. “Two days after we filed, Cuomo announced that clubs can reopen at 32 percent capacity,” Zoldan said. “I think it helped, between the lawsuit and the social media pressure and the media interviews. We actually have two other lawsuits pending against them to extend the curfew past 11pm, and we want to be able to open that 50 percent capacity now because restaurants could open up to 50 percent.”
While venue owners push for more, audience members are ready to LOL again. In response to a post about Comedy Cellar’s reopening plans, commenters wrote, “This is more exciting than the arrival of summer vacation as a kid,” “My outfit is ironed and waiting!” and “🙌🙌🙌🙌🙌 i thought the world was over 😢 👏👏👏 without the NYC comedy district.” Even comics like Hasan Minaj and Jeff Ross voiced their support.
With clubs reopening, the humidex rising, and newly announced vaccine eligibility for all adults, venue owners are looking forward to opportunities the summer might bring. “I’m looking forward to just bringing comedy to as many places as I can,” Zoldan said.