On a beautiful Thursday evening in Prospect Park, Ariel Elias, a sly young comic from Kentucky, walked down a hill, looked at a few dozen socially distanced audience members sitting near a family flying a kite, and said: “Thank you for being here — and shame on you.”
This joke perfectly captured the odd mix of excitement, anxiety and guilt I felt sitting in a socially distanced crowd, some unmasked, cackling through illegally produced stand-up comedy under a vast blue sky. “It’s all backward,” Elias concluded, adding that even handling bar fights has changed. “Now they say: ‘Hey buddy, take it inside.’”
Performing live comedy in New York right now is like selling beer during Prohibition: It’s outlawed and everyone’s doing it. A state official told me this week that comedy shows remain impermissible, and yet that hasn’t stopped outdoor performances in gardens, parks and on rooftops, often produced with little to no advertising. No club has been more ambitious during the pandemic than Stand Up NY, an Upper West Side institution that has given stage time to more comics per week than any comedy club in the city (and probably the country). Stand Up NY has done it by commandeering space in parks (including the two I saw last week in Prospect Park) every night in three boroughs, mounting 40 shows last week. The club is already plotting expansion into new parks, including one in New Jersey, with a goal of 60 showcases a week, featuring a host and five comics, until it gets too cold in the fall.
These shows drew around a 1,000 audience members last week, the club said, and have even inspired comics who left the city in March because of the shutdown to return. After spending five months with his family in Michigan, the comic Jeffrey Arcuri said that the park shows brought him back to the city — he has performed every night for the past week — and that he had found grateful audiences. “People who come to these shows really want to be there,” he said by phone. “You can see it on their faces.”
Until the pandemic, Stand Up NY had not exactly distinguished itself in the city’s competitive comedy scene, drawing tourist-heavy crowds to its cramped room through the use of street teams handing out discounted tickets. “I’ve owned the club for 12 years and I wasn’t so proud of it,” Dani Zoldan, who runs the day-to-day operations on behalf of his partners, told me. But in the vanishing of live entertainment, he saw an opening. “This was an opportunity to not only bring back laughter to New York, but for us to make our reputation, so I wanted to go big,” he said in a Skype interview. “I don’t want to do one show a night in front of my club. That’s boring to me. I wanted to make a splash.”
In late June, he set up a show in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow without a permit and around 50 people showed up. Then he expanded quickly, to other parks in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. The shows are advertised on the club’s site, where you can buy tickets or just show up and see it for free. (Venmo donations are encouraged.) Most feature no amplification, but at Prospect Park, the comics did use microphones.
The parks department shut down two shows in Battery City but nowhere else. Zoldan said police officers had even stopped and watched performances. When asked why he thought they don’t shut him down, he said that the audiences were socially distanced responsibly, but speculated in an email: “I also think they dislike our mayor so much they don’t want to listen to his direction.”
Zoldan, who is not selling alcohol at these sets, said that revenue was about 30 percent of pre-pandemic level. The real payoff cannot be measured in dollars, but in the younger crowd he’s reaching, the club’s growing social media numbers, the appreciative emails from audiences and the relationships with comics. He points to stand-ups like Mark Normand and Marina Franklin who weren’t performing at the club before the shutdown but have become regulars in his park shows.
And yet, his rehabilitation efforts ran into a roadblock when his partner James Altucher published an essay titled “New York City Is Dead Forever,” sparking controversy online, including pushback by none other than Jerry Seinfeld, who criticized the argument and poked fun at Stand Up NY in an essay in The Times. Someone even wrote on the sidewalk in front of the club: “Owner thinks NY is dead. I think he killed his club.”
Zoldan said he disagreed with his partner, calling the essay “a cop-out,” but he also appeared to relish the fact that for once, Stand Up NY was the club everyone was talking about. And he’s well aware that articles like this column could lead to more shows closed. “Even if they keep shutting us down, I’ll figure out a way to keep it going,” he said. “I never had that feeling where I felt comics and the audience like us. I feel like we’re doing something right. Finally.”
Doing comedy al fresco is not ideal. Some of the jokes get drowned out by airplanes and the laughter doesn’t build under the sky as it does with a low ceiling. But the crowds in the shows I saw were young and enthusiastic, and the performers appeared tickled to be in a community of comedy fans again.
Laura Sogar, a tall comic in shorts, paused after a pedophile bit to recognize that it was “a pretty intense joke for a park.” And when a small poodle interrupted her closer, racing up to lick her feet, Sogar stopped the show: “I’ll take that heckle any day. Adorable.”
Many of the comics did material on the new etiquette of the pandemic. In a successful set, Josh Johnson looked on the bright side of masks: “If you’ve been ugly, this is your time to shine.” Matthew Broussard took off his mask to reveal another and then another, creating a Russian nesting doll-like situation.
Masked comics have a higher degree of difficulty when you can’t see their facial expressions, but at the same time, it forces you to pay closer attention to the voice, which can help certain performers. Daniel Simonsen, a deadpan absurdist from Norway, leaned into this, emphasizing his accent and mechanical delivery, pointing out in his set that the expression on his face was no different from the mask. “Very neutral, emotionally,” he said. “I sound like a robot low on battery.”
As the Thursday show came to a close, the crowd thickened and the sky darkened. The stand-up Robert Dean explained that in a traditional club, a light in the back would indicate that a comic should wrap up. Nodding to the mustard sunset, he told the audience: “The light is the sunset.”
The funniest sets exploited the unusual nature of the setting, nodding to the women doing yoga a few feet away or shouting at the building in the distance where an ex-girlfriend lived. These shows had slow spots, but at their best, they had an experimental, playful spirit. And after half a year of conservative quarantining, I definitely tensed up when a comic took a step forward, and I also wished the shows required the audience to wear masks. But the park is full of people with masks hanging around their chins.
It also must be said that the danger of these shows, their possible recklessness, adds a tension that comedy feeds on. At times, the sound of laughter around me turned my thoughts to invisible droplets speeding through the air. Is socially distanced comedy worth the risk? Is it irresponsible to watch park performances? Your answers will vary (and to be honest, my mind changed more than once even midshow) but after the last half year in New York, the city has never felt more alive than when I saw this show.