On a very rainy, very recent Friday evening, at an outdoor comedy show in the East River Park Amphitheater, the gray skies refused to give up. Neither would the New Yorkers sitting on the increasingly soggy lawn. “Everybody stayed under the rain. There were a hundred people,” says Nataly Aukar, a New York City comic who performed during the downpour. “I was holding an umbrella, and so was everyone in the audience. It was one of the best shows I’ve ever done, even before the pandemic.”
Comedy exists to challenge the status quo, so as the sea change that one could argue began with #MeToo, and surged and frothed along social issues of race and class, gender, creed and queerness, comedy became a battleground, test site and a weathervane. What is funny has always found playtime outside what’s male-and-pale, but there were still plenty of norms to be challenged, and new areas in which to challenge them.
In 2018, Saturday Night Live hired its first cast member that was either Asian, or queer-identifying, in Bowen Yang. This was a meteor. But it was less surprising to fans of comedy who’d followed Yang and Cat Cohen at Alan Cumming’s Club Cumming. The East Village venue has put on night after night of queer-leaning cabaret, comedy and drag since 2017. Meanwhile, it wasn’t just SNL hiring Yang, and before him their first South Asian writer (Nimesh Patel), or Ilana Glazer upending the buddy comedy with Broad City—or even Desus and Mero reinventing what it was to have a talk show. It was happening everywhere. New BIPOC voices like Ziwe Fumudoh used YouTube and her podcast, This Is Uncomfortable, to not only play with and give voice to new experiences, but to give voice to a new America. What matters in mainstream comedy has always come from the periphery, from the street or the underground, and before the pandemic — and even since it made landfall — those borderlands are bubbling.
It’s a promising sign of a new wave in comedy, where The Next Thing — from Lenny Bruce to David Cross to John Mulaney and Chloe Fineman — has never been found at the two-drink-minimum clubs; it comes from the underground. Though today, that underground might actually be outside.
Stand Up New York is producing shows in Central Park, Battery Park, Prospect Park and elsewhere. Clubs like The Stand are inviting guests to hear comedy while they enjoy brunch outdoors, while New York Comedy Club is doing rooftop shows. More under the radar, at the Lower East Side sandwich shop Regina’s Grocery, you can watch comedy from seats set up across the street. QED in Astoria has been throwing shows in its backyard, while The Tiny Cupboard in Bushwick has turned its rooftop into a venue. There are rumors of secret shows, of shows in people’s homes, of a show under a bridge.
The show at the amphitheater was a version of Tobin Miller’s weekly show, Baby Shower, which, pre-COVID, took place at the Grey Lady on the Lower East Side (a mix of beginner, up-and-coming and veteran comics that has seen appearances by Todd Barry and T.J. Miller). In July, he told his mailing list they’d be trying the show at the amphitheater. About 20 people showed up. Last week, before the rain, there were 150. About a hundred stayed. “Some people are staying just because they haven’t showered in four months,” Miller told his audience.
“It was the first time I’ve experienced this in America: the audience and the comedian, we went through something together,” says Aukar, who performs at clubs and at colleges over the country. “If there’s any place that could fight for this art form to stay alive, it’s New York City, because New York has the most dedicated comics in the country.”
“We feel like comedy is this underground thing right now,” says Espi Rivadeneira, who performs at The Tiny Cupboard, in backyards and other spots. “I had a mic at Madison Square Park and they shut me down. So I went to Central Park. We’re survivors. We keep coming back.”
The vibe at an outside show is different, the comedians say: You can’t have the intimacy of a low-ceilinged room where the only thing to look at is the comic. But you learn to roll with it, and it makes you better; you’re competing with birds and bikers and kids and sunsets. “I used to be low-energy,” Rivadeneira says. “Not anymore.”
“It turns every show into a show for everyone,” says Erica Spera, a producer and comic. “You can’t control who’s there. It’s a good thing you’re in NYC, because kids are exposed to so much. If this was in the suburbs, it would be shut down by every mom immediately.”
Before COVID, comics speak of something like a boom in the small-venue and bar shows where you could find not only struggling comics, but also the most exciting work. Nimesh Patel wrote for Chris Rock at the Oscars, and is a regular at The Comedy Cellar, New York’s comedy mecca. This summer, he was a guest at Dave Chapelle’s “Summer Camp” shows in Ohio. Before COVID, he could be found in small shows at bars all over Brooklyn, such as Cherry Tree Bar in Park Slope, Littlefield and Gran Torino.
Manhattan, too. For two years, Bassam Shawl produced his show Brown Mirror Comedy at Von Bar in the East Village, before moving it to The Stand (Bill Burr and Jim Gaffigan have done his show). “There was definitely something happening,” he says. Before March, Shawl was performing 10 to 15 times a week, at Village spots like The Lantern and The Stand. He saw what was happening as a product of comedy market forces: “A lot of times, comedians starting out are not getting spots. To get onstage, produce your own show,” he says. Performing outdoors with no mic, he says, has given him some new perspective: “It makes you appreciate pastors and how Jesus and Moses spread their message.”
So can it survive? No question, these comics say. “We have no attention spans and no memories. People will be back to behaving the way they were the instant they can be,” says Patel. “I think a lot of people are hurt financially, so there might not be as many people who will spend $100 to go to the Comedy Cellar,” says Miller. Also, the financial hit will hopefully mean cheaper rents, and therefore less overhead for bars, making room for comedy nights. On the flip side, with so many bars shuttered, DIY spaces are popping up; Bassam mentions one that’s ready to go, with “a great green room and room for 60 to 100 seats.” It’s near Bed-Stuy — that’s all we can share.
And what will it look like when there’s a return to some kind of normal? “There will be a boom and it will be very special,” Aukar says, adding, “You saying that makes me dream.”
The comedians will return more readied, too: more practiced, perhaps more innovative. One advantage to the outdoor shows that have popped up is that there is no cover, less stress, more room to take risks.
Comedians are trying things. Those who aren’t doing many shows, like Patel, are instead working on their craft. “Performing is a skill set you need to hone and can learn while not onstage; you can sit at home and study delivery.” (Perhaps some solid advice for aspirants as winter approaches.) Miller will only be running Baby Shower at the amphitheater until October. “I’m not lugging 40 space heaters to the East River,” he says.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t some wistfulness, and with it some hope. “When people think of comedy, they think of New York City: a low-ceilinged basement, a brick wall, cigarette smoke in the air, people laughing at two o’clock in the morning; that can only happen in New York City,” says Patel. “That’s an iconic New York City image.” Without comedy, and the artistic forms that provide its lifeblood, what is New York, Aukar asks? “Just buildings.”
Who (and where) to watch in New York’s underground comedy circuit
Nimesh Patel was the first writer (or anything creative) of Indian descent at SNL, wrote for Chris Rock at the Oscars, and is a regular at the Comedy Cellar and at clubs around the country.
Nataly Aukar can be found in clubs and at colleges over the country; in New York you can catch her at Caroline’s on Broadway, Gotham Comedy Club and, if you’re lucky, at some bars in Queens.
Tobin Miller is the host and producer of Baby Shower and performs all around NYC. For tickets for Baby Shower’s outdoor show, go to Eventbrite. If you’d like to get on Baby Shower’s mailing list, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Espi Rivadeneira has been performing in New York for several years, and before that in Austin. She can be found at spots all over New York City, including The Tiny Cupboard, where she drops gems like this one: “Dating drug addicts is hard. You can be like, ‘I love you’ and they’re like, ‘Where am I’?”