Comedians agree their art is best performed where a contagious virus might thrive: small basements with low ceilings packed to the brim with people. That’s the kind of place where a comic will know immediately whether or not a joke has landed, either from the laughter bouncing around the room or the immediate silence. The proximity means they can take the temperature of the room and adjust their jokes to the crowd.
That’s what John Hedrick used to do. The 23-year-old has been performing stand-up comedy since 2018, and he’s always preferred these kinds of small, intimate spaces. On March 11, 2020, he was doing back-to-back shows in D.C. venues, first at Hook Hall on Georgia Avenue NW, then at Exiles on U Street NW. But as the night wore on, the crowd thinned, because by March 11 it had become clear a novel, flu-like virus was spreading throughout the U.S., and no one knew what to expect or how to behave.
“I remember looking around and thinking I probably shouldn’t be here. None of us should be here,” Hedrick recalls.
A few days later, D.C. would completely shut down, and Hedrick’s prospects of performing for a packed bar would evaporate for the next year. Like many performers, he tried to organize his own virtual shows. While some comics have found success this way (including local comic Jenny Cavallero, whose Instagram shows only feature sober comedians), Hedrick’s attempts at performing to a row of grainy, muted squares were “awful.”
It wasn’t until the warmer months that things started to change. Hedrick was finally invited to a comedy show held outdoors and hosted by local comic Mike Kurtz, founder of CryBaby DC. There, he found people, masked and scattered throughout the yard, awaiting a comedy show.
Many local comedians headed outdoors in 2020, subverting the idea of how comedy is typically performed and giving comics the chance to not only perform, but produce stand-up comedy. Hedrick says the inspiration to launch his own outdoor shows came from Kurtz, who began bringing comics outside in June.
Kurtz, a 31-year-old from Prince George’s County, started producing his own shows as part of CryBaby DC two years ago. In June, as the region slowly began to reopen during a drop in COVID-19 cases, Kurtz got a friend in Northern Virginia to lend his backyard for an outdoor comedy show. During that first show, comedians performed from a wooden board in the middle of a garden to roughly 15 people sitting in camp chairs.
It was amazing. “It felt like real comedy experiences because of the intimacy of a backyard,” Kurtz says, comparing the shows to other outdoor shows he’d done in New York City pre-pandemic. They were larger and often interrupted by people walking dogs or running through the show. In the Virginia backyard, Kurtz says he found a relaxed audience that was “willing to laugh.”
“It just felt normal in a situation that was not at all normal,” he says.
From there, he began to run shows every week through mid-November, stopping only when it got too cold to continue. His shows took place in Cheverly, as well as backyards in Columbia Heights and Brightwood Park.
“I started having a great turnout, and all I had to do was post on Instagram and people would be there,” he says.
By mid-summer, his shows were spilling out of his friend’s backyard and into an alley near Wonderland Ballroom on Kenyon Street NW. With a 50-person gathering limit, Kurtz began to require people to RSVP in order to receive the address. They also had to compete with low-flying helicopters and sirens (thanks to their proximity to Medstar Washington Hospital Center), as well as the occasional visit from cops asking them to keep the noise down.
But Kurtz says the shows were “an outlet for comedians but also for audience members to have something to do that was positive and safe.”
“Being able to get onstage was big for a lot of people’s mental health, a lot of comedians’ mental health,” Kurtz says. “I had somebody tell me that if it weren’t for my show … they probably would have killed themselves. It sounds like an exaggeration but they’re not somebody who would tell me that, you know, jokingly.”
Kurtz’s outdoor shows inspired others to try their own. That included Hedrick, who teamed up with fellow comics Alex Asifo, 23, and Kaleb Stewart, 24, to create Shows We Put On. They all agreed: They needed to perform again.
Asifo had recently returned from New York, where he had been performing in March 2020, and Stewart had a bunch of shows lined up in D.C. after performing in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. “Everyone was bogged down in the house. We all know that people have to live,” Asifo says, meaning people needed entertainment—and so did he: “I’m a comic. I can’t be on Zoom forever.”
They started in late July, putting on shows in Hedrick’s backyard in Columbia, Maryland, using a stage made out of a wooden bed frame. They managed to get roughly 40 people to their shows, which included both comedy and live music, by the end of the summer.
“No one has seen live music in a very long time. So that was another thing to get people to come,” Hedrick says. They also invited a lineup of comics they knew well to perform.
The introduction of more outdoor shows, however, didn’t mean all comics managed to eke out some success during the pandemic. Newer comics still might find themselves struggling; the comics behind the outdoor shows say they often booked people they already knew. The trio behind Shows We Put On explain it this way: Comedy is a tiered system. The top-tier comics are the ones who were getting booked at comedy clubs all the time. Now, they’re the first picks for outdoor shows because producers behind the shows know they’ll be good. Meanwhile, lower-tier comics, the ones who had been trying to get their names and talent out there via open mics, are a bit out of luck.
“Especially in the pandemic, if you want to be on a comedy show, you already have to know people,” Stewart says. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t try to help newcomers a little. Stewart says he would sometimes book newer comics because he wanted to give them the same chances he once got.
“Everything is getting more and more complicated and confusing,” Stewart says. “So just to give [them] a chance to show your talent.” Asifo says they also tried to mix up their lineups, bringing on more women, for example, or just ensuring various comedy styles in a given show.
But beyond a few extra dollars and a wooden stage to perform, the renaissance of outdoor comedy shows in D.C. also might’ve given local comics something else: booking power. And that could mean big things for the future.
“People aren’t going into comedy clubs. You have the same booking power as any of these higher comedy clubs. The power’s in your hands,” Asifo says. It worked for him. Before the pandemic, he was getting booked a lot in D.C. He was on the up-and-up. Now, “I don’t really care if this club is not booking me. I book myself,” he says.
Like Kurtz, the trio promoted their shows on Instagram. Tickets originally started at $7, but they eventually bumped the price up to $15 to pay both comics and musicians. It wasn’t a ton of money, Stewart says, but “it was worth it because we were keeping comedy alive.”
Being outdoors wasn’t a perfect replacement for comedy clubs, though, and there’s a reason why: It can be hard to appeal to an outdoor, masked crowd. Jokes might take forever to travel around the backyard, and comics may not be able to tell if a joke landed.
“As we do a comedy show in somebody’s yard, the laughs literally evaporate into the atmosphere,” Stewart says. Hedrick describes it like talking to an ex: You’re familiar, yet distant.
But as the summer went on, more outdoor shows began to crop up. Jenny Questell, 28, and Caitlin McDevitt, 26, got started in September, resurrecting their brand Living Room Shows—which they started at the beginning of 2020—after performing at outdoor shows done by CryBaby DC and Shows We Put On. But they added their own personal flair: Living Room Shows were originally meant to be intimate house shows. Now, they had to do them outside where, rather than cozy and close in living rooms, participants were masked and scattered around a yard, and laughter and reaction were much harder to gauge. Still, Questell and McDevitt threw themselves into trying to instill that same level of intimacy
“We think about a lot of little details,” McDevitt says. “We were building an aesthetic.”
That included decorations, hand sanitizer, fairy lights, and cupcakes. When the temperature dropped, they passed out blankets and hot cider until it finally was too cold to continue in November.
Unlike the others, Questell and McDevitt enforced a pay-what-you-can model by putting a Venmo handle onto a sign at the show, which Questell says worked better than charging $10 a ticket; some people ended up paying $20 or $30 after enjoying a show.
Questell agrees bringing about outdoor shows has given more comics power in the scene. “We’ve all sort of figured out how to run these outdoor shows,” she says. “If hopefully we get out of this and get to move back inside … some different key players are kind of on the scene, as far as producing goes.”
But Kurtz, who played a big role in starting these outdoor shows, adds that many comics still lost time in furthering their careers. Many comedy venues have also closed. But that means the community has become closer, he argues, and Kurtz says that will bring many of them back to the stage, either via more outdoor shows or eventually getting back into crowded bars.
“I think it’s impossible now to take comedy for granted, with everything that’s going on, with having lost it for so long,” Kurtz says. “It’ll be the comedians who will cherish the ability to get onstage so much more.”