Comedy clubs in Calgary have found it hard to rustle up laughs, but now local comedians are hoping to bring back the chuckles.
Comedians had to change their routines like so many others dealing with Covid-19 public health restrictions, put in place more than two years ago.
Comedians adjusted their routines from performing in-person to an empty audience to playing for people in a virtual call. The online environment challenged comedians while they tried to continue to perform.
“You can’t get any feedback on what you’re doing in the way you would if people were in the room with you,” said local comedian Billy Macdonald.
“It’s kind of another level of sadness when you are out in a room and there’s nobody there to see you.”
Macdonald moved to Victoria, B.C., to attend school at the University of Victoria before the pandemic.
He moved back to Calgary after the first year of the pandemic.
Macdonald always wanted to try stand-up comedy, and performing in Victoria gave him a fresh opportunity.
“I didn’t have to worry about what people would think if I wasn’t very good,” Macdonald said with a laugh.
Performing live shows has a life and response to it.
“A lot of the time with making something funny, you’re taking something that everybody knows about and you have to put a spin on it, and you’re taking a risk to do it,” Macdonald said.
“You either look stupid or end up saying something wrong. There’s definitely that rush aspect but also a real validation.”
Void of Laughter
After moving back to Calgary, he continued his comedy routine and performed stand-up on a regular basis.
Since then, Macdonald has organized comedy events in support of comedians.
The Prairie Emporium would host shows, and Macdonald will be hosting a show at Revival Brewcade in Inglewood.
Because the pandemic was still ongoing, Macdonald couldn’t find consistency and cancelled shows.
Performers and Calgarians alike were uncomfortable or didn’t want to take any risks with the virus, according to Macdonald.
“I could just generally tell from the vibe of the city that people weren’t quite into supporting live events at the time – which was totally understandable,” Macdonald said.
Virtual shows and zoom shows became the norm for comedians during this time.
“It’s just weird. It feels really self-indulgent. You’re looking at your face on your laptop screen while you’re hoping that you’re being well received,” Macdonald said.
Macdonald would ask guests to keep their mics on for feedback, but it was disruptive enough to force them to mute guests.
“When it’s over, you’re just like, ‘Well, why did I do that?” Macdonald said.
“You don’t get any of that feedback that you would from just doing it in front of a live audience. And without that feedback, you basically feel like you weren’t doing stand-up.”
Comedians Build Community
As soon as he was able, Macdonald stopped with virtual comedy shows and went back to in-person.
The pandemic was a time for comedians to build camaraderie, but also to build experience, according to Macdonald.
The comedians that continued to perform have more opportunities now that the provincial government has eased on the restrictions.
“Everyone wants to see that they’re going out and supporting [and] checking out all the shows in town, so they know what’s going on.”
Comedy clubs have been wary of starting up again, even though the province has removed all provincial restrictions.
“We’re definitely not back to where we were. People are certainly a lot more cognizant of their personal space now than they have been,” said Matthew Wall, general manager of Laugh Shop Calgary.
“We were just not at a point yet where strangers are ready to start sharing tables with people they don’t know. And so, until we get back there, it’s tough for me to hit capacity,” Wall said.
Comedy Clubs Still Wary
Laugh Shop Calgary hosts shows three days a week, twice a day on a normal day.
They’ve kept their shows to those same three days with one show each.
Laugh Shop was faced with challenges when the government put restrictions in place, like the restriction exemption program.
“Unfortunately, every time we added another show it takes quite a bit of resources to get momentum to those added showtimes,” Wall said.
“We’re a little more hesitant at this point to add more shows to the schedule until we’re certain that we’re not going to lose that momentum again.”
Laugh Shop is still operating at a reduced capacity rate. They have a capacity of 300 guests.
Wall says the environment around COVID is slowly changing, but people are still being mindful of going to their club.
“I would say every week people become more and more comfortable with being out in groups, unmasked, and back to the types of behavior that we saw prior to the start of the pandemic. That being said, people are still cautious.”
“There’s been a big component of morality attached to going out during times of COVID. So, we definitely see it affect the hearts and minds of folks as they’re making their choices on what to do with their free time.”
People Find Reason to Laugh
Laugh Shop had TJ Miller on March 4-5, 2022, and tickets were in demand, according to Wall.
“People will gladly sit with someone, or on the lap of someone they’ve never met before,” Wall said.
“But on a regular weekly basis, folks are still pretty picky about their personal space.”
Macdonald has seen an increase in people at his shows, and other shows he has attended.
People are starting to find interest in comedy shows again, and are starting to fill up venues, according to Macdonald.
“I’ll be doing a joke that I’ve done a couple of times over the pandemic, but for the first time in front of a full room,” Macdonald said.
“It’s still a learning experience for everyone, no matter what their experience level is, because everything is still changing.”
Laugh Shop is featuring Craig Robinson (The Office, Hot Tub Time Machine) in September 2022, which is a rebooking from his planned show in 2020.
They are also planning on being back up to their former schedule and capacity by that time.
Macdonald will be hosting Cuttooth Comedy at Revival Brewcade in Inglewood on Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m.