In the eyes of Hilliary Begley and other Asheville comics, stand-up comedians carry on an ancient and honorable tradition — one that’s especially valuable in times of widespread distress.
“The people that do comedy are the ones that make you think about the real issues, but put it in a perspective to where other people can understand it. Or they’re seeing other people’s perspective in a funny way — the same way there was the court jester for the king,” she says. “He was the only one who was able to talk shit about the king. Nobody else could say it, or they might get their head chopped off — but the comedian, they’re the truth-tellers. They’re the ones that get to make the jokes. And if that is stifled, then we’re in real trouble.”
Restrictions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic have indeed brought the vibrant local comedy scene to a screeching halt. Venues like The Odditorium, The One Stop and The Orange Peel have been closed since mid-March, leaving stand-ups without paid performances or weekly open mic nights to test out new material. As it has with many facets of daily life, the Zoom videoconferencing platform has offered a way for comedians to connect and tell jokes, but it’s quickly become clear that these “shows” are not a comparable substitute for the real thing.
“You still don’t have the vibe from the audience or the immediate reaction that you need for a certain joke, so it’s hard to tell what works and what doesn’t work,” says Peter Smith-McDowell. “The joy of stand-up comedy is you get the result immediately. You get the feedback as soon as you say it, so it’s up to you to determine, ‘Did that work? Will it work next time? Do I need to change it? Was it my delivery? Was it the structure of the joke? Did they laugh when I wanted them to laugh? Did they laugh somewhere else?’ It’s the ‘chasing the dragon’ of stand-up comedy — it’s the fun part for us.”
Moira Goree agrees with the limitations of Zoom comedy events, which she equates to “throwing jokes down a hole.” The transgender stand-up says the main question that local comedians have been asking each other during the COVID-19 shutdown is, “Have you been writing material?” Citing “Saturday Night Live” cast members’ advice that anything written in the middle of the series’ summer break is going to stink by the time the show returns, she’s been focusing on dramatic writing and creating an account of her experiences during the pandemic, rather than filtering it through the lens of comedy. The documentation allows her “to really reckon with” herself while also creating a record that can easily be used for future jokes.
“It’s for sure a mine,” she says. “It’ll be 20 pages of this one thing that happened today, and then six months later, I’ll go back and be like, ‘Huh! That line’s kinda funny.’ And that’ll turn into five minutes of material. But it is keeping that record and being like, ‘Oh yeah! That’s how I was feeling back then.’ And once you’ve sucked all the venom out of all of that, then you can actually make it funny.”
The future of comedy
The time for Goree to utilize her journal may soon be here. The One Stop, home to the weekly Wednesday Disclaimer Stand-Up Lounge Comedy Open Mic, is scheduled to reopen Friday, June 26, to coincide with the expiration of the state’s Phase 2 reopening plan, “following all state and local policies, as well as new industry standards,” which include “requiring face coverings, sanitization stations and applying social distancing.” But since comedy is “such a particular event” involving numerous performers, One Stop general manager Micah Wheat says the venue will start off with local and regional music acts and aim to reintroduce stand-up in late July or early of August. In the meantime, he and his staff are working with open mic host Cary Goff to find safe solutions that won’t detract from the traditional stand-up experience.
“Are we going to wear masks when we go back?” Begley posits. “Or are we going to bring our own sanitized microphones or something? We’re going to be speaking directly into a microphone and then sharing it with all the other people that perform.”
“That’s better than the idea I had,” Smith-McDowell replies. “Which is just put a condom over the microphone.” Begley laughs, then collects herself and continues: “That would even be weird — with a mask on trying to perform and nobody can see my facial expressions? It’s just not going to hit the same. My eyes are expressive — but shit! And are [audience members] going to be muffled with masks where we’re not going to be able to hear them laughing or see if they’re even smiling?”
As the national comedy scene gradually returns and comics knock off the rust of the past few months, Goree predicts that everyone will be “shaky as hell,” including famous stand-ups like John Mulaney. One thing she and her peers say not to expect, however, is for stand-ups to avoid potentially controversial subjects that have arisen in recent months, be it COVID-related or stemming from the Black Lives Matter movement’s protests against police brutality.
“You’ve just gotta understand it. You’ve gotta do your research. Not all opinions are equal — there are informed opinions, and I think that those are good jokes,” Goree says. “You can talk about anything, but you’ve got to personally have a take on it and then know that you’re doing right by the people who would hear it. If I talk about race as a white person and I’m not making black people laugh about it and people who are oppressed by the situation of race in this country, I don’t want to tell that joke. It’s a shitty joke.”
Begley agrees, noting that, similar to current issues with law enforcement, stand-ups “don’t need comedy police, either,” while Smith-McDowell sees brave humor as a potential agent for lasting change.
“You can’t be afraid to talk about certain things — it just depends on how you say that,” he says. “I feel like nothing should never be said in comedy. Comedy should always try to find a light in a painful situation, try to find a light in a storm. So, going with the idea of, ‘No, you can’t talk about that,’ is sacrilegious to me.”