California comics reflect on a decidedly unfunny year.
Here’s a good one: A comedian walks into a bar …
Wait, hold up. A bar? As in inside? With other people? Is this a joke or the opening line of a story that has “superspreader” in the headline?
Terrible non-jokes aside, comedy, like most other things, looks very different in 2020. Comedians, often prone to monthslong stints on the road and global travel, are stuck at home. Sets have moved from darkened indoor clubs to the online realm or to the outdoors. But beyond overcoming the sheer logistical challenges of finding ways to perform in a pandemic, the question remains: In a year as decidedly unfunny as this one, what is there to laugh at?
Dhaya Lakshminarayanan is a San Francisco–based comedian, storyteller and actor who regularly performs on NPR’s Snap Judgment, hosts San Francisco’s Moth StorySLAM and won the Liz Carpenter Political Humor Award in 2016. She agrees that the challenges of 2020 are undeniable, but that comedy is more important than ever.
“Comedians have found ways to make people laugh through other horrible times,” she says. “Chaplin during the Great Depression. Saturday Night Live went on the air after 9/11. During Desert Shield and Desert Storm, comedians made the troops laugh.”
Karinda Dobbins, a Los Angeles–based stand-up comedian who has opened for Dave Chappelle, Trevor Noah and Arsenio Hall, among others, agrees that while pandemic performance setups are far from ideal, they’re worth it.
“If people want to pay me to shout jokes from six feet away, I will do it,” she says. “I had to practice on people delivering things to my house, so I should be in top form.”
Comedy’s import may be undeniable, but that doesn’t make writing jokes any easier, especially when it feels that the same tropes — Zoom snafus, social distancing and the like — are increasingly played out.
Brian Copeland, a Bay Area–based award-winning actor, playwright and comedian, doesn’t shy away from the fact that the majority of his writing projects have veered toward the dramatic this year.
“There’s not much to laugh about with 8 million sick and 230,000 dead,” he says, citing statistics that have since risen substantially. “I’ve been grateful that I’m healthy and my family is.”
“It’s definitely hard to sit down and write silly jokes when it feels like the world is ending,” says Irene Tu, a stand-up comedian, actor and writer who splits her time between San Francisco and Los Angeles and has performed at SF Sketchfest, Comedy Central’s Clusterfest, RIOT LA, Bridgetown Comedy Festival and Outside Lands.
While the writing may be challenging, the jokes themselves aren’t all that different.
“Any joke is still funny now; I don’t think that has really changed,” Tu says. “People go to shows and really want to laugh. It’s not like anyone wants to hear 90 minutes of pandemic material.”
Lakshminarayanan emphasizes that, just as in the before times, most anything can be turned into a joke.
“Is it harder to work out jokes because of the lack of stage time? Yes. But there are plenty of opportunities to sit and write and reflect and create humor about anything from family to politics to mental health to our aging bodies, to race, to sexism — to anything we experience that we can forge into a joke,” she explains. “Will others laugh? That’s always the question.”
“Any joke is still funny now; I don’t think that has really changed. People go to shows and really want to laugh. It’s not like anyone wants to hear 90 minutes of pandemic material.” — Irene Tu
Copeland has found that while his writing process has changed, he’s still managed to be incredibly prolific.
“Personally, quarantine has been stifling. But professionally, it’s been great. I’ve written a novel, a movie treatment and I’m halfway through a stage play for San Francisco Playhouse,” he says.
For Dobbins, it’s all about creating content around topics that pique her interest.
“I love music, so I have this bit about Trump always using music from people who don’t like him because the only musicians who support him are Ted Nugent and Kid Rock. His supporters can tolerate listening to misogyny, xenophobia and racism at his rallies, but they would walk out if Cat Scratch Fever and Bawitdaba were playing on a loop.”
And even the most, well, 2020 of tropes still prove to be good fodder.
“I find humor in people hoarding toilet paper, making DIY hand sanitizer with Absolut, and in my innate ability to find Clorox wipes,” Dobbins says. “Clorox wipes are like Bitcoin now. I can use them to pay for anything I want.”
The ability to perform, along with the state of the world at large, may be in continual flux, but for these comedians, it’s essential to keep going and to make it work. Tu has been performing slates of outdoor shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Dobbins has been staying in touch with fans through social media and is working on a podcast.
And Lakshminarayanan is committed to doing stand-up however she safely can while finishing up a few bigger comedic writing projects.
“I will keep exercising and chugging protein smoothies to try and get swole. At some point I’d love to get on a plane and hug my parents,” Lakshminarayanan says of the next few months. “I’d love to take a break from Trump jokes. If I never have jokes about him, that would be the best gift for 2021.”