Over the last few months, we all could have used a little more laughter.
When the coronavirus pandemic forced states to shut everything down, the city’s burgeoning standup comedy community, like other performers across Missoula, was left with very few options. While musicians and artists have been able to transition their work to virtual platforms, the unique nature of the performer-audience relationship in standup comedy makes it nearly impossible to do without a live, in-person audience.
“It’s just really hard without ‘the room,’” said local comedian and writer Sarah Aswell. “Comedians talk about ‘the room’ a lot and often it’s in a negative sense like, 'Oh, what a bad room tonight, what a weird room, what a drunk room.' We often disparage the room, but if the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that ‘the room’ is what makes it happen.”
On March 13, HomeGrown Comedy, a local group that organizes comedy events in Missoula, was set to host the second round of its annual standup competition at the Roxy.
“We had to cancel the show and I’ve never canceled a show before,” said John Howard, who runs the group’s previously held monthly open mics at the Union.
Since then, the tight-knit standup community, which has been growing in Missoula in recent years, has tried to recreate their open mics via Zoom, but have yet to find that “magic” you get in front of an audience.
“It’s just kind of a way to work that muscle, but again, it’s not nearly the same as having an audience there to instantly give you feedback that’s not on an internet delay,” Howard said. “Your timing is just screwed … you almost become a YouTuber at that point. It’s been a struggle.”
During one of the most tumultuous times in recent history, with the pandemic as well as global protests following the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police, writing material is, well …complicated, they said.
“It’s hard to write. I have to make myself do it,” Howard said, adding it's difficult to be funny with the level of sadness in the world right now.
Aswell also said she’s been writing very little, instead taking time to observe, journal and process.
“It’s hard to write material about things that you’re really deep into at the moment.”
At the same time, comedy can be a unique lens through which we can better understand each other and the things going on in the world.
“I think (comedy) is an important way that we process our feelings,” Aswell said. “I’ve seen some great memes on the internet that are not only funny, but that put things really in perspective and make people understand things better.”
Howard said comedy can be a great way to relate to people, adding things like being stuck at home with kids and talking the grocery store clerk’s head off at check out because we’re starved for social interaction, are circumstances everyone is dealing with right now.
“You don’t want to do shot comedy right now, you don’t want to punch down right now … you don’t even want to do puns and wordplay very much. But this is a great time for social commentary and reaching out, trying to connect with people,” Aswell said. “So much of comedy is about shared experience and right now we’re alone, but together, and comedy can sort of bridge that gap.”
While the Zoom meetups have allowed the local standup community to practice and test out material, they’ve been just as much an opportunity for a group of friends to see each other after a long time apart.
“There’s just this sense of missing everyone,” Howard said. “I describe it as my league night. I would go do improv and then you go do standup and … it was the one outlet I had to get out of the house and do something I loved.”
Both Aswell and Howard said they plan to take it slow when it comes to scheduling open mics around town in their previous format at places like the Union Club and Badlander.
“We miss comedy, but we also care about people and their health,” Aswell said, adding they’re looking at options for holding outdoor shows through the summer.
“We’ve been throwing out things like meeting in a park as a bunch of comics and just bringing a microphone and a little PA and just distancing ourselves,” Howard said. He’s also been in touch with the Roxy and hopes to hold an open mic at their new outdoor theater once it opens.
Aswell said she’s working with Ten Spoon Winery, which hosted monthly shows before the shutdown, on setting up an outdoor performance there soon.
“I’ve heard a lot of comedians say this, that standup is our outlet for stress and depression and anxiety and not only to have that taken away from you, but also taken away from you at a time where there is more stress and depression and anxiety than usual is especially tough,” she said. “Comedy is always really hard outside for a lot of reasons, but it’s going to be better than nothing.”