The Comedy on State is what it says – a stand-up comedy club on State Street, and a cornerstone of the Madison comedy scene. It reopened its doors two weeks ago, at least for its weekly open mic night on Wednesdays.
Recent changes to the county’s COVID-19 protocols have allowed the club, which is considered an event space, to reopen to a quarter of their usual capacity.
Aware that laughing can spread the coronavirus just as quickly as coughing can, Comedy on State has adopted stringent COVID-19 safety precautions. They have contactless payment, sanitize between shows, and even use disposal mic covers for every comic. Guests must wear masks between drinks and socially distance.
Eve Paras is the co-owner and booker for Comedy on State. She says that in the first two open mics, they’ve been able to keep everyone safe.
“People were really respectful and kept their mask on the whole time. Our goal is to make sure that not only the comics, but everyone feels safe coming in. I think people coming in, if they see that you’re taking it seriously and if your staff has full PPE on and shields and gloves, they feel safer and they respect the process a little more.”
During their yearlong hibernation, the club took the opportunity to undergo some major renovations. It put in a new bar seating area and a larger showroom with increased capacity – just enough to safely fit the critical 150 people it needs to financially break even for live shows.
The club has also begun booking headlining comics for weekend shows this summer. The club will celebrate its official grand reopening with Kevin Bozeman, a national comic originally from Madison, in late April.
Another local open mic open during the pandemic is held every Thursday night, at the Rigby Pub and Grill.
But, for some other comedy outlets in Madison, staying closed to in-person shows still seems to be their safest option.
Brad Knight is the owner and member of the Monkey Business Institute, a professional improv troupe in Madison. The troupe can usually be found performing in the basement of the Glass Nickel Pizza Co. on Atwood Avenue. He says that the comedy troupe is still waiting for a higher percentage of the population to get vaccinated before returning to in-person shows. Without in-person shows, the club has had to rely on virtual improv shows, improv classes, and corporate gigs like murder mysteries to make it through financially.
“We began to adjust pretty quickly by finding ways that we could move the medium online, and so we started doing virtual shows I think in April.”
Knight says trying to do improv comedy virtually has come with a steep learning curve. Normally, improv comics depend on an immediate connection with an attentive audience. Knight says they’ve had to adapt, finding new forms of audience interaction and comedy tailored to translate over Zoom.
Knight also says that the troupe will consider some outdoor shows in the near future, but for now they will stick to virtual shows and events. Their upcoming improv tournament — Mirth Method — pits groups against one another in a March Madness-style competition.
Other funny people have also found ways to pivot to virtual shows featuring sketch and even stand-up comedy.
Dina Nina Martinez is a Madison comedian who is the founder of Lady Laughs Comedy. Her network has found new and innovative ways to keep people laughing over the course of the pandemic. This includes live sketch shows, podcasts, and even virtual stand-up. Martinez says that virtual shows have come with some unexpected silver linings that have helped bring together the broader stand-up comedy community.
“We started in May, so pivoted pretty quickly and just started doing that virtually. And the most incredible thing is, I’ve been able to perform with people all over the world; like we have somebody from Japan on our show, somebody from Germany, and I’ve also been able to perform with all those comics I started with in Los Angeles. Who would’ve thought we would hop into like a Zoom room with people that I haven’t seen in a decade.”
Martinez also thinks that virtual stand-up is a whole new animal in the comedy landscape and will be here to stay even after the pandemic is over.
Vanessa Tortolano is a comedian who has been doing improv for the last ten years and stand-up for the last five. She says that it took some time for her to embrace the new medium of virtual comedy.
“It just seemed to depressing to me to not have a live audience. You know, that’s kind’ve the biggest part, I think, that we all enjoy is that instant feedback and that instant audience exchange. And so at first I was just super depressed about the whole thing and didn’t want to do any of it . . . But then, I got over that because I like performing.”
However, for some comics, the medium of virtual shows just don’t feel the same as the real thing.
Nick Hart is another local stand-up. He is well-known as the winner of the 2017 Madison’s Funniest Comic Competition and featured on the Conan O’Brien show in 2018. He also ran for Madison mayor in 2011 and 2019, both cracking jokes and raising serious policy issues during his campaigns.
Hart says that, for him as well as many other comics, the experience of a virtual show just doesn’t compare to the real thing.
“The idea of doing it in an empty room – don’t get me wrong I’ve done it in empty rooms before – but, the idea of just doing it for people who are just watching on the computer it’s not the same reaction, it’s not the same drug, it’s just not that visceral thing. It’s just sanitized and . . . I don’t know it’s just not for me.”
Hart also co-hosts a weekly comedy podcast called the Nobody Cares Podcast along with fellow Madison comics Craig Smith and Samara Suomi.
Smith is a regular at the Comedy on State’s open mic. He described the feeling of what it was like to perform at the open mic again after a yearlong layoff.
“I get up there and I get on stage, and the feeling is so great and everybody’s cheering, it’s a new club and you’ve been at this club a lot – it’s like my home club. You love it and you feel comfortable. You go up there, you do good, you get laughs – oh my god: that drug hit again and that feeling hit again and you get that adrenaline rush and your mind is good.”
While Smith did stress that the experience of stand-up was certainly not the same as an actual drug, he added just how difficult it was for him to leave after finishing his long-awaited set.
“I didn’t want to leave after I got off, like I didn’t want to go home. I just want to stay here because people see me, I did good. Like, people gonna come come and say, ‘oh you were funny . . .,’ and I need that for my validation, like, I’m fragile, my ego!”
Comics like Hart and Smith have also said how podcasting has helped them both personally and comedically to get through the pandemic. Deon Green is another local stand-up who hosts the podcast Space Racists with fellow Madison comic Joe Molloy. Green says that podcasting has helped to partially give him the same feeling that he’s missed over the past year without stand-up as an outlet.
“I’ll be honest, without being able to do podcasts or Zoom chat with my buddies, I would’ve lost my dang mind ages ago. Just when you’re on stage, there’s just like this weird you’re feeding off of them, they’re feeding off of you and it can kind’ve give you the charge to go through your next week. Having a year off from that, without having this as an outlet, I would’ve been super down in the dumps.”
Other comics have found even more inventive ways to put out content and exercise their comedy muscles.
Sasha Rosser is a stand-up comedian on top of being a research specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has been doing stand-up for two years now, though she, like others, has very few in-person shows since the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown. In the meantime, she has taken to the online platform Reddit to exercise her comedic talents.
“Something I started doing last summer, when it started to sink in ‘oh this might not be a couple of months deal, this might be many, many, many, many months,’ I was like, ‘I need some kind of outlet.’ So, I started posting on Reddit. There’s a subreddit called ‘standupshots.’ Basically, comics can post pictures of themselves doing stand-up with the text of their jokes – it kind’ve looks like a meme. I actually managed to broaden my ‘fanbase,’ if I can call it that,’ a lot because Reddit is this huge audience that you don’t necessarily tap into when you’re doing local stuff.”
Rosser will also host the grand reopening shows for Comedy on State in April.
Returning to in-person stand-up has comics excited not just for performing on stage with live audiences, but also for a chance to reconnect with the close subculture between stand-up comics in Madison.
Rich D’Amore is a comic and mainstay of Comedy on State’s weekly open mic. He describes, from his experience, the unique relationship comics develop with one another centered around regular open mics.
“You get to know someone obviously and their personal life, but that kind’ve takes a backseat, because this is that thing I’m talking about this is ours and we have all day to talk about. When we get together, it’s pure focus. We get plenty silly a lot of the time, we’re plenty lazy too, but the point being is that talking about the craft is like all we live for.”
Over the course of the pandemic, this sense of comedic comradery often extended beyond the confines of the club with many comics reaching out to fellow comics who were struggling either emotionally or financially. This included online fundraising efforts, both locally and nationally, designed to help comics who were struggling financially during the pandemic
For now, comics in Madison are happy about the return to in-person stand-up even if it is in a limited capacity. David Schendlinger has been doing stand-up comedy for the past 40 years in places like Vancouver, Los Angeles and Madison.
He has his first show booked in over a year this April in Appleton, Wisconsin as a part of the “Cool Grandpas of Comedy” tour. But, his only in-person stand-up experience over the past nine months though has been Comedy on State’s limited-capacity open mic the past couple of weeks which he says that, for him, has been a real return to normalcy.
“It’s great to be on stage again talking to actual people. Having sparsely populated rooms is not entirely strange for me; a lot of my career has been doing those types of places.”
Reporting for W-O-R-T news, I’m Ryan Wollersheim.