For the better part of a decade, Bushwick has been the cornerstone of Brooklyn nightlife. Once a vibrant community obsessed with the arts, Bushwick is a shell of its old self. It’s been nearly 11 months since COVID-19 became a global pandemic and pauses the world as we know it. With new regulations and businesses bleeding themselves dry, a handful of comedians seem to be the only ones left keeping its unstable entertainment scene alive.
With the pandemic making everyone’s pockets tighter, affordable local shows have come from groups like Tiny Cupboard, Ustreat Comedy and Now and Then Comedy and they have been a godsend to a community that wants to safely unwind during these hectic times. Once COVID hit, clubs were suddenly forced to produce shows outdoors and, in Manhattan, they struggled with the drastic change. But most DIY venues found the transition easy, since rooftop shows had been a trend for years. This hard time for the clubs gave comics and small-time bookers space to show how good they could be if given real attention.
Soon hole-in-the-wall shows started attracting large crowds, and large crowds led to big comics like Todd Barry, Chris Redd, Mark Normand and Sam Morrill stopping by.
“Hell gigs are the new normal” said Normand while standing outside at a Wednesday weekly show called “Double Threat Comedy.”
“Two years ago performing in a parking lot would’ve been a joke, now they’re some of the best shows in the city,” Normand said.
Which makes sense. Not just because of the pandemic, but because the lineups are curated by the comedians themselves, who have a reason to prioritize funny over profit. Concerned with producing good comedy rather than making a quick buck, the shows had started small but had blew up overnight when locals as well as New Yorkers from all five boroughs have started coming into Bushwick to get a glimpse of its DIY comedy scene.
Comedy has always been a staple in Bushwick. For years, the clubs here have tried to stay relevant and legitimate with a young crowd that, quite frankly, doesn’t have the money for a $20 ticket and a two drink minimum. Before COVID, shows like Cold Pizza at Featherweight or Just Come at The Graham were an alternative to the pricey Manhattan scene. With the clubs now shut down and the indie shows on hiatus, comedy is being reclaimed by those of us who dare to go outside.
Comics who used to beg for stage time are now taking matters into their own hands, hosting underground shows and becoming bookers themselves. Local comic Espi Rivadeneira moved from Austin, Texas last February. When asked about her new place in the community, Rivadeneira said: “Coming to [New York City] during the pandemic seemed intimidating at first but it allowed me to work on my material instead of caring about politics.”
Under normal circumstances she probably would have found it difficult to break into the scene, but now that her show Stand And Deliver is one of the last live shows in the city, she’s managed to make her mark in a community that most likely wouldn’t have noticed her. Her success shows that although it’s a tough time for some it’s a land of opportunity for others, especially those who haven’t gotten the mainstream opportunities or attention they deserve.
As time goes on, more comics are creating internet content and producing their own live shows rather than relying on the approval of discerning club owners. Podcasts like Maddy Smith’s “That Time Of The Week” show comedians that going independent can be both fun and lucrative.
“Making my own content makes me feel more independent,” Smith said. “Comics in New York are always worried about the industry, making spec scripts, writing packets etc. But now if rejection comes, it’s fine because I have my own fanbase.” The internet gives comics a direct line to their fans and allows indie producers to provide the entertainment that traditional venues cannot.
One has to wonder, though, who’s will be in charge when things get back to normal? If comedians can run the shows themselves, do we even need clubs? Will clubs as we know them even exist in this strange new world that COVID has created? Don’t ask me. Personally, I’m just glad there’s still stagetime.
The big New York clubs Dangerfield’s and The Creek & The Cave were the first two comedy clubs to permanently close their doors, but they won’t be the last. Day by day, all around the city, more businesses are closing down for good. This may just bring the spotlight of stand-up to Brooklyn and change the comedy scene, not just in Bushwick, but all of New York City for years to come.
Phil Rizdon runs a comedy show in Bushwick called House Party. Catch dates and times on Instagram @grovestreetcomedy.
Photos by Phil Rizdon.
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