Since early March, when COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, and businesses across the United States started to shutter, live comedy — like all kinds of live performance — has been virtually nonexistent. In trying times marked by a deadly pandemic, extreme political division and general unease, the coronavirus-related shutdown has left people without the much-needed levity and communal experience that stand-up comedy provides.
The Los Angeles comedy scene’s best-known venues, including the famed Comedy Store, have been unable to open, impatiently awaiting the moment when crowds will be able to return to their seats indoors. In their place, a number of outdoor comedy events have started to spring up.
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In July, comedians Matt Rife and Paul Elia set out to create one of these venues — a safe, socially distanced platform where comics can perform after months away from the stage.
The motivation to get stand-up back up: “This is our lives”
Put on twice a month, Lowkey Outside Comedy came together, after Rife and Elia took notice of what notable comics were doing across the United States. “Paul and I saw what Michael Che was doing in New York. It was right in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests, and I think he just wanted to take people’s mind off of it,” Rife recalls. “Comedy had already been nonexistent for a few months, and I think he just wanted to do something to bring people together, while everyone seemed to be divided.”
The way Che set up these shows was fairly simple. All that was required was a microphone; a spotlight; an empty parking lot that could seat a small, masked crowd; and a pickup truck with a cargo bed that could be used as a stage. And it was around the same time that Dave Chappelle started doing something similar in the Ohio village of Yellow Springs.
Before the pandemic hit, Rife and Elia co-hosted a monthly show at the Comedy Store, called “Lowkey Upset,” and when the longtime friends saw what was happening with comedy elsewhere, they knew they had to try their hand at producing their own outdoor show. Self-financing the shows and orchestrating them in true DIY fashion, the comics also would co-host and perform some of their own material.
As Rife and Elia explain, there were a number of motivations driving the decision to start Lowkey Outside Comedy. “Both of us had been offstage for four months,” Rife says. “My last time in a comedy club was March 5th, and we both missed it. This is our job; this is our lives. More than anything, it’s just a sanity outlet. We don’t really make much off of this at all, because of the cost of production alone.”
Like Rife and Elia, there were countless comics in L.A. at the time who not only had lost their source of income but also their creative platform — something that means just as much. Lowkey Outside Comedy gives newer comics and veterans alike the chance to reclaim both. “So many comics want to come by the show just to hang out, just like they would in the Comedy Store or the Laugh Factory, just because they’re like, ‘I missed being around comedians and being near people and seeing comedy.’ Not even just to perform,” Rife says. “Just to be in that atmosphere, being able to speak more freely and make jokes, because every time you open your computer, your phone, the TV, it’s something negative. And without stand-up, there’s really nobody to lighten the mood.”
Audiences, too, would benefit from the chance to come together, to process what’s happening in the world. “The world just feels really scary,” Elia admits.” I feel so weird leaving the house, seeing friends, and we just want to do something where people can feel less scared for a couple hours.”
The “jiu jitsu-style problem solving” involved in putting on an outdoor comedy show
As they set out to make Lowkey Outside Comedy a reality, Rife and Elia weren’t sure about the legalities involved. What struck them as odd, though, was that outdoor dining was permitted in L.A. but outdoor comedy was not. “Like, you could eat outside, but nobody’s allowed to be funny around you,” Rife jokes. “It didn’t quite make sense.”
Launched on July 11, Lowkey’s first few shows took place in a large, tucked-away parking lot behind the North Hollywood apartment complex where Rife lived. “Six people parked back there, and I was scoping it out one day. I was just taking out the trash and I was like, ‘People could fit back there,’” Rife says. “‘Either like the best drug deal ever, or we could do a comedy show.’”
The first, and most important, step the comics took in setting up the event was reaching out to local authorities, to figure out if putting it on would even be legal. “There are very specific rules — like, certain area codes can only have certain things. I had called the Sheriff’s Department to figure out what the legalities of it were, and apparently, in that exact district of North Hollywood, they weren’t enforcing anything,” Rife explains. “You could do something on privately owned property outdoors, and it’s not a problem.”
Of course, even if these events could be orchestrated without the threat of fines or jail time, Rife and Elia nonetheless were intent on following every possible safety protocol to mitigate the risk of anyone on site being exposed to the coronavirus. “We wanted to make sure everyone sits six feet apart. We measure it ourselves every single day. Everyone keeps their mask on the entire time. You have to have your temperature taken at the gate to make sure you’re not showing any symptoms,” Rife explains. “So we take all of the possible safety restrictions that we can and applied it to make it the safest, most fun thing anybody could do outside these days.”
The comics haven’t taken out insurance for these events, instead placing a large, COVID-related disclaimer on the Eventbrite page where tickets are sold. Thus far, during shows in North Hollywood and Eagle Rock, there have been no run-ins with the police or any cases of COVID contracted during a show. At the same time, countless other challenges have presented themselves along the way.
First, there’s the matter of locking down venues, and their accompanying parking spaces, for audiences of 70-00. “In North Hollywood, I had to go around to each neighbor in the complex, obviously, and ask them if they’d be OK — five of which I had to ask, ‘Could I use your parking spot?’” Rife says. “I had to pay a few for their parking spot, and just for complying, which is no big deal.”
Adds Elia: “It’s so funny what $50 will get you. When you offer someone $50, their whole energy changes. We felt like we were greasing a bunch of people, like we were some Italian mobsters.”
At any given show, there’s also the chance that lights will go out or that chair rentals will fall through at the last minute. Indeed, both have happened, as recently as the comics’ last show. “Our normal chair person … By the way, the company is called On-Time Party Rentals. They are never on time. Like, consistently 45 minutes late. We’d been using them five times in a row, so I was like, ‘These are our go-to people,’” Rife says. “[But then] I texted him and was like, ‘Hey, what’s going on? What time can we expect you?’ ‘Oh, we got booked for something else. Sorry, we didn’t get a chance to respond.’”
Immediately, the pair had to turn to platforms including Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp and letgo, to make sure they’d be able to put on a show as planned. “Luckily, we found this guy. So clutch. His company name is Three Hours Late, But I’ll Be There,” Rife jokes, “and he was 15 minutes early.”
For Rife and Elia, another memorable challenge was entirely unexpected. “A buddy of mine sent me an email and was like, ‘You have to have ADA-regulated hearing devices,’ because he’s actually the owner of the West Side Comedy Theater, and he got fined. He just settled an $8,000 dispute, and apparently, any independent show or social gathering above 50 people, you’re required by law to have it,” Elia explains. “There’s just a lot of laws, and I get it. I also want to protect the hearing-impaired. So, whatever we need to do, you know?”
From Elia’s perspective, producing Lowkey Outside has been a matter of “jiu jitsu-style problem solving” and constant hustling. “This whole process has opened us up to such weird [scenarios], but if we didn’t have chairs, we made it work. If we had a weird truck, we made it work,” he says. “Like, we’re going to do what we need to do. We know the formula, and it always figures itself out.”
Adds Rife: “It’s about adapting, and I think that’s what we’ve done. It’s a ton of work, but if it’s that or sit around and just hope comedy comes back soon, I can’t risk that. For the sake of my happiness alone, I can’t do it.”
Interestingly, for the pair of comics, the easiest part of the process has been securing A-list comedians for the show. In recent weeks, top-flight comics including Tom Segura, Neal Brennan, Taylor Tomlinson, Bill Burr and Andrew Santino have graced the Lowkey stage. “I’d say about 80% of the comics we have on the show is just our own relationships with them,” Rife says. “We perform with these people weekly, on a non-apocalyptic basis, so we have our own friendly relationships with a lot of them. The other 20% is just word of mouth, people wanting to get back out there and perform in any circumstance possible — and thankfully, we’ve put together a good one.”
From underground operation to “a real thing”
At the start, Lowkey Outside Comedy was kept very much under wraps. “I think we were capping it at 70 people, socially distanced, and we don’t release the address until the night before to the ticket buyers’ emails,” Rife says. “So that way, no dicks — like, bitter comics — try to get us shut down. We wanted to keep it as secret as possible, just in case someone wanted to complain.”
It was only this month that the comics put the show on Instagram and Twitter — becoming, to Rife, “a real thing.” And suddenly, outdoor comedy in L.A. is beginning to grow even more. This month, Grand Central Market began putting on its own star-studded shows on the roof of its parking garage. And at a recent Lowkey event, Brennan suggested that the Comedy Store even might be opening up soon for its own outdoor shows.
In Rife’s mind, these kinds of events are a major step up from drive-ins, which have been the only other platform for comics of late. “I’ve done a couple, and it’s exactly what you think it would be. You’re performing for cars. It’s not fun,” he says. “What we’re doing is the closest thing to normal that I’ve seen since March, and I think it’s really the most appealing thing about what we’re doing.”
For comics returning to the stage at Lowkey Outside Comedy or other outdoor venues, the first performance is universally nerve-wracking. “When I got onstage, my body was in such a shock, just talking, that I was still getting used to that,” Elia says. “And the jokes worked fine, but it didn’t feel the same. It’s honestly like working out after months of doing nothing. So I’m just getting used to where all the equipment is.”
Says comic Tomlinson: “It was hard because you’re rusty and you’re not used to it. You’re like, ‘This was my career, and I’m used to being good at it,’ so it’s sort of a blow to the ego. But also, I’d so much rather be clawing my way back to being good than just sitting around, waiting to go onstage again.”
Brennan echoes Tomlinson’s sentiment, also noting the thrill he felt in returning to the stage. “It was like being an open mic-er, but knowing what you’re doing. It’s fun; it’s not perfunctory,” the comedian says. “The first time I did it, I was like, ‘I’m actually grateful. Like, the way Oprah says to be grateful.’”
At the moment, it’s unclear how long a road it will be for comedy in L.A. to get back to what it was pre-pandemic. During this period, many clubs have closed down, and while a number of prominent comedians have begun to experiment with performance on digital platforms, which offer some creative satisfaction, others, like Joe Rogan, have simply packed up and left California.
Encouraged by the success he’s seen with Lowkey Outside Comedy, Rife nonetheless remains hopeful, and prepared for any scenario. “Now, we’ve proven that we can [do this], so if this quarantine stuff continues, we have a home base,” he says. “We will have an outlet to perform.”
There are rumors, he says, that comedy clubs in L.A. will open next summer. But until then, Lowkey Outside Comedy will forge ahead, come rain or shine. “The great thing about L.A. is, even with the weather getting a little bit colder, we buy or rent a couple of space heaters, and we can still do this thing,” Rife says. “So I would like to keep doing this until it’s absolutely not necessary for us to, and I think we’re building something with that kind of sustainability.”
Ultimately, Elia adds, crises like the coronavirus pandemic will fade, but comedy will endure. “The thing that will always age well is just being able to tell a joke and have people laugh,” he says. “So whether we’re doing it on Zoom, whether we’re doing it in real life, whether we’re doing it in whatever medium we can, comedy will find a way.”