The Show Must Go On

Comedian Michelle Tomko shares her experience of living in a pandemic world where she and other stage performers are adapting to provide comic relief in a time of crisis.

"One Funny Mother" Dena Blizzard is among many comedians going virtual while venues are closed.

I'm a comedian. Trust me. That's an indoor sport. You want people in a concentrated area listening to what you are saying. Much like COVID-19, laughter is highly contagious. You need an audience for it to spread around the room. Think how much you really LOL when you are watching comedy alone on your couch.

When the virus caused the shutdown of performance spaces, it also sent gig workers into a veritable tailspin. Artists sat at home getting phone calls and emails about canceled events and closed venues. Nobody had any answers. No one knew how long this would last.

As weeks turned into months, artists were left with no choice but to adapt. Even though we couldn't be together, we could all log in together. Artists took to Zoom, Facebook Live and Instagram in droves. Links to virtual performances flooded our news feeds. Musicians played. Disk Jockeys hosted dance parties. Drag queens painted on their faces and hoped for virtual tips. Social media was awash with performances from living rooms, sidewalks and back yards.

But it wasn't every man for himself. One of the first pandemic projects I was involved in was because of a comedy buddy of mine from Philadelphia. Comedian Alejandro Morales put a series together called Bits for Tips, in which he edited together clips of all his colleagues complete with their Venmo and Cash App handles. That's something I will remember about this time. Amidst everyone panicking, he decided to help as many comics as he could. He wasn't the only one. New York City bon vivant Torin included me in a directory of who's who (well more like who's not performing right now). "I just love your stuff and want to help", he told me.

Comedian Alejandro Morales created "Bits for Tips" featuring virtual performances of colleagues connected to their Venmo & Cash App handles.

I subscribed to that attitude myself. With a little (a lot) of coaxing from my fiance, who told me to post something every day to stay current, I took to the streets. I checked in on my friends. I went shopping for those who couldn't. I reported on what take-out places were open and what stores had which hard to find items in stock. I promoted local businesses. I did cooking demos, bike tours around the city, and of course ... comedy shows.

I, like many stage entertainers, made the best of things with live broadcasts online. I was always shocked at how many people logged on to these shows when they had a plethora of cable channels at their fingertips, but I realized people wanted that connection during quarantine. They wanted me to show them the beach, their favorite casino facade, The Steel Pier and the Ocean. They wanted to write in the comments and have me talk to them. They can't do that in real time with Chris Rock on Netflix.

Another aspect of comedy that you can't get in a pre-recorded show are custom jokes, a.k.a. roasts. I was dropping off some soup for a neighbor and she seemed kind of down. So I stood on the sidewalk and roasted her. “This is a million dollar idea”, she said. “Call it Curbside Comedy.” Thinking it would make a fun YouTube video, I went back and recorded it as a joke. But after I posted it, people contacted me to actually do it. Talk about a happy accident!

Michelle Tomko's new venue for her routines ... the great outdoors.

Dena Blizzard and Michelle Tomko talk shop over coffee.

Performing artists aren't just relying on virtual gigs to keep them afloat. Recently, I sat down for a socially-distanced coffee with comedian and former Miss New Jersey Dena Blizzard, aka One Funny Mother. During the pandemic she started doing quarantine diary videos which then grew into her doing a live one hour show for her legions of fans on Facebook called One Funny Morning. Plus, she told me about a surprising outlet for her brand of comedy – apparel. “If anybody would have asked me a year ago 'What do you think you'd be doing in the middle of a pandemic? Which part of your business do you think will take off?', I never would have said T-shirts”, said Blizzard.

Her catch phrases seem to really be catching on. “We went from selling three T-shirts to probably selling about 20 different styles now," she explained. With orders going from 500 to 2500 a month, Dena needed to seek out a fulfillment center to help offset the lack of space in her basement ... and hands-on workers, who (she jokes) are her reluctant teenagers.