By: Tim O’Shei
This started like any normal standup show at Helium Comedy Club: The opening act, New York comic Gary Vider, finished his set and stepped offstage while the host, R.J. Purpura of Rochester, introduced the headliner.
Dan Soder, a comedian, SiriusXM radio personality and actor who’s gained fame for his role on the Showtime hit “Billions,” emerged. The near-sellout crowd erupted in cheers.
But it was a little quieter than it used to be, because “sold out” means something different than it once did.
Soder grabbed one of the three microphone stands. The other two, used by Purpura and Vider, were cast to the side of the stage, like dirty silverware.
“What’s up?” Soder said as he removed a disposable spit screen from the microphone and surveyed the crowd.
Nearly every table was occupied, although they were spaced at least 6 feet apart, cutting the capacity of the room down to just over one hundred – or less than half of its pre-Covid seating. In normal times, the stage would be abutted by tables filled with fans who could become prime subjects of the comic’s jokes. But for now, that area is clear – except for one completely empty table acting as a boundary at the front of the stage.
Soder pointed to the table. “That might hurt the most,” he said, joking that putting an empty table in his line of vision was a “psychological move” by the club. “It’s like, ‘We know you don’t sell out here. We remember before the DISEASE!’ ”
The crowd laughed. This had to feel good – for them, and for Soder. The state and the country are reopening, and it’s becoming increasingly simple to go out in public to do the things we lost for most of the last year. But the details of those activities aren’t quite the same as before, and after 14 months of relative isolation for many people, re-engaging with crowds isn’t going to be easy.
In this “Pandemic Lessons,” we explore how to navigate the feelings of stepping back into the public:
How does it feel to be at an event like a comedy show?
If anything has become true during the pandemic, it’s this: Strange is now normal.
So doing something normal – like going to a comedy club, or getting on a plane, or shopping maskless if you are fully vaccinated – may seem strange. Jarring, even.
But it can also be freeing.
“It’s like a friendly reminder of what things used to be like,” Soder said in his dressing room after the show. He spent most of the last year at home in New York, performing occasional rooftop or backyard shows, and a couple of actual gigs in states that were open. His current tour began last week in Indianapolis and continues around the country through the summer and fall.
Crowds have been largely gracious and flexible, said Shawn Eckert, the general manager of Helium Buffalo. Since Helium’s April reopening, he said, it’s rare for people to complain about a comic’s material, which will sometimes happen if they don’t check the performer’s work in advance. They’ve also been patient with service issues that might have once been frustrating – like the draft beer lines being down at Helium’s bar – and cooperative with the requirement to wear masks until you’re seated.
“People are definitely out to have a good time,” Eckert said. “People are just happy to be doing something that doesn’t involve them at their own house.”
To that point on isolation, we’ve been hearing for more than a year now that the pandemic is detrimental to mental health. Has that turned out to be true?
Covid-19 is novel, threatening, unpredictable and – in many senses – uncontrollable. Those are the same characteristics of trauma, as Dr. Karestan Koenen, a professor of psychiatric epidemiology at Harvard University, noted during a recent media briefing hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Adding to that, she said, are closings, economic pressure, bereavement, feelings of being stigmatized and – yes – social isolation.
“All of this together has really created a perfect storm of conditions for short- and long-term mental health problems,” Koenen said, noting multiple studies that confirm those conditions are manifesting into actual mental health challenges. In one pre-pandemic study, she said, more than 75% of the population “had no depression symptoms.” Now, only 45% of people report no such symptoms, while all levels of clinical depression have increased.
Reopening should be good on every level then, right? Financially, socially, emotionally – won’t it help?
It will, but for the many who are struggling, it may not be a quick fix.
For example, if you’re fully vaccinated and have a healthy immune system, you can stop wearing a mask in most places. The science says that, and so does the policy. But does social convention allow for it? Try walking into a crowded grocery store, sans mask, and see how it feels. The answer is individual to you, and the people around you, and it’ll evolve over time.
“Nobody alive today has ever emerged from a global pandemic into a digital world and navigated this before,” said Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, in an interview with the American Psychological Association. “We’re making it up as we go along, so of course we’re anxious.”
Vaccination status can be awkward to talk about, especially when it comes to meeting someone in person. Do we actually have to ask, “Are you fully vaccinated?”
You can. Or just volunteer the information, as the comedian Soder did when he sat down with The News for a post-show interview. “I’m fully vaccinated,” he said, without being asked. “I promise.”
In her APA interview, Hendriksen, the author of “How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety,” suggests normalizing “the uncertainty and awkwardness” by asking, “What are we doing?” or, “How does this work?”
“It’s OK to say we don’t know how to do this, and it’s OK to ask people what they’re comfortable with,” she said.
But what if people in our close circle disagree on Covid protocols – like vaccination, or the appropriate time to take off masks? Is it possible to talk without fighting?
Reframing the conversation is your best shot.
“The question I like to ask is not, ‘What is true or false?’ ” said Buster Benson, the author of “Why Are We Yelling? The Art of Productive Disagreement.” Rather, he suggests, ask questions and make statements that focus the dialogue on common ground. The question, “What do you think is important?” may prompt answers such as, “I think it’s important to protect people,” or, “I think it’s important to enable this community to be thriving.”
When Covid disinformation is flowing heavily, initiating a conversation that starts with positive, easily accepted points is preferable to debating facts. “You can find agreement and common ground on that level much quicker,” Benson said. “It’s really about the emotional part.”
Speaking of emotions, is Covid a topic comics can joke about? Or is it still too early?
Soder did it.
He considered whether he should, and decided that addressing Covid in his show was the right thing to do. He experienced the isolation, the career slowdowns and had difficulty writing new material without audiences to test it on. Soder had Covid, too; he caught it after doing a January show in Utah.
None of that touches the darkest part of the pandemic, but it does play out the everyday experience of it – and so, too, does his comedy.
“I think the new currency with people is being genuine,” he said. “Authenticity is, in a weird way, this unspoken currency that you can use to be like, ‘Hey, this sucks. And this is how I felt about it.’ ”