By Mark Miller
Special to The Business Times
Laugh and the world laughs with you. Maybe. Own a comedy club and you struggle during a pandemic.
Perhaps no small businesses depend more on tightly packing large numbers of customers into small spaces and mightily attempting to provoke them to forcefully aspirate into the air than comedy clubs–a coronavirus’s fantasy come true.
So, The Business Times has checked in with Santa Barbara’s comedy club owners and comedy show producers to see what improvised routines in business strategy have stood up and stood out when the shows must go on even during the continuing pandemic. And which ones bombed.
Back-breaking back rent
Andres Fernandez was a natural. With his background as a standup comic, chef, restaurant entrepreneur and recent TikToker, he and his business partner, comedian Randy Lubas, took over the former Ventura Harbor Comedy Club in 2007. It had been through various names and owners until the two stepped in to present drag, burlesque, dueling pianos, magic shows, the Ventura Comedy Festival and comedian headliners from across the U.S. After Lubas retired in 2019, Fernandez took over solo.
The pandemic shut the club down in March 2020 for a year. When it reopened, it was limited to 25% capacity with mandated spacing between the tables. And, “The landlords wanted $100K back rent for all those months when it was illegal to open,” said Fernandez, a Cubanophile. “Instead, we moved the club into the owner’s restaurant, Copa Cubana, where he already was doing live music. Now it’s the Copa Comedy Club. Business is good and for now there are no COVID-19 restrictions for the audiences.”
Honk if you think it’s funny
For years the Ventura Harbor Comedy Club, since renamed the Copa Comedy Club, was the only full-time comedy room in town. Now, it has competition: Oxnard Levity Live, one of the Improv family of clubs. Comedian and independent producer Jason Love booked some shows there. He performs full-time and also books 400 shows a year, including the former Ventura Harbor Comedy Club, Canyon Club and independent rooms at Hillcrest Center for the Arts, Simi Valley Cultural Center, wineries, country clubs, military bases, and colleges. “Before the pandemic, I ran shows in several independent movie theaters that have since shut down,” Love said. “During the shutdown, I started a virtual show called ‘Live Comedy on Your Living Room.’ We got about 200 people per show paying $5 each. Many of the people generously tipped us comedians. Hillcrest Center for the Arts did the most to keep the show going during COVID. We produced five drive-in shows which we transmitted to people’s cars. When they liked a joke, they’d honk. One night so many people were honking that a neighbor walked over and started screaming at us. Threatened a lawsuit.”
Victoria McGee, Artistic Director of Free Range Comedy SoCal shares her pandemic experience: “We were just really taking off in Thousand Oaks when the pandemic hit. We were starting to get repeat customers, and improv classes were doing very well. We had changed up our weekly shows to include short form improv, long form improv, sketch comedy night and an open mic night too! Something different every weekend.”
Then, the pandemic hit and the change was shocking. “We went from that to nothing for April and May of 2020,” recalls McGee, “then joined the rest of the world on Zoom. We had a weekly drop-in on Zoom every Wednesday night. We somehow found new people, or they found us, and kindly paid to come every week and play.”
McGee’s efforts were not unnoticed. “By that Christmas, we had a moment where people were crying telling us how much Wednesday nights had meant to them during lockdown. It really turned into a lifeline and something special for all of us. We used the funds to pay Zoom, maintain our website, and saved up for a new space.”
Things are finally looking up. “This year, we’ve finally landed in a place where we’re starting to grow again and offered our first official beginning improv class post-pandemic. We’re homed at the Camarillo Academy of Performing Arts and we’re doing two shows a month for now. At first, we required masks and vaccinations, then just masks, now it’s just up to the audience’s comfort level.”
Long-time Santa Barbara comedy producer Andrey Belikov started performing in 2006 and producing shows in 2007. “I think we’ve put on over 3000 shows since then,” says Belikov, “mostly in Santa Barbara, but many in Ventura and even the Bay Area.” His Comedy Hideaway shows became hugely popular and by 2019 were selling out every night. Plans were made to expand into a full-time comedy club.
But then, “The pandemic meant a full stop to everything,” he said. “Comedy clubs struggled or closed everywhere, and as we are in a smaller market, there wasn’t the margin to keep the shows going, even during the COVID lows of the year. We hope to re-launch our regular Comedy Hideaway shows when the timing feels right.”
As for college comedy shows, Laughology entertained students at Santa Barbara State University with local headliners mixed in with bigger names. Produced by Sam Hochhalter, and now by Evan Sayer, the shows have taken place at the campus’s Embarcadero Hall and occasionally at outside restaurants for the pandemic safety factor of outdoor shows. Helping them stay afloat have been grants from local businesses.
Despite the business challenges of the pandemic, comedy clubs and shows are now either fully back, partially back or planning to return to the Santa Barbara area.