Twin Cities Comedians Fight COVID-19 with…Jokes?

Laughter is not the best medicine, but there’s a science to how it helps us feel less stuck
Lauren Anderson
Lauren Anderson and other Twin Cities comedians are responding to a national crisis using humor

Courtesy Brave New Workshop

It’s a Saturday night, and Lauren Anderson has no idea if anybody’s laughing. She’s performed live improv with the Brave New Workshop Comedy Theatre in Minneapolis for 15 years. In front of audiences, she’s never at a loss, often off-the-wall, always a pro. And tonight, that audience is a lot bigger—about 5,000. But in the spaces where they used to laugh, there’s now the silence of her empty studio apartment, which overlooks a now-deserted Uptown parking ramp.

“At least we bought Cheetos, OK?” She pushes her face into her computer’s tiny camera. “And instead of licking my fingers—I am not doing that. I am just scraping my fingers off into a bag and using all that orange powder to, you know, shove into a flare for later, because you never know.” The joke nails coronavirus-pandemic talking points: Don’t touch your face, buy non-perishables, S.O.S.

“I did not realize that Cheeto dust was combustible,” deadpans Caleb McEwen, Anderson’s improv partner, who appears in split-screen. A beat late, an appreciative “Yes!” pops into the Facebook Live chat. Lag almost disintegrates Anderson’s follow-up, about Chester Cheetah wearing sunglasses because he “blew his face off.”

Improv comics Caleb McEwan and Lauren Anderson appear in split-screen in the second episode of "Brave New Workshop Goes Viral"
Improv comics Caleb McEwen and Lauren Anderson riff of each other in split-screen in the second episode of “Brave New Workshop Goes Viral”

You can watch all of this in the second episode of “The Brave New Workshop Goes Viral.” The new, livestreamed series gives Anderson a place to perform while Brave New Workshop remains shuttered due to the governor’s stay-at-home order. (On the marquee facing Hennepin Avenue: “Welp…guess laughter isn’t the only thing that’s contagious.”)

Initially, there was talk of putting Anderson and the rest of staff on furlough. Since then, Brave New Workshop has been able to keep those involved with the virtual series on payroll.

“There’s this quote that keeps going around on the internet,” Anderson tells me by phone, not long after the second episode, “that is, like, ‘Just remember, when the world went crazy, you turned to Netflix and movies and books, and you turned to the artists.’ And I can’t talk about that quote without getting teary. Because that’s true. Arts never gets the funding it deserves.”

She continues, after getting choked up, “It’s this weird kind of thing where, as an artist, you feel kind of, like, ‘Well, am I useless?’ But at the same time, I feel like people need the arts now more than ever.”

Given the new restrictions we’re living by, to lessen the spread of a deadly virus, this is not a “show must go on” situation. But for many comedians, it’s going on. Via smartphones and webcams, they’re launching fresh material into the time-slot-less nether of social media, fighting through garbled punchlines, and, in many cases, providing what feels like a public service.

The Brave New Workshop stage goes dark
The Brave New Workshop stage goes dark

Courtesy Brave New Workshop

On Instagram, Twin Cities standup comedian Ali Sultan hosts the “Virtual Distancing Live Open Mic.” It’s a laptop-sized comedy club, or the funniest slumber party you never went to. A recent installment used the Zoom videoconferencing app, so the heads of 10 comics appeared in an uber-Brady Bunch grid. They laughed at one another’s self-deprecating responses to the prompt “crazy travel stories.”

Comedian Derek Meyers ordinarily hosts the Midway Mic night at the Dubliner Pub and Café in St. Paul. Like Sultan, he’s moved the open mic online. A recent edition featured local comic Lauren Rice, who slammed the cupboards in her kitchen to the drum break of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” (“I feel like a couple of my practice rounds went better,” she confessed.) Then she led viewers through an intentionally terrible makeup tutorial, perfectly using the platform to send up one of its own tropes.

Minneapolis’ Acme Comedy Company has gone to Zoom, and Stevie Ray’s Comedy Cabaret has united on Facebook Live. “Brave New Workshop Goes Viral” streams on YouTube and Facebook Live Saturdays at 8 p.m., and, as with most of these livestreams, it’s free to view. (Contributions are accepted.)

Thinking of her friends in entertainment, Anderson notes, “Most artists are pretty hand-to-mouth,” then pauses. “Or, um…” A big, rich laugh breaks through. “I shouldn’t use that phrase. But, you know?”

For Anderson, it’s been an extra-long slog. She self-quarantined early, on March 13, and stocked up on inhalers. Asthma puts her at high risk of COVID-19 complications. But she’s worked through difficult periods before: “like, bouts of depression, or deaths of loved ones, or missing a friend’s wedding.” Her strategy is to stay present, to channel her negative feelings—of sadness, exhaustion, maybe even cooped-up flare-packing nervousness—into characters.

“More than anything else,” she says, “comedy, at its core, is a survival technique.”

Therapist Kyle Keller says laughter can help us interrupt anxiety-linked thought patterns
Therapist Kyle Keller says laughter can help us interrupt anxiety-linked thought patterns

Courtesy Ellie Family Services

Not the Best Medicine—But Not Bad

Therapist Kyle Keller agrees. Co-founder of Ellie Family Services in St. Paul, he also co-authored the presciently titled 2018 book How to Stop Freaking the %#$@ Out!.

In it, Keller describes humor’s function as a coping mechanism. Evolution endowed us with laughter, he says, in order to release tension. But it endowed us with other tools, too—and anxiety is one of them.

“Anxiety is a really good motivator to get you to a safe place.” Think of a tiger chasing you: “I get away from it, and my anxiety drops down.”

But what if that tiger is a virus? Microscopic? Airborne? The cause of a stay-at-home order that could just keep going? “Anxiety has a hard time dealing with things on this scale,” he says. “[The virus is] this ominous thing that’s hard to understand, so it feels like the tiger’s always there.”

That’s where humor cuts in. After we’ve taken all recommended precautions, laughter can snap us out of rumination.

Or, maybe you’re catastrophizing. Humor can pierce through whatever outsize disaster your mind has dreamt up. “Not everybody’s into the idea of ‘mindfulness,’” Keller says, noting the therapeutic practice of focusing on what’s present, “but if you’re paying attention to where those little moments of humor might be, then that’s one way of being mindful.”

Courtesy Ellie Family Services

Of course, little moments of humor are not the same as a five-minute comedy set. Taking a video of your cat or dog (while recommended) cannot compare to taking the stage and carefully setting up a joke about, say, that time you were racially profiled at a gas station.

This latter category of humor might be poignant, surprising, cathartic. Depending on who we are, it asks us to think and reflect, as well as to laugh. And now it might include a new premise: the “coronavirus joke.”

“Every person is different,” Keller says. “I might think it’s funny; somebody else might think it’s offensive.” Maybe you have a friend or family member sick with COVID-19, or have lost someone. “It’s important to allow people to not have a sense of humor right now.”

It’s also important to recognize how we’re applying humor. While laughter can release endorphins, it should not numb, Keller warns. It should not work like a pill. Quarantine comforts such as Netflix, TikTok, or YouTube can distract from unpleasant emotions—and that’s not necessarily healthy.

“If I’m fully present with a Netflix comedy special, that, to me, seems totally good,” Keller says. “If I’m turning the volume up on it because I’m trying to suppress how I’m feeling, that might not be good.”

To deal, we might try Anderson’s improv strategy and live in those heavy feelings while remaining open to the possibility of laughter.

“A lot of comedians develop a sense of humor as a way to observe the world around them, and then comment on it, or knock it down a peg if it’s for social injustice and whatnot,” Anderson says, “because it’s a way to show power.”

Patrick Daxenbichler/Adobe

Coronavirus Jokes 

Power, and knocking it down, is key to Jonathan Gershberg’s work. He’s editor-in-chief of The Nordly, a satirical news site that works like a Minnesota-specific The Onion. As with any good satire, it lobs its mockery at those with authority.

Unlike Anderson, Gershberg has not had to change his process too much while working from home. Writers’ ideas still come through as blind pitches. And he says it’s typical for him to think about his great uncle just about every day—even if, now, it feels unusually appropriate.

The man survived Auschwitz because he was funny. Great uncle Willi Tannenbaum, of Poland, told an SS officer a joke that was so good (involving the British prime minister and Hitler) that he was spared from execution, Gershberg says.

“In that moment, comedy saved him from death of a human-created catastrophe,” he reflects. “But comedy also keeps us going in a lot of other contexts. It’s one of the things that allows us to endure the unthinkable, the horrific. There’s a thin line between horror and campiness and absurdity, and I think we need to both really lament that tragedy but also mock the absurdity of it.”

Nordly staff members, from left: Anna Larranaga, Jonathan Gershberg and Aron Woldeslassie
Nordly staff members, from left: Anna Larranaga, Jonathan Gershberg, and Aron Woldeslassie

Writers for The Nordly have thought mostly about the coronavirus lately. They’re after that absurdity. Headlines give familiar topics virus-related spins, riffing on local hipsters (“Pretentious Craft Spirits Drinker Pivots to Pretentious Hand Sanitizer User”) and a favorite suburban target (“Edina Issues ‘Stay-at-Mansion’ Order”). Others skirt closer to the fallout: “Minneapolis Landlords Accepting First Born Sons in Lieu of April Rent,” reads one, and another, “Statewide Coffin Shortage Forces Goth to Purchase Normal Bed.”

“Our job as editors is to find what works and what tone works,” Gershberg says. That fine line is finer now. Have any pitches crossed it? “Oh, yeah,” he says. “Plenty, plenty. Right now, we’re more sensitive than we were a month ago or two months ago because I think we know that comedy is tragedy plus time, and we’re in the tragedy without the time yet.” They haven’t received negative feedback on anything coronavirus-related, he says.

For Anderson, the work of finding absurdity doesn’t feel that different than it did pre-pandemic. She uses President Trump as an example. “His presidency has been so wild and so divisive that we get a lot of ‘Hey, it must be pretty easy to write comedy right now!’ And it’s like, well, actually, it’s the opposite, because it’s so wild and far-fetched and ever-changing that it’s really difficult to satirize something that’s already so crazy.”

As with Trump, some are tuning out of COVID-19 news, and Anderson can sympathize with the fatigue. At the same time, she says, it’s “hard not to talk about something that’s affecting literally everybody.”

Between the two, it’s easier to imagine satire directed at Trump. After all, if satire wants to expose a truth, what truth is there to expose about a virus? And how likely is it that such a truth would make anyone laugh?

An example of one of The Nordly's coronavirus-related headlines
An example of one of The Nordly’s coronavirus-related headlines

Courtesy The Nordly

“We don’t want to be punching down on people who are experiencing this in their own lives,” Gershberg says.

Instead, it’s the usual carnival-game lineup of political figures: “Jason Lewis Interrupts Funeral to Encourage Mourners to Eat at Denny’s,” goes another Nordly headline about the former state representative. And Anderson rips into the governor of Georgia, who recently admitted he had not realized asymptomatic people could also carry the virus. “And the CDC is in Atlanta,” she says, laughing in disbelief.

Beyond politicians, it doesn’t quite make sense to “punch up” at the coronavirus. This is a force of nature. It responds to medicine, not irony.

Twin Cities comedian John Moe puts it more plainly: “I don’t like to make light of something that’s killing people.”

As host of the podcast The Hilarious World of Depression, Moe chats with comedians about mental health. Since COVID-19, he has given listeners a heartfelt update, detailing his new setup (inside his closet) and getting real.

“For me, what’s interesting about this whole thing is how it mirrors how a lot of us saw the world already,” he said in the update, referring to listeners and comedians struggling with depression or anxiety. “We saw it as this place where something bad is always about to happen.”

Moe has a college friend who caught COVID-19, “and it was pure hell,” he tells me. Still, he agrees we should allow laughter in what surrounds the coronavirus. “There’s plenty of humor to be found in the isolation and cabin fever a lot of us are going through,” he says, “because that’s simply and profoundly human.” (On Twitter, for instance, he jokes about the pros and cons of weddings on Zoom. One advantage: “Took 20 minutes.” The only disadvantage: “Sadder conga line at DIY reception.”)

Likewise, Gershberg has hounded the fear and anxiety we’re feeling. The Nordly’s mission, in fact, got to me firsthand.

Shortly after I started working from home—and started to receive email after foreboding email about cancelled events—my editor pinged me a Nordly headline that featured a stock image of an older woman at a doctor’s office, tilting her head back and opening her mouth for inspection. “Coon Rapids Annual ‘Coughing Directly Into Elderly People’s Mouths’ Competition Cancelled,” it read. I’ll admit I laughed out loud.

“This was in the earlier phases of the response to the pandemic,” Gershberg recalls. Back then, we weren’t sure whether or when to wear masks, or what counted as symptoms. Event cancellations were underway. Gershberg knows: As the arts coordinator for the Twin Cities’ Jewish Community Center, he did the cancelling.

“When you create that absurdity, when you heighten it to make it even more specific, the stakes even higher, and make it something beyond our own world—then I don’t feel like that could be offensive,” he says. “[The pandemic] is terrifying. But at the same time, that fantastical world that was created by that collection of 10 or so words can really lighten the situation.”

He says Jewish tradition taught him to either cry or laugh in the face of tragedy. He would qualify that: “I think you need to do both, and there are moments when I do both. But I think what we’re trying to do with The Nordly—and what I know a lot of comedians across the Twin Cities and across the state are doing—is to give the opportunity to laugh.”

Brave New Workshop’s humorous marquee cuts through uncharacteristically silent downtown Minneapolis
Brave New Workshop’s humorous marquee cuts through uncharacteristically silent downtown Minneapolis

Photo by Caroline Yang

Close the Social Distance

One scientific theory of laughter suggests that it evolved as a pleasurable expression of mastery over chaos or confusion. Probably the most fundamental explanation, though, stresses its importance as a signal of cooperation and empathy.

“Other than basic needs, of course, human connection is the biggest thing right now,” Keller says.

We’ve realized that Zoom calls can’t really match in-person conversation. (No eye contact, shaky non-verbal cues.)

Anderson’s solution? “Get weird,” she says. On a recent, “very important” Zoom meeting with Brave New Workshop staff, she wore Groucho Marx glasses the entire time. They laughed, she laughed, and things felt, paradoxically, more normal.

Part of their plan with “Brave New Workshop Goes Viral” has been to open up about these off-stage realities. Anderson has known McEwen for all the 15 years she’s been with the company. Before they spun off into Cheeto flares, they caught up as friends on camera. “In order for people to laugh with you, they have to recognize something of themselves in you,” she says.

Like the rest of us, she’s having flashes of loneliness, grief, fear. And like many of us, she’s turning not just to professional-grade funny people, but to people like her mom.

Before we hang up, she tells me a sketch-worthy quarantine story. “We were FaceTiming, and I was like, ‘Alright, Mom, I gotta go.’ And she was like, ‘Where are you gonna go?’ I was like, ‘OK, well, you got me there. I need to brush my teeth.’ And she’s like, ‘You’re hanging up on me because you need to brush your teeth?’ And I was like, ‘Mom! I have to! I can’t remember the last time I brushed my teeth! So I have to go!’ She’s like, ‘I don’t know how to feel right now.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t either!’”

The answer, of course, is a little bit better.

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