On the 11th February 2020, I was sitting in the second row of the Leicester Square Theatre (one of my favourite comedy venues in THE WORLD) watching Dave Chappelle.
It’s always exciting when you get the chance to see Chappelle live. Whether it’s a work-in-progress or a fully-formed polished set, it’s going to be a special night. For me, it’s the comedy show equivalent of a Springsteen gig. You’re going to be paying more than you usually would consider reasonable… but you will get an experience that you’ll never forget. I’ve seen lots of comedy shows in my life but these are a step above. Plus, like a Springsteen show, you could be in for a three hour+ performance.
As usual for a Chappelle show, our phones had been locked away in pouches leaving us focussed and not tempted to take a quick photo or video. This is great… except when you’re sat in the second row and really want to take a photo. It was even worse one year earlier when we sat in the centre of the FRONT row. It’s an immersive experience. Without a phone, you’re left entirely in the moment. No distractions. No interruptions. You can’t even check the time.
It was my 5th time seeing Chappelle. Which is a lot. Especially considering that for the longest time, I didn’t think I’d ever even see Dave on TV again. The first time was Hammersmith Apollo 2015, then Electric Brixton in 2016, Leicester Square Theatre and Royal Albert Hall (with Jon Stewart) in February and October 2018, and finally Leicester Square Theatre again for this show in early 2020.
The show finished and we piled out of the 400-seat underground theatre, up the staircase and out onto a busy Leicester Square night filled with the usual tourists, restaurant diners, and street performers. As we removed our phones from their pouches and checked to see what we’d missed, we had no idea that this would be the last time.
The last time seeing our friends face-to-face. The last time travelling from our village to a city. The last time seeing a live comedy show… Not forever but for a very long time.
As you may have guessed, I go to a lot of comedy shows. It’s my thing. I don’t often go out drinking or to football matches or even see many bands these days. As a full-time working parent of three small children with a side hustle in comedy writing, I don’t get much free time so when I do have an opportunity for time out; I go to comedy shows.
When the pandemic hit, selfishly, one of my biggest concerns was the increase in emails I was receiving about postponed or cancelled shows. I have an unwritten list of comedians I want to see live. Somewhere near the top (I guess, it’s hard to tell as it’s unwritten) is Steve Martin. I had tickets to see him and Martin Short at The Royal Albert Hall on the 15th March 2020. My friend and I decided that this Covid thing probably wouldn’t be too much of a risk so we’d still be willing to travel on a packed coach from Oxford and sit in a theatre with 12,000 unmasked and antisocially distanced people. It would be fine! But the venue and performers weren’t so sure, so after only completing the Glasgow leg of the tour, Martin and Short made a runner for it back to the States and the venue postponed the show (it has since been cancelled. Gutted).
More and more shows were cancelled, schools shut, my office sent us all home with laptops, cases and deaths kept increasing, and all of a sudden my concern wasn’t so much about the gigs that I was missing, but whether or not I should call an ambulance or continue riding out a suspected case of Covid in my bed.
When I felt better, I was now living in lockdown. The world had changed almost overnight. Over the next year, the entertainment industry desperately tried to find new ways to continue. Zoom gigs, instagram live sessions, podcasts, and shows recorded in empty venues became commonplace and although some artists found inspiring ways to play with the format and create memorable pieces of art (Daniel Kitson Dot. Dot. Dot, The Streets live from EartH, Bo Burnham Inside, and Dave Chappelle 8:46) a lot of it was people chatting into a camera in a closet and hoping for the best.
Casts from beloved comedies got back together for script readings or new stories that were mostly about everyone calling each other up for a chat. It was a strange time when suddenly anything was possible as long as it was from home. The Mr Show cast reformed to perform an unproduced movie script. Donald Glover came back to Community. 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation had new episodes (although both were poor compared to Mythic Quest’s strong lockdown episode). TV studios and radio theatres moved their audiences online and it was no longer a pre-requisite to live near London if you wanted to join in.
In a way, it was an amazing time for a comedy audience. More content than you could ever hope to have time to watch. The world became even smaller and opportunities to see shows opened up everywhere with no need to travel. Yet it all felt a bit empty and behind it was an industry that was desperately struggling. Artists, crews, staff, everyone involved in live performance were suddenly out of work and forced to do whatever it took to keep things moving. And of course a Zoom show isn’t the same. Not just for the fact that the performers and audiences are disconnected. There’s so much more about going to a comedy show than the actual comedy show. For me, it’s time to see my friends, to go out and eat, to sit in a crowd and feel connected to a community. It’s an opportunity to discover new talent, to hear new perspectives, and to support the venues I love by buying a ticket and some drinks.
As lockdown restrictions continue to ease there are now some opportunities to see live comedy in person and yesterday, 495 days since I’d left that Dave Chappelle show, I finally went back.
After various cancellations and rescheduled dates, my wife and I had tickets for Adam Buxton’s book tour at the Oxford Playhouse. An event so heavily delayed that the hardback book it was designed to promote was now out in paperback. Due to Covid restrictions, he would also not be able to sign or sell any of the books. But still, it was a live show in an actual theatre and I was excited.
I wasn’t sure how I would feel when it was time to go back. My mindset had definitely changed a lot since March 2020 when I would happily risk Covid for a chance to see a comedian on my list. I wasn’t sure how comfortable it would be to sit in an enclosed theatre with people not from my bubble or if wearing a mask would somehow distract from the show.
Before the day, we were given arrival times for our section and row to avoid crowding in the venue. Drinks had to be ordered prior to arrival and there would be no interval. Masks were required to be worn throughout the show, unless exempt or drinking.
The whole thing was brilliantly organised and I felt safe throughout. A new one way system had been put in place throughout the venue. This made it a bit more difficult if you’re looking to get to the toilet and of course there were people who purposely went the wrong way to make their lives easier, but mostly it worked.
Seats had been blocked off so that we all had two empty seats to our side, in front, and behind. I’m not going to lie, this was nice. Plenty of personal space as well as room to put your stuff. A lot of people didn’t bother keeping their masks on, which was a shame but honestly, we were so spaced out it didn’t really concern me. Although the extra room was great, there’s no way it’ll be sustainable without venues having to run multiple performances (which was the case here – two back-to-back shows in place of one) or significantly increase prices.
The show was a mixture of Adam reading from his book, asking the audience if they had any questions, singing songs, and adding commentary. It wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t meant to be. The show was literally called Adam Buxton Rambles. It jumped around, stumbled, and audience interaction was minimal even by polite British standards. But as an experience, it was amazing and a show that I’ll never forget.
During a story about his children and his attempts to connect to his now teenaged son, Adam apologised and paused as he struggled to hold back tears. The audience joined in, with some tearing up themselves and others shouting words of encouragement. “Don’t apologise, it’s lovely!” one low-voiced bloke behind me called from the back of the Circle. As a full-time working parent of three small children with a side hustle in comedy writing who has just been through A LOT with his family, it hit me hard. This is what has been missing from the shows watched over a phone or monitor. A genuine emotional moment. Human interaction. At that time, we were having an actual post-Covid shared experience in the same room. What started as a man singing a silly song about his shorts had suddenly become a genuinely moving moment that I’m sure will stick with everyone in the room.
Although it was so good to be back in a live audience, there’s still a long way to go and some performers and venues won’t return. Careers and businesses continue to be destroyed. The whole thing has been devastating.
But you can help.
Follow performers you like on social media, buy their merch, send them a coffee via their Kofi account, subscribe to their Patreon, book them on panel shows, commission their sitcom – whatever you can do to help.
And when you feel comfortable, book a ticket for a live show.
At some point in your life, you and your friends will go to a comedy show for the last time… but hopefully that’s a long way in the future.
Adam Buxton’s Ramble Book Tour continues later this year. Details and tickets here.