Laughter may be the best medicine, but during a pandemic, only the people who practice actual medicine are considered essential workers, not comedians.
While doctors and nurses go to their jobs every day in 2020, comedians no longer have a regular gig to go to outside of the house. The days of appearing at several clubs each night, both to work out new material and pay the bills, have ended for now. Instead, comedians are living through a stand-up apocalypse. There might be a return to normal one day, or more likely, the arrival of a new normal that accommodates widespread, necessary germaphobia.
Until the next phase begins, though, stand-up comedians have to either adapt or die.
The new HBO Max special, Colin Quinn & Friends: A Parking Lot Comedy Show, is a perfect snapshot of this moment in time. It encapsulates the challenges even well-established comedians have faced in 2020—and the resilience, grousing, and ball-busting with which they have met those challenges.
Before the actual show begins, Broadway theater-rocking monologist and comic Quinn (who also directs) sets the scene. Governor Cuomo’s mid-March order to shut down all New York venues flashes by, along with the image of comedians getting a temperature check before being permitted to perform in the titular parking lot. We also see Quinn’s tweet from March that prophesied the eventual special, which was filmed in late summer.
Idea to save stand up comedy. Drive in comedy clubs! You stay in your car and the show is where the drive in movie was!”Hey, look at this nerd in the sonata !“ and “Look at the dope in the 12 year old Mercedes…Oops sorry that’s your next act @richvos!”
— Colin Quinn (@iamcolinquinn) March 24, 2020
He’d clearly been joking, but Quinn’s tweet bypassed the Zoom phase of quarantine comedy, for the kind of outdoor venues that emerged, if not quite flourished, over the summer—parks and parking lots. The prescient joke, however didn’t quite account for the reality of what it would be like to perform on stage for the first time in six months, with no material, to a bunch of people inside their Toyota Tercels.
“This is the best I’ve ever done in front of cars,” host Rich Vos says at one point, standing on a stage by the Williamsburg waterfront, the gorgeous Manhattan skyline glimmering behind him.
There are a couple different meta-narratives laced throughout the 47-minute special. The nine comedians on hand—a heavy-hitting crew that includes Marina Franklin, Dan Soder, Bobby Kelly, and Sam Jay—are watching each other to see who bombs in this environment, and at the same time, the audience is trying to figure out how they are supposed to be responding.
Toward the beginning, the camera goes in tight on people laughing and applauding in their cars, the buffer of so much steel and glass preventing their sound from forming into the forceful wall of sound that might materialize at an indoor show. These laughs sound scattered and distant, a little sad.
Over the course of the show, this audience does a synopsis version of what all audiences in this situation have done throughout this weird year, graduating to using the cars to applaud.
“Thank you so much, I don’t know if I did well or not!” Bonnie McFarlane says at the end of her set, before a bunch of honking and flashing lights assure her that she did.
Keith Robinson gets perhaps too much assurance, with his first ever “horn break” for a joke that killed, before audiences learn that the most helpful way to applaud using the car is a quick spree of little honks that abruptly stop, and maybe a flick of the lights.
According to Marina Franklin during her set, Quinn stipulated that all the comics perform new material, so all the jokes are duly current, if perhaps a few months outdated by now. The range of topics includes being stuck at home all the time with a significant other, feeling brave for going to the store, and of course, the end of the world.
It won’t have a long shelf life, but Quinn wisely knew that dating the material would be part of its charm. Anyone watching in the future wouldn’t be able to pretend this comedy special was created at any other time anyway. Instead, it’s an appropriately raw and quietly moving document of an unstable and unsustainable time in comedy and the world in general.
May we all look back on it from someplace better and laugh that it ever happened.