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'It feels like the Twilight Zone': Local comedians adjust to pandemic

Local comedians share their experience performing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Video by Angelina Katsanis.

With comedy clubs operating at limited capacity and Zoom open mics not quite filling the void for some comics, Chelsea Keyes took it upon herself to provide a solution. She got some pallets and some plywood and built four stages, which comics now walk across weekly in outdoor open mic sessions hosted in a parking lot behind The PIT.

Keyes’ outdoor open mic is just one of the ways in which local comics and student comedy groups have adapted their work during the pandemic.

Initially, she welcomed a break from comedy. She thought the pandemic would be over quickly and allowed the rest of the local comedy community to take the reins on finding COVID-19-safe solutions. 

But the pandemic went on, and comedians are only now starting to find their footing again. 

"I think we're all faced with this horrible trauma, and comedy comes from trauma," Keyes said. "Things are just getting sillier and more fun. People have had more fun over the last two months than I've seen them have in the year that I was working there.

Eventually, Keyes decided that she'd rather do some manual labor and get something done than see the community exclusively through a screen.

In addition to building the stages, she set rigorous safety protocols for the 25 people at each week’s open mic. She took a tape measure and spray-painted dots six feet apart from each other so participants would know exactly where to stand. She has two microphones in rotation so that while one is in use, the other is being bleached offstage. Masks are optional while on stage, but mandatory in the crowd. Hand sanitizer, mic covers and gloves are available to the comics at all times.

“I work in a doctor's office, and so I am doing hospital protocol,” Keyes said. 

Since her weekly open mics are one of the few live shows in the state, she has gotten to see comedians she typically does not interact with, including one who drove from South Carolina to perform five to seven minutes of standup in a parking lot.

“If I wasn't doing this and if we weren't doing it outside, I would not have had the opportunity to experience these comics' humor and their stories and I wouldn't have had them there,” Keyes said. “It's kind of amazing, honestly.”

Among the performers at parking lot open mic sessions has been Josh Rosenstein, who typically produces shows at The PIT and operates an open mic of his own at Zog’s Art Bar & Pool Hall.

Rosenstein moved his open mic online, but ran into some issues early on.

“I had to change some settings to deal with some Zoombombers,” Rosenstein said. “That was really unpleasant — people coming in and trying to take over the screen and hijack the show and say awful, awful things.”

Now, however, the sessions have found a groove with a small group of comedians who are eager to get jokes out into the world. Still, the virtual format provides some limitations.

“It feels like the Twilight Zone sometimes, especially if there are not a lot of audience members with their mics on,” Rosenstein said. “As standups, we're really, really used to getting immediate feedback on whether or not what we're doing is funny, because the room will either laugh or not laugh and you see them not laughing. Sometimes you have no idea how well it's going.”

The virtual age has also allowed Rosenstein to delve more into sketch comedy, which has also been a focus for the Chapel Hill Players, or CHiPs, a student improv and sketch troupe.

Typically, the group puts on two shows per semester, but with in-person shows not being possible, they are instead planning to film sketches that will be posted on the group’s YouTube channel.

“I think this will be a really fun avenue for CHiPs to go in and possibly something that can be sustained after COVID,” Jamie Krantz, a UNC senior, said. “That could be a good way to take us in another direction and also promote our group in a new way.”

The group still gathers outdoors each week at Union Chapel Hill Apartments to play improv games.

“We decided the focus is going to be on things we wanted to do, like growing as improvisers ourselves,” Krantz said. “It's ongoing. It's probably going to change again, even still.”

The pandemic has provided additional challenges for the group, aside from their ability to perform. With much of the group consisting of seniors, it is unclear right now when they will have the ability to audition members of their training team, known as Incs, to move up to the main CHiPs roster.

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“We're trying to think of how we're going to be able to sustain our group and what we're going to do about our training team,” Krantz said. 

Whether they’re playing improv games, hosting open mics or creating humorous PowerPoints, returning to comedy has given each of these comics something to look forward to in a time where it feels like that’s rarely the case.

"I think laughing is incredibly healing," Keyes said. "I don't think that if I wasn't doing this, if I didn't have this to look forward to every week, that I would be as mentally and emotionally functional as I am right now.”