What’s So Funny about COVID-19? Nothing. But, Virtual comedy at Helium is crucial

Helium Comedy Club’s Live Comedy Q’s with Alonzo Bodden of “Last Comic Standing,” and NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” fame, marks a new direction for laughter in a virtual world.

The question of whether it is okay to laugh at life through a pandemic such as COVID-19 has been answered – now, thankfully nightly, again after two weeks of near silence – by late-in-the-evening talk show hosts such as Seth Myers, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien, and Sunday’s “Last Week Tonight” overlord John Oliver. I cried laughing at the O’Brien’s Facetime interview with friend and fellow “Saturday Night Live” alum Adam Sandler, as well as Oliver’s long slow tease on York, PA artist Brian Swords’ uncomfortably erotic rat art.

Did I cry because something these men said or did was so hilarious, period? Sure. Conan’s face alone is enough to bring out giggles. Certainly, though, there was a tear of relief in there too that yes, laughs, were allowed during coronavirus’ slow takeover. 

What has bugged me, though, about having to stay in was that I was missing comedy in a club – the live interaction of stand-ups, sketch artists and such with a crowd. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to take on several new and upcoming virtual comedy spaces, stand-ups and troupes coming to the viral realm shortly. First, however, there is Helium Comedy Club on Sansom Street, who commences its virtual relationship with the world tonight, April 2 with “Well, I Thought It Was Funny” where comics look back on their earliest sets and two events on April 3 with “Live Jury Duty” (topics range from best comedian of all time to where can you get the greatest lap dance) and a Live Comedy Q’s with Alonzo Bodden of “Last Comic Standing,” and NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” fame.

Dosage spoke with Brad Grossman, the owner and booker of the Helium chain about the realities of club life under a pandemic, and how his upcoming virtual comedy projects should lighten the mood while flattening the curve.

A.D. Amorosi:  How are you holding up, personally, you and yours? And how hard is it to socially distance?
Brad Grossman:  It’s been a trip. We’ve had a family member unfortunately affected by COVID-19. Our venue doors have closed. And we’ve been quarantining for almost 3 weeks. Needless to say, things have been a bit crazy, but we’re pretty committed to keeping everyone in our circle safe and supported. I do think the shock has started to wear off since it’s been a bit longer for us versus some who are just starting to feel the effects.

A.D. Amorosi: Equally hard and equally personal – how are you feeling the loss of Helium, not just Philly but the other locations? More than ever we can use a laugh, and we can’t get one in a live setting. 
Brad Grossman: Awful. This business is extremely personal to me. My brother and I have a deep love for comedy. I recall being 10 and watching Dice, Richard Pryor, and Billy Crystal from our parent’s family room, laying on the ragged, orange, corduroy couch. We were hysterically laughing watching material we should not have been consuming while our parents were distracted in the other room… Sidebar: Our parents are wonderful, I promise! Back to it, I love watching people at the clubs when I have a chance to recreate that feeling. That’s where I get my satisfaction from. Regardless of making a living, I can’t wait to get back to that. I miss being on the floor and seeing the smiles. I’m excited to experience that again.  

A.D. Amorosi: How much of going through all that figured into creating virtual comedy shows such as those you are doing? To tell you the absolute truth, I pitched this story before you even announced a virtual comedy show as I’ve been waiting for this for what seems like eons.
Brad Grossman: 90% I need people to laugh, comics and customers. 10% I need the same people to remember us when we reopen and know that they can count on us. The money earned from these shows is barely scratching the surface on our fixed expenses. So, I’m betting on the future of comedy and laughter.

A.D. Amorosi: What virtual comedy shows are you doing – first? 
Brad Grossman: Live Q&As with headliners, showcases and games. We are also doing classes. We are also exploring other ideas.

An empty Helium Comedy Club.

A.D. Amorosi: How and with who in the Philly stand up community did this all come together – and who else is involved? 
Brad Grossman: It really starts with our team and asking for tons of favors from our local comic friends such as Chip Chantry, Mary Radzinski, David James and Darryl Charles on a local level. Preacher Lawson, Adam Ferrara, Ryan Niemiller, Caitlin Peluffo, Gabe Dinger, Ron Funches and Shane Smith helped us on a national level so far. We are all in love with this crazy thing we call comedy.

A.D. Amorosi: Nightly comic talk show hosts are dealing with having no laughs from an audience. John Oliver joked on Sunday night that he came up as a stand-up in England and is used to absolute silence – what do you expect this will feel like for Helium stand-up comedians? 
Brad Grossman: This is all a true work in progress, but we’re essentially behaving like a traditional radio show. We can’t have dead air and we must assume that the audience at the very least likes what we are putting on assuming we’ve put the effort into the production.

A.D. Amorosi: Do you think, with an end of April mandate to start, that you can handle national acts as such – from home stand up shows if we have to stay away from physical spaces for a while? Can you eventually make money from this – a pay-per-view situation? 
Brad Grossman: Great question.

A.D. Amorosi: Is it cool to laugh through all this?
Brad Grossman: Is there any other way? I’ve definitely had my fair share of tears and nervous laughs, but in the end, I better go laughing. My father always said it takes fewer muscles to smile and laugh. I like to think that he’s correct. 

A.D. Amorosi:  Have you heard any good jokes as of late – COVID-19 or otherwise?
Brad Grossman: Stay tuned. I’m sure they’re coming.

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