‘You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time:’ ‘Combating Coronavirus’ comedy provides much-needed levity

Hosted by Zara Khan, top left, comedians (clockwise) KJ Robinson, Ashley Kelly, Andy Erickson, Tamer Kattan, Anthony Davis and Mona Shaikh livestreamed a stand-up show titled "Combating Coronavirus" over Zoom and Facebook Live on March 20.
(Zara Khan’s “Combating Coronavirus” livestream)

Tamer Kattan planned to headline All Star Stand Up Comedy shows at the Greenwich Village Comedy Club in New York City last weekend when the coronavirus caused a sudden change of venue.

With a March 16 executive order closing nightclubs, among other businesses in the city, Kattan still found himself telling jokes online that Friday night, only from the bedroom of an Airbnb he rented in Los Angeles to be closer to his elderly mother who lives in Huntington Beach.

He didn’t let the pandemic get the last laugh during the “Combating Coronavirus” virtual comedy show presented by Zara Khan, an Irvine-based comedian.

“I can’t even imagine what New Jersey must be like right now,” Kattan quipped on Zoom, a teleconferencing app that surged with more than 600,000 downloads in a single day since big cities across the country locked down.

Tamer Kattan joined Zara Khan's comedy livestream on March 20 after shows around the country were canceled due to coronavirus-related concerns.
(Jordan Ashleigh)

“Two weeks after the tanning salons have closed, I don’t know how anybody’s going to recognize each other!”

But the Arab American comedian knows that it will probably be longer than two weeks before he’s able to return to the stage, at home or abroad. Kattan’s previously packed schedule of performances reflects that somber truth, as it all came to a grinding halt amid stay-at-home and social distancing orders.

“Every single show on my calendar is canceled,” he says by phone. “Coronavirus completely gutted it.”

As millions of Americans are working from home to flatten the curve of confirmed coronavirus cases, can comedians, who thrive on laughter becoming contagious before a live audience, do the same?

Khan thinks the show can, and must, go on. With her own upcoming performances canceled by the outbreak, including an April 8 show at Aliso Viejo’s Soka University, she came up with the idea of hosting a virtual comedy show online.

“Stephen Colbert says, ‘You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time,’” says Khan. “Right now, people need comedy. They need jokes.”

And comedians need work.

A screenshot from Ashley Kelly's Zoom as she participates in the "Combating Coronavirus" comedy livestream hosted by Zara Khan on March 20.
(Courtesy of Ashley Kelly)

Khan assembled a lineup of six comedians, including Kattan, for her March 20 virtual comedy show that was also livestreamed on Facebook. A number of performers she initially approached turned her down, either being too stressed from just having lost their livelihood or too skeptical that the live comedy experience could effectively translate online.

At first, Kattan counted himself among the doubters.

“Initially, my reaction was ‘Oh, this is going to suck,’ ” he says. “It’s not the same. Live comedy is meant to be shared in this communal gathering space. Someone else’s laughter hits you like a domino effect. That’s the real power of live comedy.”

The assembled comics confessed to feeling a little awkward at first, but for about an hour on Friday night, they gave Khan’s experiment a go.

The host warmed up the virtual crowd. From her bedroom, she delightfully deadpanned through jokes that poked fun at her Muslim Pakistani upbringing, pickup lines and mental health before turning the night over to a crew of up-and-comers like herself and veteran headliners.

“Are you guys ready to get started?” Khan asked.

The virtual audience who didn’t mute their Zoom apps cheered.

Without a stage, comedians delivered hilarious stand-up sets while sitting down at home. Zoom’s gallery view feature allowed them to read audience reactions along with enjoying unmuted laughter.

Comic Zara Khan hosted a comedy livestream on Zoom and Facebook Live, as bars and clubs closed down across the country last week.
(Courtesy of Zara Khan)

Some comedians held a microphone in keeping the look of live comedy; others riffed into their ear bud mics excitedly. All took the opportunity to laugh at life under quarantine and the great American toilet-paper panic.

“I grew up in Pakistan,” said Mona Shaikh, a comedian and host of the Irvine-based comedy show Minority Reportz, during her set. “We don’t have the concept of toilet paper; we use the bidet. We jet-power-hose our asses!”

Like any large conference call, the virtual comedy show didn’t go off without a few hitches. During local comedian Ashley Kelly’s set, someone started humming a tune on Zoom unmuted, prompting Khan to reset the online audience with a stern reminder afterward.

Interruptions aside, comedians continued testing pandemic punchlines. Andy Erikson, who placed third on “Last Comic Standing” in 2015, closed the show with a set of puns she called “the pundemic.”

“What did Princess Leia shout to her lover to encourage him?” Erikson asked, her hair pulled into side pigtails. “Woo Han!”

Despite the kinks, comedians and an audience of approximately 50 across both platforms came away with much needed levity during trying times.

Khan held up her Venmo account as a virtual tip jar during the show and was able to pay the talent for their time.

“I’ll tell you what, in the absence of being able to do live comedy, boy did I feel a sense of community,” says Kattan. “I was pleasantly surprised by the end of it at how much joy it brought me to see and hear other people laughing.”

Comedian Ashley Kelly works at the Rec Room Comedy Club, where she both bartends and organizes comedy nights.
(Daniel Farius)

Kelly, a Huntington Beach resident, also appreciated being part of the experience, especially as she’s impacted by the coronavirus shutdown on two fronts.

Earlier this month, she worked her last shift as a bartender at the Rec Room comedy club in Huntington Beach, where she also was organizing a comedy night.

“I didn’t even think I had the chance to do comedy again during this pandemic,” she says. “If more people were doing stuff like this, we could all get through this time a little easier.”

Khan wants to build off of that sentiment and the success of the first show, possibly doing a weekly series during the worst of the pandemic. It’s the best way to keep the laughs alive until comedians can return to the stage.

“Things will get better; I’m really looking forward to that,” says Khan. “Things will get back to normal.”

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