Like so may other forms of entertainment, live stand up comedy has very much fallen victim to the coronavirus pandemic. Comedy clubs everywhere shut down for months, and reopened for such unfortunate events as the D.L. Hughley performance that ended with the comic collapsing on stage and later testing positive for the virus.
There was Dave Chappelle’s great 8:46 Netflix special, recorded outdoors before a sparse crowd not long after the killing of George Floyd. But for the most part, 2020 has been a dead year for live comedy, with fans of standup having to make do with past Netflix specials – of which there are hundreds.
Enter Jim Gaffigan. The comic, one of the most popular working today, this summer embarked on a tour called Drive-Thru Comic, which entailed him performing outdoors, in parking lots, before socially distanced audiences in their cars. It represented something of an experiment in the form of comedy – one where, among other challenges, it’s hard to hear the laughter.
I caught Gaffigan’s tour last Saturday, in the parking lot outside Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza, in Wilkes Barre, PA. It was far from a conventional stand up set, but I think it worked.
The show attracted a few hundred carloads of spectators, and the cars were far enough apart that not everyone had to stay in their cars, and were allowed to sit beside them, in lawn chairs. The parking lot was opened a couple of hours early, which took on a tailgate vibe.
Following three opening acts, Gaffigan took the stage, and made quite a few jokes about the absurdity of the situation, as a comedian who normally plays large theaters. “That joke was for the cars,” he said of a handful of stray punchlines, and those who remained behind the wheel made it a custom to “laugh” at particularly funny jokes by honking their horns.
Gaffigan stuck with his usual mix of jokes, about food, fatherhood, and the general absurdities of life, and kept it clean as usual (I had never seen Gaffigan perform live before, although I have watched most of his specials, and I once interviewed him). The comic even reprised his famous Hot Pockets bit at the end.
The devoutly Catholic comedian even made some cracks about the church’s molestation scandals, indicating that perhaps he won’t be invited to open for the pope again, as he did in Philadelphia back in 2015.
Gaffigan has a new standup special, The Pale Tourist, debuting on Amazon Prime this week, which entailed him going to Canada and Spain and performing comedy about those countries, in them. The special, needless to say, was recorded before the pandemic, but give Gaffigan credit for not merely performing the same routine on the road that the audience will be able to watch at home the following week.
Was the parking lot outside a sports arena the ideal venue for a comedy show? Not quite. But Jim Gaffigan managed to make the audience laugh and their cars honk, most consistently.