One thing all the local guys can agree on is that Buffalo is a great place for comedy. There’s something about the underdog ethos, the warring feelings of defiance and despair, that brings out the best in our comics.
“I’ve always said that Buffalo is a comedy town,” said veteran standup comedian Dan Mahoney. “It’s a comedy town because we’ve been cloaked in failure for so long as a town, and we find ourselves through loss and defeat and misery.
“Tragedy plus time equals comedy,” Mahoney said. “That’s not me. Carol Burnett said that. But it’s true. It’s really true.”
The city has a proud comic tradition, but over the last decade it experienced a resurgence. When the Helium Comedy Club opened in the Cobblestone District in 2013, giving the city a club of its own, it signaled a new era for the legion of young, aspiring comics in Western New York.
“There was definitely a resurgence,” Mahoney said.
“Absolutely,” said Rob Lederman, the dean of stand-up comics and owner of Rob’s Comedy Playhouse in Amherst. “We were scheduled to have our busiest season in five years.”
Then, in mid-March, the coronavirus hit and brought much of American society to a halt. The clubs were shuttered. The laughter died. Eight months later, there is still no stand-up comedy in New York, no real outlet for the comedians.
Few of our cultural institutions have been spared during the pandemic. Live music, theater, sports. But it’s been especially difficult for the stand-up comics, whose avocation demands a roaring intimacy that is antithetical to social distancing.
While the state has allowed restaurants, bars, gyms and bowling alleys to operate at reduced capacity, comedy clubs are still not open. Late last month, a group of small theaters and comedy clubs in New York City filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming that their “deep-rooted liberty” had been violated.
The Cuomo administration has been unmoved by the suit, tossing it onto a growing pile of similar complaints that have come their way during the Covid-19 crisis.
“It’s been a rough year for comedy,” said Tony Pusateri, a comic and manager at Lederman’s club. Pusateri did standup in Las Vegas for years, but moved back to Buffalo with his wife and kids about six years ago.
Lederman says Pusateri has mastered the science of stand-up, the nuances of setting up a room and maximizing the potential for laughter in an audience. Pusateri said he know right away that the virus would be bad for comedy.
“Two weeks prior, I was sounding the alarm” he said. “I said, ‘There’s no way we can have this open.’ Your best comedy rooms are cramped. Everyone’s kind of bunched together, with low ceilings. The point is to have people laughing, which is going to expel spit or sound or whatever comes out of them.
“It’s the exact environment for the virus to take off in,” said Pusateri, who has a day job in hospitality for a tech firm. So in a very real sense, laughter can be lethal in a pandemic.
“Absolutely,” Mahoney said. “If I’m doing my job right, I’m putting you in a position to kill someone. So ‘I killed’ is literal now.”
It’s no laughing matter. Lederman, who used to tour nationally and wrote for David Letterman, said live performance provides comics with a sense of approval and love that is difficult to find elsewhere in life.
“It’s a drug,” said Greg Bauch, who has taken a hiatus from standup after 20 years in the local clubs. “I never got bored of it. Life just kind of got in the way. I hate not doing it.”
Bauch, who used to produce “Schopp and the Bulldog” for WGR, is now a marketing writer for Mongoose. He said he’s in a chat group of about 10 local comics who gather to bemoan the lack of opportunities during the Covid crisis.
Rick Matthews is part of the group. Like most comics, Matthews, who has three children, can’t support himself with his comedy. He works as a prison guard at Attica, which isn’t exactly a font of comic material.
“I started doing comedy to get my head out of that,” said Matthews, who dreamed of doing comedy as a teen-ager but didn’t start until 12 years ago, when he was 29. “The feeling is indescribable for me.
“My day job can be a tense, stressful environment. This is like my venting point, my pressure release. Without it, it’s weird. I don’t know where to put it.”
That’s the problem. When the comedy clubs are shut down, there’s no outlet. Sure, comics do podcasts. They perform on Zoom, anything to test out their material and keep their instincts sharp.
“I’m pretty sure my wife is sick of me running material to her in the kitchen,” Matthews said with a laugh. “She’s like, ‘I don’t want to hear about it right now. I’m making dinner. I don’t need to hear about your intimate moments.’”
His wife is used to it. Matthews says the first time he ever did comedy on stage, in an open mic at Nietzsche’s, his wife looked in his face after his set and said, ‘You’re never going to stop doing this, are you?’ He said, ‘Yeah, this is it now.’
“There’s nothing like it, the rush you get,” Matthews said. “I played football in high school for Eden. We won at Rich Stadium and that was a good feeling. Stand-up comedy made that feel like it was nothing.”
Lederman said the people miss it, too. He said he gets 20 to 30 texts a week from people asking ‘When are you going to open? We really need a laugh.’ And that’s the irony of the situation, that during this wild, divisive and exhausting time in our national history, we’ve never needed comedy more.
“It’s funny,” said Lederman, a long-time radio personality on “Morning Bull’ on 97Rock. “Our ratings are up in the morning. People put their TV on and hear, Covid, closings, elections. They know where to go for that BS. With us, it’s ‘Just make me laugh. I want to forget it.’”
Of course, it’s hard to forget when the money isn’t coming in to pay the bills. Lederman, 60, has it better than most local comics. He has the radio gig and 33 years of running comedy clubs that never closed the doors until this past March.
Lederman said he wouldn’t run the Playhouse at 25 percent capacity even if the state allowed it. He wouldn’t make money, and social distancing is the enemy of good comedy. It’s not his own bank account that bothers him, it’s the charities that are suffering because his shows have gone dark.
“We do a ton of fundraisers,” Lederman said. “I would do one every Friday and Sunday and deposit checks for every one. I look at the calendar and our last date was Feb. 18.”
Over the last 10 years or so, Lederman has raised about $90,000 for a wide array of charities, from dog and cat rescues to Rotary clubs to sick people.
There’s a different rush when your jokes are helping with the medical expenses for someone’s child.
“It’s gone,” he said. “It’s just gone. They can try doing virtual and it doesn’t work. I have yet to see a virtual show where there’s laughter. Because there’s no audience.”
No laughter and no audience can equal depression. We know there’s been a surge in mental illness and addiction during the pandemic. Some of the comics who can’t do the thing they love are suffering — either financially or emotionally or both.
“Absolutely,” Lederman said. “Absolute depression. My best friend from when I started out in LA made a name for himself doing audience warmup. He did all the big ones — American Idol, The Tonight Show, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire.
“When he wasn’t doing audience warmup, he got $5,000 a week on cruise ships. Cruise ships are done. TV shows are coming back, and what’s the one thing they don’t have? An audience. So this poor guy is now working at a deli, filling cannolis.”
One of Lederman’s former managers, a Rochester comic who used to tour with George Carlin, was so desperate for gigs he started doing standup on his front lawn.
“He doesn’t charge,” Lederman said. “He passes a bucket and he gives the money to a charity. It’s not about the money. An artist needs canvas and a paint brush. They don’t care if anybody sees it sometimes.”
There are a lot of struggling artists out there in local comedy. Virtually no one makes a living at it, but they dream of the big-time. They got a chance at Helium, which attracts some of the top comics in the nation but also has open-mic nights for aspiring performers.
That’s what really elevated the Buffalo scene, having a place like Helium to complement Rob’s Playhouse. Lederman said he’s glad to have Helium around. He doesn’t see it as competition, but a venue that lifts all boats in local comedy.
Comics worry that Helium will become one of the local businesses that’s a victim of the coronavirus. Brad Grossman, who owns Helium and six other comedy clubs with his brother, Marc, said he’s fairly confident that the club will make it post-Covid.
“We’re going to lose a lot of money,” Grossman said from Philadelphia, where he owns a club. “We’re going to have a lot of debt. We’ll probably be at 20 percent of last year. We’re hoping to get up to 40 percent at the other clubs. But it’s tough. My goal is to break even on the year in as many places as I can and try to keep our head above water.
“As long as (Cuomo) opens up the state, or at least makes comedy legal again in the next year or six months, I’m confident we’ll find the funding to ensure that we’re open.”
Grossman said he’s hopeful that saveourstages.com, a campaign that is lobbying Congress on behalf of independent music and comedy venues, will get results. He said 200 legislators have signed on, and he urged fans of local comedy to add their support.
“I’m confident this bill will pass at some point and will help reduce our stress,” he said. “But it’s scary right now, for sure.”
It’s surely alarming to see infection and hospitalization rates rising in the county, state and country. There’s little chance for Buffalo comedy clubs to open in the winter. But with a vaccine on the horizon, there’s rising hope.
“I think it’ll be post-vaccine,” Mahoney said, “as therapeutics ramp up and we get a better handle on that. It’s terrible to talk about politics, but we’ll have a different mentality towards it in the next couple of months. We’re going to see outdoor shows in the spring as numbers are handled a little better.”
In the meantime, Buffalo will grin and bear it, as always. As Matthews says, “Out of misery comes hilarity. That’s what it’s all about, people being able to laugh at themselves. Buffalo is a ballbuster community. You’re laughing in spite of everything going on. That really helps.”
Pusateri, who works Helium and the Playhouse, said he’s worked all over the country and other comics say the crowds in Buffalo are among the best around.
“Buffalo is all about having a good time,” Pusateri said. “We’ve dealt with misery and we laugh at ourselves. It’s like the Bills. Our crowds are crazy at the games. You go to other cities and it’s not the same. The comedians see that and they love it. That’s why they keep coming back.
“It’s a testament to what we are. We rise from the ashes. That’s what we do. You beat us down and we get back up. We persevere. As soon as we get the opportunity, we’re going to show you why the comedy scene here is great, why Buffalo is great. Just give us a chance to rise back up.
“I just hope it doesn’t take much longer.”