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'We Used To Be Very Funny': Vermont Comics Adapt To COVID Conditions

A woman stands in a white tent with colorful lights and a microphone stand in front of her.
Bryant Denton
Tina Friml performs at a comedy show at Zenbarn in Waterbury. For most of the comics in the show, it was their first time getting back on stage since the pandemic began.

Their work isn’t “essential,” and they don’t save lives — but they could lift your spirits. With a difficult winter ahead, Vermont comics are doling out a different kind of medicine: laughter.

On a rainy October night in Waterbury Center, a group of six Vermont comics gathered at Zenbarn to perform for the first time in months.

“No matter how tonight goes, I feel like it’s really important for y’all to know: We used to be very funny,” host Corey Richardson warned the crowd.

"No matter how tonight goes, I feel like it's really important for y'all to know: We used to be very funny." — Corey Richardson, host of Zenbarn comedy show.

The comics’ material couldn’t have been more relevant.

“I went to a wedding recently — small event, socially distanced, relaxed,” Richardson said. “But it was kind of ironic for me, because I felt like the best part of the pandemic was not having to go to people’s weddings.”

By pre-COVID standards, this event was less than ideal. It was cold. The audience was spread out, and half of the people were wearing masks that covered their laughter. But that’s showbiz in 2020.

More from VPR: Outdoor Singing, Zoom Plays: How School Arts Programs Are Adapting To Pandemic

Ash Diggs described a foggy night of excessive drinking and online shopping:

“So, I went on Amazon to see what I got me. And it turns out that I rented — not bought, rented — the 2004 Will Smith blockbuster ‘I Robot’ ... four times.”

Another performer was Mike Thomas. He’s a well-known figure in the Vermont comedy scene; he’s been performing for the past 15 years. He’s also one of the few comics of color in a state that’s predominately white. So, naturally, race comes up often in his jokes. Here’s one where he critiqued the censoring of a certain word in a song by the rapper DMX:

“It’s the radio! You can’t say the n-word. So to bleep it out, they chose to use the sound of a dog growling. Which sounds like this: ‘grrrrrrrrrr.’ Why would you leave the worst part of the word on there? Like, objectively, that 'hard r' is the part I have a problem with the most, you know?”

Watch Mike Thomas perform a joke:

Tina Friml closed out the night. Part of her schtick involved self-deprecating jokes about her disability — she has cerebral palsy, which affects her speech & motor skills. She knows talking about it can be kind of a doozy:

“You know, I realize this is a comedy show, you didn’t expect this… Anything but this! We left our house after six months… for this?”

Friml has had a rollercoaster career through comedy. She won the Vermont's Funniest Comedian contest in 2018. Last year, she was featured in Just For Laughs, the largest comedy festival in the world, which was canceled this year.

She also moved to New York City. But like for so many of us, COVID-19 derailed her plans. And she had to move back.

“There was nothing worse — to kind of go from being in the thick of New York comedy, and then have the rug pulled out, and kinda [get] sucked back to Vermont,” Friml said. “And even though it’s irrational, you do get the fear of like, 'Oh my god, what if that’s it? What if I can never get that magic back?’”

Watch Tina Friml perform a joke:

But Friml and the other comics still have their magic. Liz Thompson and Meg Gallagher came from Burlington to see the Zenbarn show, and they were both pleased with the performances.

“I thought it was so much fun, I haven’t been to a comedy show in about eight to nine months, and I thought it was amazing,” Thompson said after the show.

“Yeah, I thought it was really great,” Gallagher added. “It was really good to be around all of our friends here, to see everybody kind of just like, pick up where they left off.”

"For me, the problem with virtual comedy, like, you're in your bedroom, sitting there alone. You turn on your camera, do about 20 minutes of jokes, and then you turn it off. And like, that's it, you're alone again." — Tina Friml, Vermont comedian

With a COVID winter ahead of us, who knows what Vermont comedy will look like in the coming months. Mike Thomas and Tina Friml both have projects to keep them busy — one is working on a script and the other a comic book.

There are also virtual events — but neither one of them is excited about those.

“You can’t do [virtual stand-up] without feeling the energy of the room,” Thomas said. “You know, you write the jokes — I say this and they laugh, I say this and they laugh. Well, if they don’t laugh, I’m just talking to myself.”

Friml added: “For me, the problem with virtual comedy, like, you’re in your bedroom, sitting there alone. And then you turn on your camera, you do about 20 minutes of jokes, and then you turn it off. And like, that’s it, you’re alone again.”

A feeling we can all relate to.

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