No audience is too small for Bob Marley, but things are looking up

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Mike Cote, The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester
·4 min read
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Apr. 1—In 2010, Bob Marley set a world record for the longest continuous comedy show by an individual by doing 40 hours of standup.

He might want to consider calling Guinness again. Since he resumed performing last summer to small audiences in clubs and theaters and outside venues, Marley figures he's logged nearly 500 shows.

"I think my record is 16 in one week," Marley said recently from his home in Maine. "Pre-pandemic, you would average between three and six shows a week."

Marley is used to extended runs, but usually only around Christmas, when he traditionally does a series of shows at various New England venues.

"During the holidays I think I had weeks where I was doing 12 and 13, but that was the busiest week of the year. One week — not every week for eight months."

Marley figures he has been working about four times as hard to make half as much money, thanks to tight capacity limits at performance venues. But he's not complaining; he's happy to keep doing his job no matter the size of the audience or whether he has to tell jokes in the pouring rain like that one gig last summer at the Skowhegan Drive-in Theatre in Maine.

Otherwise, who else could he tell about his 94-year-old Nana bringing a jug of K-Y Jelly to the family barbecue thinking it was hand sanitizer?

Or his cousin Wayne's refusal to address Mr. Potato Head without dropping the courtesy title?

Or his chain-smoking Aunt Theresa's reluctance to get a COVID-19 vaccine?

"She said to me as she's taking a hit of her cigarette, 'I'm not taking that vaccination. You don't know what's in it.' And I'm like, 'God forbid you put anything into the shrine of health you've got going on.'"

Marley returns to New Hampshire this month for several shows, beginning with a three-night run Thursday through Saturday at the Dana Center at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown.

From there, he is booked for April 8, 9 and 11 at the Rialto Theater in Lancaster and April 10 at the Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center in Plymouth.

After the pandemic forced Marley to take 10 weeks off when the world shut down last spring, he was ready to work again — even if his home state's audience limits meant "selling out" equated to playing for 50 people.

"I'm lucky because I play every different size venue, and I'm humble enough where I'm like, 'Yeah, 50 people? Let's do it.' I don't care," Marley said. "I'm not sitting back going, 'Well I normally do 1,500 or 1,000 people. I'm not doing 50 people.' Well, you better do something."

After it became clear last spring that the pandemic would be cutting into his trade for the long haul, Marley canceled all his shows and issued refunds for the one he ticketed through his website.

But that came after a period of considerable anxiety, where Marley wondered how he was going to continue to make a living. He was ready for the green light.

"We just kept following the regulations, and the second they said you could do something outside or whatever, I knew we would be OK. I would just have to work really hard," he said.

Playing for intimate audiences prompted Marley to draw on his early standup experience, long before a quarter-century of performing, and numerous appearances on late-night TV and in movies could guarantee regular work in theaters and clubs.

"When I was in Los Angeles on Sunset Strip, I'd go up at 1 o'clock in the morning sometimes with like eight people. So your training just kicks in," Marley said.

Over the past year, Marley has performed shows where he has addressed every table in the room at some point, breaking for a few minutes to talk directly to the audience — something that is not possible when he's performing in a theater.

He coached the comics who open shows for him to make a similar shift.

"I said, 'Dude, you have to be super, super real right now, and in the moment. You have to look them in the eye and talk to them and be with them. This is not a performance in front of 600 people. You have to be completely present with those people, right here, right now.'"

A year ago, Marley was as anxious as the rest of us. After several months of non-stop performing — broken up by lots of water skiing and snow skiing with his family — he's in high gear and no longer concerned about how he's going to make a living.

In January, his family all contracted COVID-19 and spent a few weeks holed up at home recovering. There's nothing else to worry about.

"Right now I don't have any panic or fear," Marley said. "Last year, I said to my wife, how much is that wedding ring worth? She said, 'Never mind that, how much is that toilet paper worth?'"

mcote@unionleader.com

Mike Cote is senior editor for news and business. Contact him at mcote@unionleader.com or 206-7724.