Stand-up comedy, nationally known comics return to Chattanooga clubs. But is it too soon?

Barry Courter, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
·7 min read

Feb. 21—Comedy has always been a healing agent, helping people get past a tragedy or deal with something that doesn't make sense. We laugh at funerals and wakes to help us deal with pain, and humor has been a touchstone that society uses to judge when we are on the other side of an ordeal or ready to deal with a major crisis.

Back in 2001, for example, "Saturday Night Live" famously went on air as scheduled 18 days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The show opened with producer Lorne Michaels asking then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani "Can we be funny?"

"Why start now?" was the politician's reply. It was a comedic signal to the country that we could, and should, at least try to move on.

"Too soon?" has become a common quip to a joke that might not land well after events such as earthquakes, floods, plane crashes and now, it would seem, a pandemic if people aren't ready to laugh. It would appear that for months now, people have not been ready, but that may be changing. Comics and comedy clubs are beginning to ramp up with national acts hitting the road.

"Finally, the audience demand is back, sort of," said actor/comic T.J. Miller.

"I won't be making anywhere near the amount of money I used to make, but I didn't do standup to make money," he said.

Miller is one of a handful of nationally known comics returning to clubs around the country, including here at the Comedy Catch, where he will appear Feb. 23-24. Club owner Michael Alfano likened the situation back in June to being in a boat on the ocean without a motor, and said things are finally looking better.

"We're trolling now, if you want to keep with that analogy," he said. "We are moving forward. We are not ever going back to where we were, but we went from floating to trawling. We can see the possibility."

Bruce Ayers, who owns the StarDome comedy club in Birmingham, Alabama, said the design of his venue with its tiered layout and boxes has allowed him to continue operating at half of his normal capacity of 410 since the summer.

"We felt it in March like everyone else, but this space is really special, like a Vegas showroom, and we were able to do 50 people with distancing and then with cleaning and disinfecting and fogging, we're up to 210, 215," he said.

Ayers said the audiences have responded.

"If it is somebody they want to see, they will come," he said.

Rickey Smiley got his start at StarDome and does a comedy/karaoke show there every Monday night.

"It's not like anything you've ever seen," Ayers said.

Ayers said he has been able to get some of the bigger-name regional touring acts over the last several months and now the national acts as well, and he is noticing the rest of the country starting to open up.

"Now on the news, we are starting to hear some positive things, and I think that is good," he said.

Miller, who left the HBO series "Silicon Valley" in 2017, has been working off and on playing clubs to reduced audiences for several weeks. He said he fell in love with Chattanooga and the Comedy Catch last year before the pandemic, and he wants to see the Comedy Catch and clubs like it survive. Instead of staying in a hotel at the club's expense, for example, he is staying in a small condo space the club keeps for some of the comics who play there.

"That will save Michael $300," Miller said. "It's not a lot, but it's something."

Jon Reep is another touring comic who is finally ready to get back out, and like Miller, he is doing so for less money, he said.

"I'm willing to take a hit, especially at clubs that I have played many times and that I don't want to see close. Like the Comedy Catch," he said.

He will be there March 19-20. Other artists scheduled at the club are Rodney Carrington on April 9-10 and Carlos Mencia as headliner May 13-14.

Reep said his situation is different, because he essentially lives debt free after selling his condo in Los Angeles two years ago to move back into his parents' house in Hickory, North Carolina, after his father had a stroke. His father lives in an assisted living facility, and Reep lives with his mother.

"Then the pandemic hit, so I haven't been working, but I'm also lucky because I don't have any bills. It's great though. Now, me and mom are roommates. We watch a lot of TV shows with numbers in them; '60 Minutes,' '20/20.'"

Reep's been doing a podcast called "Country-ish" with longtime friend Alan Jackson (not the country singer) to keep his sanity and his comedic skills sharp, however.

"It's been a life saver," he said of the podcast. "That helps keep my creative juices flowing."

Also, like Miller, Reep said he thinks people are ready to laugh to a degree about the pandemic.

"I got COVID a while ago, so I'm like a hero going from town to town with the antibody. I talk about it for the first 15 minutes and then move on to other stuff. You don't want to ignore it," he said.

One of Reep's bits involves the mask he wears. He had one created of his own face so he can unlock his phone without having to take the mask on and off.

"It came out really funny looking. I look like an orangutan with my red beard and this big nose, and I sell them because I had so many made," he said.

Miller, who has been doing some shows for the last couple of months, said the topic of the pandemic is "a very complex thing.

"I had to be very careful. It's complicated. I have this old material about handshakes and awkward high fives and that didn't work anymore, and then I tried some pandemic stuff in July and it was not funny at all," he said. "Nothing was funny, but you can't say everything is terrible either."

Miller said social distancing and wearing masks at clubs were constant reminders what was going on and "they are paying me to forget about this and they want to spend an hour and half pretending all of this isn't happening, so you couldn't talk about the pandemic and then it became 'Are you gonna address the elephant in the room?'"

He also does a podcast called "Cashing in with T.J. Miller" with co-host Cash Levy, and Miller said the two have talked about how complicated the topic is many times.

"Then Cash said something that stuck with me. He said, 'I think when we all get to the other side, we want to be proud of the person we were during it, so now it is easier to talk about it."

The last few months and touring have been complicated for other reasons for Miller, as well, he said.

"Going on the road used to be a bit of a party for me, hanging out in different towns. Now there is all this social distancing and quarantining when I get home. I used to see my wife three or four days a week. Now it's one. Now, she might say there are some cons and pros for her with that, but

"She's caring for her father, so I have to be extra careful. That'd be a hard thing to come back from if I killed her father [by making him sick]."

Miller said he now pays attention to comics who open for him and whether or not clubs are serious about safety measures such as distancing, masks and sanitizing the room between shows. He said one of "weirdest" aspects of traveling these days is airports, which he said are like something out of a dystopian movie.

"At first, they were empty and it was like, 'Cool, no lines,' but now it's just spooky. The restaurants are closed, except for the Auntie Anne's Pretzels and Subways, but what is really haunting is that they keep making these announcements to no one. Like how to wash your hands and please wear a mask and all this stuff we've now been doing awhile.

"It takes a toll on you psychologically."

Contact Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354.