The Las Vegas Strip is slowly awakening after a nearly 80-day slumber due to the coronavirus crisis.
LAS VEGAS – Don Barnhart knows well the formula that makes good comedy.
Do funny jokes rise from funny moments?
No, he’s learned, it’s just the opposite. It’s more about the pain.
“Pain plus time equals funny,” Barnhart told the Reno Gazette Journal, which is part of the USA TODAY Network.
The owner of Jokesters and Delirious, two closed Las Vegas comedy clubs, Barnhart is one of many out-of-work entertainers deep in the pain part of it.
Workers from all walks of life are suffering through the pandemic-stricken economy, but comedians are trained truth tellers. Self-psychoanalysts who examine their own ups and downs to come up with jokes that make people laugh.
And when they feel downed and damaged by the new coronavirus reality, it may be time for the rest of us to sit up and take notice.
“It’s a roller coaster every day waking up, thinking, ‘Today is going to be the day’ (clubs can open),” Barnhart said. “But there’s a huge water ride of depression when you reach the bottom and the governor doesn’t make an announcement.”
But the guy who cut his teeth as an emcee in California introducing legends like Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling and Robin Williams has other ventures and a savings to get him through this crisis with his arms and legs stuck on straight.
Others are having a much tougher time.
“Everyone is depressed,” Barnhart said of comics who hit him up every day looking for a lifeline – a little time on stage. “People are throwing in the towel.”
What happens when entertainment stops in the entertainment capital of the world?
In the garage
If there’s a punchline to the pandemic, it socked Rocky Dale Davis in the ribs.
Pre-shutdown, the 27-year-old rising star who grew up poor in Brookwood, Alabama, had everything going for him.
TBS named him a “Comic to Watch” at the New York Comedy Festival. He appeared on Kevin Hart’s “Hart of The City” Comedy Central show. In February, he dropped his first comedy album – “Live From Denver.”
The Comedy Cellar, one of eight stand-up clubs in Las Vegas, booked him as a regular. But he wielded a reputation that could get him time on most stages in this town.
He made between $1,500 and $3,000 every weekend. He figured an upcoming road tour would put $15,000 in his pocket. “The most money I ever made,” Davis said.
Then COVID-19 took the stage.
On a recent Thursday morning, Davis sat in the garage of his $2,000-per-month house, playing Madden NFL on XBOX, smoking a free sponsorship cigar.
“I’m miserable,” Davis said. “There’s nothing to do every day except play this stupid (expletive) game and get my (expletive) beat by 6-year-olds online. I don’t have a purpose in my life right now.”
Las Vegas comedian Rocky Dale Davis lights up a cigar a sponsor sent him. The pandemic put him out of work for six months. Now he’s angling to leave town. (Photo: Ed Komenda / Reno Gazette Journal)
His tour of the American South? Canceled. His bank account? Overdrawn. His rent? Past due four months.
The constant stress has sent Davis spiraling into a bottomless pit of anxiety and depression – familiar foes he knows well.
“Why am I alive? What’s my point in being here?” Davis said. “I’m not bringing anything to the world, and nothing’s happening for me.”
Davis has been fighting to get through Nevada’s jammed unemployment system. Most mornings start the same: A busy signal, again and again and again.
“I keep waiting on something good to happen, something to turn around,” he said. “The financial stress every day builds and builds and builds and builds and builds.”
With no stages to play, Davis is considering a move to Austin, Texas, where he hopes the comedy scene will rebound and he can work again. Even if he makes it to the Lone Star State, new material is hard-earned these days.
Davis doesn’t write new jokes in notebooks. He writes while he’s performing on stage, a space he likens to the therapist’s couch.
“My stuff comes from living life and being silly and having funny experiences,” Davis said. “There are no experiences right now.”
‘Am I a comedian still?’
Here’s a pair of words headliner comic Kathleen Dunbar can’t stand: “New normal.”
“People go, ‘Well, you’re going to have to learn that someday you’re going to be in a plastic bubble on stage and wearing a mask,'” the longtime Las Vegas entertainer said. “That’s like asking a ballerina to wear Army boots and still do her job.”
Before the pandemic collapsed the nation’s comedy scene, Kathleen Dunbar was a Las Vegas headliner, performing regularly along The Strip. (Photo: Provided photo: Kathleen Dunbar)
Before COVID-19 collapsed the entertainment business, Dunbar had shows booked every week of the year. Her post-pandemic schedule now includes a word she rarely encountered in her decades-long career: “CANCELLED.”
“I’ve lost about $40,000 already,” Dunbar said.
But the source of Dunbar’s pain goes far beyond cash flow. The center of her angst is her identity.
“I was able to save money the last couple of years,” she said. “I’ll be alright for a while. But that’s not the problem. Am I ever going to be a comedian again? Am I a comedian still? I’ve lost who I am.”
Dunbar came to comedy later in life. A native of Milwaukee, she job-hopped before committing to being a full-time funny person.
“I was a secretary. I worked at a grocery store after my divorce. I was a desktop publisher. Go ahead and insert the yawn into the story,” Dunbar said. “This is my fifth career, not my first or my second. I’ve had to reinvent myself and change myself. I finally found something I was really good at, making some money and having a wonderful life, and it’s gone.”
To Dunbar, comedy is as an essential business – not for the economy, but for the human soul. In times of pain, people need laughs.
“One of the things that’s great about comedy as opposed to a Cirque Du Soleil show is that it’s one guy on the stage,” Dunbar said. “If we need to be 10 feet away from the front row, that’s so doable it’s not even funny.”
It’s time for the government to open comedy clubs, she said, and let the jokesters do their jobs. Just don’t expect much COVID-19 material.
“I have not written anything during this pandemic,” Dunbar said, “because I don’t find any of it funny.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or find the online Lifeline Chat here.
Stressed, depressed, and feeling bad? You’re not alone: Where to get free help online
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/destinations/2020/09/08/las-vegas-comedians-out-of-work-pain-covid-19-pandemic/5745185002/