Every Friday at sunset, Malorie Bryant hustles up and down a shaky fire escape ladder to welcome guests to the Mad Love Comedy Show, forced by the pandemic to relocate from a Manhattan comedy club to a rooftop in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
On a recent Friday, Bryant — the show’s organizer and performer — paced the stage. “I’m on nap number nine today,” she said, “Some people call it depression; I call it fast-forwarding through COVID.” The audience guffawed, some whistling in agreement.
Against a dimming sky and the Manhattan skyline, with LED lights decorating the square roof, eight comedians would perform tonight for an audience of about 60, competing with the J train’s rumbling, sirens and traffic noise, the whoosh of beer cans opening. The audience cheered whenever trains interrupted the 90-minute show.
Stand up comedy hasn’t locked down. Some comics put on shows in backyards, parks and parking lots. Bryant chose a rooftop at 1717 Broadway and began shows in July. “If people come out, they would want to go to rooftops,” Bryant said. “Comedy is always better at night.”
With two other regular performers on the show — Chris Hamilton and Lana Siebel — Bryant talked via Zoom about the challenges of outdoor entertainment and the coronavirus’s impacts on their careers.
“I always knew I wanted to be a performer,” said Bryant, 33. She came from California to New York City for musical theater at 24, then fell in love with stand-up and has been a working comic for four and a half years.
Bryant craved the high of live shows when COVID shut the clubs where she worked. “To go from ‘Ah! Comedy every day!’ to ‘Comedy nothing!’ was really challenging.” She’d been doing 10 to 15 comedy shows every week; now she does five, working side jobs like teaching yoga to keep herself afloat.
At the moment, her stage is a blue carpet in front of a pink neon banner advertising the venue’s name, The Tiny Cupboard, with a mic stand. She sets up 30 socially distanced chairs — not enough, so people sit near vents and air conditioners.
Most rising comics do shows for free; veterans can make $300 to $1000 a night, while lesser known comics get $30 to $75 for a spot. Her rooftop show charges $7 to $10, allowing Bryant to pay her comics.
The city entered reopening phase four on July 20. Non-essential services like outdoor arts and entertainment are required to follow state health guidelines. Both the audience and the comics wore masks, although some removed them mid-show.
Chris Hamilton, 31, Mad Love’s host, has worked full time for seven years. His schedule has changed, from having the luxury of choosing shows which shows to do in a fully booked week to feeling he has to take some last-minute spots.
His material has changed, too. “Comedy is like a human zoo,” said Hamilton, who jokes about COVID to keep shows topical and observational. “It is to talk about the elephant in the room.”
Hamilton may call out the audience for not being productive during quarantine, recall his reactions to not seeing a friend for three months, or make quips about people’s reactions towards maskless passengers on trains. “Who’s been reading in the pandemic?” he asked before introducing the first comedian, “No one?”
Lana Siebel, 29, started doing daily mics on Zoom in January after being a stand-up comedian for six years. Now she’s working three to four shows a week, a boost she calls “leveling the playing field,” so that comedians can earn income through social media platforms.
Siebel describes her work as a service to those bugged by the pandemic.“Comedy is to get people distracted from their daily problems,” she said.
Used to “barking at tourists” in Times Square, Bryant launched Mad Love by sending out hundreds of Eventbrite invitations, hoping to find a new audience.
It seems to be materializing. “It’s beautiful. It’s definitely a Brooklyn vibe,” said Jack Brown, 29, watching “Mad Love” for the third time since he found the show online.
Maria Soria, 31, also a comedian and a writer, had come for the second time with her nephew. “It’s a little chilly, but if you get a blanket and get comfy, it’s cool,” Soria said.
“I think this one is gonna be my favorite place right now,” said her nephew, Luis Conforme. The rooftop frees his mind and allows him to be himself, he said. “I think this is a perfect place for after office.”
Bryant said she originally planned the show to last through October, but is now seeking heaters and fire lamps to accommodate an audience into late fall and winter.
“It is about bringing a silly experience, to be able to laugh,” Bryant said, “I’m just as depressed as you.”
(Photos by Man Sum Lai)