This is definitely a trap, right?
This is definitely a trap, right?

Go ahead and declare that Seattle is over, boring, or dying if that makes you feel better, but last week I went out for an evening jog on Capitol Hill and wound up discovering and performing at a guerrilla open mic in an abandoned parking garage.

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“It started last spring,” says local stand-up comedian Jon Banning. “I realized the comedy scene was kind of gone—at least what it was.” And so he created an open mic performance series that for the last few months has migrated between parks and parking lots around the city, popping up unexpectedly and then vanishing into the night.

The series doesn’t have a name. It doesn’t have a mailing list, and it doesn’t have an Instagram. It certainly does not have a permit. But it does have a portable sound system, plenty of hand sanitizer, and a small but extremely devoted following.

I stumbled across these events last week as I was forcing myself to jog around Capitol Hill. I hate everything about running, but I also crave the approval of professionals like my doctor who told me I should engage in more physical activity, so here we are. As I rounded a corner near Seattle Central, I spotted an extremely suspect cardboard sign taped to a pole: “LIVE COMEDY MUSIC” it said, next to two ambivalently-inflated balloons.

I tweeted a picture of this obvious red flag and continued on my way. A few minutes later I passed another sign, this time pointing down a darkened side-street. I could see that there was a third sign with an arrow pointing into what looked like a totally empty parking garage. Whatever this is, I thought, seems extremely dangerous. So in I went.

At the back of the garage stood a circle of fewer than a dozen people, listening to a comic tell a story. As I approached, he beckoned me in and started peppering me with questions: “I’m doing crowd work and you’re the only crowd we have,” he said, riffing on my responses and making fun of me for looking around for flyers about whatever I’d just wandered into.

Literally underground comedy.
Literally underground comedy.

After a while, he asked if I wanted to come up to the mic. I shrugged—sure—so he disinfected the microphone, and I told a short (true!) story about the time I photographed supermodel Janice Dickinson in a carriage that was supposed to have been horse-drawn but nobody had bothered to obtain a horse. The crowd laughed appreciatively; somehow, it seemed, I was now a member of their strange society.

One of the reasons I hate running is that it is so solitary, and it was a genuine pleasure that the activity had unexpectedly resulted in my forming a connection with new people. But that’s one of Jon’s ulterior motives in creating this odd event: Earlier this year, one of his friends passed away; an outgoing, extroverted person, Jon couldn’t help wondering how the isolation of quarantine might have affected her before she died. These open-mic nights are his way of trying to keep people in touch with each other during extraordinary times.

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The weirdness of doing comedy during a pandemic is apparent throughout any of the shows. Performers exchange elbow-bumps and lather their hands with Purell, and the microphone reeks of sanitizer. “Where this falls on the risk matrix, it’s probably no better or worse than outdoor dining,” Jon says. Some have asked him to bring it indoors as the weather’s grown colder, but “I just can’t do that.”

Instead, he’s kept busy lining up shows in unexpected outdoor locations; the next one will be in the covered drive-through of All Seasons, a dry cleaner, this Tuesday, December 8, from 7 pm to 9 pm.

“I didn’t really want to do this,” Jon deadpans. “But nobody else was.”