The old saw about laughter being infectious took on sinister connotations in 2020. With COVID-19 marauding around the world stage like Sam Kinison with a bee in his beret, the guffaw of a person next to you could possibly land you in the ICU... or on your deathbed. Grim news for comedy clubs worldwide—among other cultural spaces.
As part of Seattle's thriving entertainment industrial complex, the Joketellers Union weekly suffered those all-too-familiar pandemic-induced setbacks, going quiet for nearly 18 months. But it's returning to Beacon Hill's Clock-Out Lounge on August 4, with Andy Iwancio, Bernice Jing Ye, Burl Dirkman, and JU founders Brett Hamil and Emmett Montgomery poised to dissipate your coronavirus blues—which, as I type, is returning for an unwelcome encore.
When I interviewed Hamil at the start of their endeavor in 2018, he half-jokingly said that the overarching goal of JU was “To stave off the feelings of alienation and doom.” Now that function seems more important—and difficult—than ever.
Joketellers Union had been gaining momentum up till its last show before quarantine on March 10, 2020, just short of its third anniversary. They were pulling crowds of 75-100, many of whom attended nearly every week, with word-of-mouth recommendations accruing new regulars. “It’s definitely the best and most successful show I’ve ever produced, with the most supportive venue imaginable, so naturally a global pandemic had to come along and muck that all up,” Hamil says.
In addition to strong bills that have featured idiosyncratic talents such as Wilfred Padua, Sam Miller, Summer Azim, Nikita Oster, and Ahamefule J. Oluo, JU has stood out from most comedy nights by including audience-participation rituals involving provocative questions put forth to attendees, asking non-comedians to prove their funniness in non-traditional formats*, and by inviting local progressive politicians to frame their policies in unconventional ways. It had become a warm, communal space in which to laugh between bites of Breezy Town Pizza's renowned pies.
(*Full disclosure: I read some of my “tweets” that I wrote in 1987 at Joketellers Union in 2019.)
The COVID hiatus forced Hamil and Montgomery to reassess JU's working methods... and comedy itself. For Montgomery, “The big lesson for me was realizing that there might not always be a 'next week,' and how important it is to use the Wednesdays we have together to take big fun risks and get amazing people on stage while we have the opportunity to do so.”
Hamil admits that the concept of what is seriously funny shifted after a global health crisis, the dismantling of CHOP/CHAZ, the demonization of BLM activism, the January 6 insurrection, and the duo's own travails. “The whole shoddy state of the world in general and our city in particular made me realize that it’s not enough to be a cold-blooded, joke-delivery machine. You’ve gotta figure out ways to connect to people on an emotional, human level—we want and need and deserve that. Some of the things we do on this show might not even technically be comedy anymore, except for the fact that they do elicit laughter. It's always okay to cry, though, too.”
Montgomery elaborates. “We are all coming from a year and a half of both global and personal trauma, loss and transformation. We have these big, shared premises that each of us have experienced in our own way. 'Comedy' is a way to process that.
“I spent 400 days in my own small world telling jokes and stories into rectangles to folks trapped in their own tiny universes set against the backdrop of some very big and overwhelming things. I think I am a better comedian because I was forced to figure out how to continue to do the thing I love even after most of the tools I have used for the last 15 years were taken from me. It was isolating at times, but the need that we have for human connection became very obvious and there were some moments that couldn’t have happened if geography hadn’t been broken.
“There are dozens of faces I used to see every week and I have really felt that absence. I miss talking to people before the show or just watching the crowd as they enjoyed the beautiful people and things we had put on stage. I think we all carry a lot of heartbreak and experience we never thought we would have and have a lot of unknown ahead of us and that some really interesting stuff is going to come from us navigating that together.”
The Return of Joketellers Union featuring Andy Iwancio, Bernice Ye, Burl Dirkman, Brett Hamil, and Emmett Montgomery happens this Wednesday, Aug 4, at Clock-Out Lounge. 8:30 PM. $9. 21+. Tickets for the Aug 4 show are currently sold out, but you can find tickets for other upcoming shows here. Proof of vaccination needed for entry; masks are mandatory.