Arts and Entertainment

After a year away, Anchorage comedians are figuring out how to make local audiences laugh again

Walk into an open mic comedy nights at Koot’s right now, and it feels like it could be from another time. New and veteran stand-up comics try out mostly unprintable jokes. A maskless crowd mills around the dimly lit bar, drinks in hand.

It looks like business as usual now, but that belies the long journey Anchorage’s comedians have been on over the last year.

The city’s stand-ups have gone from losing their regular shows at the beginning of the pandemic, to finding awkward replacements, to finally retaking the stage in April and figuring out what makes people laugh again.

After the pandemic shuttered live comedy last year, Anchorage’s stand-up community organized drive-in comedy shows, performing their sets from the back of a truck in the Koot’s parking lot. It was a cobbled-together system involving a microphone, a sound board, and a transmitter that broadcast their jokes over the radio to audience members sitting in their parked cars.

Showgoers were supposed to honk instead of laughing, but “not everyone honks every time they laugh,” said Jared Hazen, a comic who assumed responsibility for the drive-in shows partway through the pandemic. “Sometimes you’d feel so low doing a set. But if you looked at the audience, you could tell they were laughing.”

“A few people thought I was an anti-masker kind of guy,” comic Tom Srebernak said. “Like, ‘Why is he talking on the back of a car into a microphone? Is this a sketchy meeting?’ ”

Hazen started coming to the Wednesday open mics about six months before COVID-19 reached Alaska, meaning much of his comedy experience has been performing for honks, not laughs. Hazen said he would drive as far out of town as Kenai, Homer and Soldotna to find open mics, taking the practice anywhere he could get it.

“I just started doing comedy in random places, like answering the phone for telemarketers and doing sets of comedy,” Hazen said.

Normality started to return when Koot’s brought back comedy shows in April, making it one of the first forms of indoor entertainment to return to Anchorage. Getting back on stage was strange, longtime comic John Norris said — “kind of like going to the gym for the first time in a long time.”

“It was just weird to be in a room of so many people, and to be talking to people again,” Norris said. “It felt like so long since I had done it, but at the same time, it felt like it was just last weekend.”

Not that he found that intimidating.

“It actually felt like the bar is lower,” Norris said. “These people haven’t been out of their house in 14 months.”

Audiences may have forgotten their roles as well. Norris has noticed crowds often talking over the comics’ performances — possibly, in his opinion, because they haven’t been to any kind of live show in a long time.

“We are at Koot’s, so maybe they never had crowd etiquette and they’re just a bunch of animals anyway,” Norris said. “But I think it does take practice to be like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to stop talking because these people aren’t Netflix, and they can actually hear us, and we’re ruining the show for everybody.’ ”

Early audiences seemed grateful to have something to laugh at. Even jokes about the pandemic, though “that lasted about two mics,” Srebernak said.

“Then everyone was like, ‘All right, we are done with COVID.’ That is a year of material about how you cough that you just can’t use anymore.”

Still, the comics seem happy to struggle. They mostly perform for fun, not pay. The return of regular comedy shows means they have a chance to make people laugh — their main form of compensation.