Comedy steps into live entertainment void spotlight Array

The laughs are back in Winnipeg — but spaced a little further apart than they used to be.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/06/2020 (842 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The laughs are back in Winnipeg — but spaced a little further apart than they used to be.

Rumor’s Restaurant and Comedy Club, which has been serving up laughter at Tuxedo Park Shopping Centre for the past 36 years, reopened its doors June 2, after being shut to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

“It feels great,” general manager Tyler Schultz said Monday over coffee in the club’s main theatre. “For 2 1/2 months, time kind of stood still. It’s exciting that we have crowds again, and the crowds could not be more supportive and kind.

“There’s still that notion that people are a little hesitant to start coming out and sit in an environment where there’s a lot of other people. It’s a challenge.”

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Rumor’s Comedy Club, which recently re-opened with COVID-19 measures in place, in Winnipeg on Tuesday, June 9, 2020. For Doug Speirs story.Winnipeg Free Press 2020.

The comedy club has reopened with a host of coronavirus restrictions: it’s operating at less than half-capacity (about 40 per cent of the 238 available seats will be filled), groups of up to 10 can sit together but tables are two metres apart, and there are plastic shields at the entry and exits.

With festivals and concerts cancelled and theatres closed, the comedy club is one of the few options Winnipeggers have for live entertainment in the foreseeable future.

However, it is facing a unique challenge: its supply chain of big-name American comedians was snapped by the closing of the U.S. border.

“We were hard-hit,” Rumor’s co-owner Sheldon Mindell said. “The borders are closed, which means we are limited in what we can provide our audiences, and our audiences are used to getting the up-and-coming stars and current stars.

“Fortunately for Winnipeggers, we have great local comics. They’ve been able to do 60 minutes of comedy, and most local comics don’t get that time in front of a live audience. They really get to hone their skills.”

Mindell said he isn’t fearful about the club’s survival, but a lot hinges on when the province relaxes strict rules on social distancing.

“Comedy is back. It’s not profitable; it’s not even sustainable under the rules and regulations we have today. But Rumor’s is going to continue to operate this way until we can operate in a profitable manner, until we can operate in the way we used to,” he said.

“If you are a comedian in Canada, it’s already difficult to make a living. Add this pandemic on to it, and it’s devastating.” – Tyler Schultz, general manager at Rumours Comedy Club

“We’re definitely not out of the woods. What we’re doing is lighting flares, so the people who are looking for us will find us… I’m confident the rules will be relaxed and people will be coming back. We can’t live in a six-foot world.”

Physical distancing also poses a unique challenge when your job is making people laugh.

“When we reopened, we had to go against one of our key strategies, which is grouping everyone close together,” Schultz said. “The reason we do that is laughter is very infectious and it will be a better show if people are literally crammed next to each other.

“Now we are having to do the opposite of that and spread everyone out… so instead of having some momentum for the comedians, you have pockets of laughter. It doesn’t have the same ripple effect.”

Amid the recent stress of daily life, they remain serious about the business of comedy.

“Laughter may not be the best medicine, but it’s very therapeutic or cathartic in times like this,” Schultz said. “The psychological effect of laughing for 70 or 80 minutes is so positive. It’s almost something that’s required when everything else is so grim.”

Every Thursday until Aug. 31, the club is offering free admission to front-line health-care workers, and their guests get in for half-price.

“It’s a ‘thank you’ for putting their lives on the line and their health at risk,” Schultz said. “It shows our support for them. These people need a laugh more because they were dealing with some pretty serious stuff.”

When it was forced to close, the club had to lay off 22 staff, not counting comedians, many of whom have seen the economic rug pulled out from under their feet.

“If you are a comedian in Canada, it’s already difficult to make a living. Add this pandemic on to it, and it’s devastating,” Schultz said.

No one needs to tell Winnipeg comedy legend Big Daddy Tazz about the financial and psychological pain of not being able to do what you do best.

“Everything was cancelled,” Tazz recalled of the day the pandemic arrived. “Within 72 hours, I lost months’ worth of work. I don’t think anyone realized how long and deep COVID was going to be.”

The sudden loss of work has forced the 52-year-old — renowned for his work with local charities — to do some serious re-evaluating.

“I’m downsizing everything in my life. The most important lesson is learning the difference between have, want and need, and realizing I can get by with a lot less than what I thought I could,” he said. “Entertainers don’t have retirement plans and that sort of stuff. It’s a little scary for us… For the first time in my 30 years, I have to get a secondary source of income.”

Tazz will be headlining at Rumor’s from June 16-20, and he’ll be recording his first comedy album, which will eventually be available on his website.

“I’m so excited!” he said with glee. “I’m almost vibrating. And nervous and terrified because I haven’t done a full show for about three months. That’s the longest I’ve ever been offstage.”

Every day during the lockdown, Tazz has been reading storybooks live on his Facebook page for children trapped at home when schools closed.

“I just read my 300th book,” he said. “I did it because I had no other stage. It gave me a sense of purpose. It filled the void of not performing.”

Doug Speirs

Doug Speirs

Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.

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