By Sara Contreras and Isabel Martinez
On December 1, 2020, the New York City comedy community lost beloved Nuyorican comic Kenny Ortega to complications associated with COVID-19. His death was especially painful to the close-knit New York City Latino comic community that —by extension— is part of a larger New York City Latino community hit hard by COVID-19.
The significance of his passing was not lost on HBO Latino, which marked Kenny’s death during their recent HBO Latino 2020 Latino Stand Up Comedy Competition.
New York City Latino comics seem to be doubly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Latinos in New York City have been disproportionally impacted, and many Latino comedians have been victims of the virus. They have also seen firsthand the effects on their friends and families. In conversations with New York City Latino comics over the last several weeks, most had either contracted the virus or knew of someone who had —in far too many cases— contracted and died of COVID-19. For instance, Edgar Rivera, a Bronx native comic and Carnival Cruise regular, lost his mother. Philip Borras, a Bronx native now living in Massachusetts, lost his father. Veteran Bronx native Eric Nieves lost his mother-in-law. And the list goes on and on.
Latino comedians are also being sidelined by the pandemic. The COVID-19 lockdown initially brought live stand-up comedy to a grinding halt, and some clubs have been shuttered indefinitely. Comedians have increasingly had to rely on other comedians to create and book rooms, something comedian Gina Brillon says will help “keep our jobs alive and help keep us sane.”
Restrictions on indoor dining in the outer boroughs, especially in Brooklyn and the Bronx, have significantly impacted those urban rooms more likely frequented by Latinos, and while several mainstream comedy clubs in Manhattan have become increasingly creative in presenting live performances, others, particularly in the boroughs, have been forced to shut down. Disconnected and isolated from the live audiences that generate the exhilaration and excitement of working a packed room, this loss provokes the greatest and most fundamental angst of this lockdown among comics. In addition, the loss of the camaraderie (i.e. physically banding and creating content together, the “like-minded thinking” of comedians described by Latino Comedy Legend Joey Vega) is essentially gone for these performers.
Before March of 2020, Latino comics could be found on multiple stages throughout the week. Now, they can count the numbers of shows they have performed since last March on one hand—two if they are lucky, and these have included the few Zoom shows that are available. In what’s left of the live clubs still booking, they continue to risk their own safety to perform in tight spaces with lax mask and social distancing enforcement and the concomitant effects of levity and liquor.
Other comics have increasingly turned to performing for private Zoom functions, while still other comics travel to other locales with less live entertainment restrictions, such as Philadelphia and New Jersey. Several had made the difficult decision to relocate to other cities altogether. Many who have been full-time comics have lost their incomes are now contemplating returning to the formal labor market, and those who were considering leaving full-time employment to pursue comedy full-time see those dreams delayed indefinitely. There is also a palpable fear among Latino comics that we have not seen the end of the comedy clubs that may close for good. And given the dire statistics on restaurant closing, we may also see the numbers of outer-borough comedy rooms found in restaurants, bars and lounges shrinking as well.
For Latino comics who are already underrepresented on comedy stages across the five boroughs, there is a fear that they will lose ground in inclusion and their shaping of 21st century post-COVID stand-up comedy and its evolution in New York City. To ensure that this does not occur, several legislative and logistical actions must be included in the recovery. For one, funds to get live entertainment and restaurants back on their feet must be made accessible with equitable distribution. This mandates transparency and convenience in the application process, including availability of instructions in Spanish and flexibility in the sometimes archaic and burdensome paperwork and evidence demanded of businesses. In all honesty, the spaces that may host Latino or urban rooms have less capacity to provide the volumes of paperwork that may accompany selection for SOS funds. For that reason, the application and distribution process must be streamlined and made accessible to all types of businesses, from multi-million comedy clubs to the “mom & pop” local treasures, such as The South of France in the Bronx, where so many brilliant comedians (R.I.P. Rich Ramirez and Angelo Lozada), would fill the room to capacity amidst the aromas of rice and beans, pernil and chicharrones.
Secondly, established N.Y.C. comedy clubs need to offer regularly scheduled stage time to Latino comics. In an industry that purports to uphold color blindness, it is no longer acceptable to ignore the second largest racial and ethnic group in the country. The start of the 1990s saw a handful of Latino comedy nights in Manhattan’s comedy clubs, from the Jack Daniel’s Latino Comedy Series to Mike Robles’s Que Locos series. In 2020, these nights are nonexistent. Arguably, Latino comics are now peppered throughout sets across the city, but they are still grossly underrepresented in terms of mainstream club spots, features, and headlining. This is still largely due to the “othering” of Latinos and their not being seen as American or mainstream. Given 2020’s organized and vocal demands for increased equity both racially and economically, comedy club owners need to be bold and progressive in challenging this othering. In the absence of this, comedy clubs, such as the now closed Laugh Lounge that featured and centered Latino and Black comics, need to be reborn.
Business is business, so it is imperative that Latinos and non-Latino fans of multiracial voices and opinions prioritize Latino comedy in their entertainment spending. Whether this means showing up and filling the local room in the Bronx, or spending hard-earned dollars at the Gotham Comedy Club in Manhattan when Latinos are in the lineup. For Latino comics to secure increased bookings, presence and stage time, the demand must be obvious and loud. Patrons need to communicate their demand for more New York Latino comics at their favorite comedy spots. Truthfully, this becomes difficult for a community that has also been economically crippled by this pandemic and the short-sighted policies of the outgoing Trump administration. But organized efforts can be made to encourage corporate sponsorships of performance venues to help accommodate costs, increase affordability, ensure fair pay for comics, and guarantee Latino representation at these shows.
History has shown that comedy reinvents itself and is reborn in the midst and aftermath of crisis. Some Latino comics have already called upon many of the skills honed from stage life —improvising, turning tragedy into comedy— to create their silver linings in the midst of all the disruptions to their lives and livelihoods. Joey Vega quipped that the advent of Zoom comedy, with its intended isolation and erasure of immediate feedback from live audiences, finally pushed him to create a podcast within the void created by the lockdown. Amy Colon, a self-described “Bad and Bruja” Latina comedian from New Jersey, found a way to exploit the pandemic crisis to learn how to use social media platforms to increase her presence and expand her reach globally.
But New York City is home. As members of an industry that relies on tourism, Latino stand-up comics understand that they are possibly the first and/or only contact many patrons will have with a Latino and the stories they bring to the stage. This accidental interaction can likely serve to unmask stereotypes that continue to be reproduced in popular media and other social institutions, and more importantly, to humanize the Latino experience. New York City Latino comics thrive on their home’s diversity and have forged their way through this pandemic—one tear, sigh, and chuckle at a time. As we recover but also continue to grapple with our country’s race and economic issues, the increased and vital presence of Latino comics on stages across the city is a step in the right direction as we recover from the devastatingly difficult year of 2020.
Sara Contreras is a Brooklyn-born veteran stand-up comedian/actress/writer and one of Showtime’s Latin Divas of Comedy. Check out her podcast F.R.E.A.K. Of Nature at saracontreras.com. Sara will be debuting her hilarious one-woman show of the same name (FON) Spring 2021.
Isabel Martinez is an Associate Professor in the Department of Latin American and Latinx Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and is the founder of the New York City Latinx Stand Up Comedy Project.