It sounds like a gag from Pixar’s Cars that ended up on the cutting-room floor: A comedian stands on a tiny stage in a parking lot, looking out over an audience not of human faces but of Toyotas, Subarus and Ford F-150s. The punch line comes and there are no laughs, but headlights flicker in a gesture of approval.
When it comes to so many realms of public life, Covid-19 is making the rules, and this is what the virus has made of stand-up comedy. For the past three months, a small cadre of local stand-up comedians have taken their acts to the top level of the parking structure on Church Street in downtown Santa Cruz to perform for audiences who arrive in their cars and stay there, in a kind of bizarro-world mix of a comedy club and a drive-in movie.
A year ago, things were looking pretty rosy for the Santa Cruz comedy scene, thanks largely to the opening of DNA’s Comedy Lab in the old Riverfront Twin movie theater. Fast forward to 2020, and the pandemic has closed DNA’s Comedy Lab, at least temporarily, and comics are now telling jokes to grills and windshields.
“It’s kind of like the idea behind Twitter where you only have a certain amount of characters,” says Sam Weber, one of the organizers of the weekly outdoor comedy show. “People get creative with the limitations they have. We had an off-brand FM transmitter that you can plug into your cigarette lighter in your car. This one happens to shoot a signal about a hundred yards in every direction. All you have to do is plug a microphone into that, and you turn everyone’s car into your amplifier.”
Every Friday evening at 8pm, three or four comics, including a headliner, climb onto a small makeshift stage to perform for an audience of automobiles. It’s a veritable model of social distancing.
“It’s fun,” says Weber, who co-produces the event with fellow comics Natasha Collier and Brian Snyder. “People will bring a car full of friends; they’ll be in their cars eating a poke bowl. It’s just before sunset. The show’s a little more than an hour.”
In lieu of a cover charge or a tip jar, comics ask for donations through Venmo to pay the performers and to help with fundraising efforts for DNA’s Comedy Lab. Weber says the show raises between $150 and $300 each night, from an average audience of around 45 to 80 people.
Of course, comedians need laughs like flowers need rain. A few parking-lot comedy shows in other parts of the country opted to have their audiences tap their car horns as a signal for laughter. But the Santa Cruz comics settled on a quieter strategy: flashing headlights.
The plan, however, turned out to be problematic. Weber says that during earlier performances, some cars flashed their lights so much that they drained their batteries, and he was jumping cars into the night.
“Now, we do an intermission before the headliner and tell everybody to start their engines because I don’t want to have to jump your car,” Weber says.
Generally, the comedy shows have been a success, he says, though one incident tainted an otherwise fine show the Friday before the July Fourth weekend. Weber reports that an unknown someone planted an M-80 explosive in an old shoe on the level directly below the comedians’ stage.
“In the middle of somebody’s punch line, there’s this pink flash, loud boom and tons of smoke,” says Weber, who started running down the ramp to find out what had happened, only to fall and tear some ligaments in his hand.
“In my ten years of doing comedy,” he says, “I’ve seen every kind of bombing at comedy shoes—now, even shoe bombing.”
The weekly comedy show has taken place so far without permits or official permission. Once, Weber says, a police vehicle joined the crowd of cars deep into the set. The comics abruptly interrupted the show and quickly dispersed. “The next day, somebody texted one of the performers and said that they were friends with that particular cop. Apparently, the cop just wanted to see the show.”
How long the event lasts is still to be determined.
“We’re not trying to push our luck,” Weber says. “Ultimately, it’s a confluence of good and bad fortunes. It’s really unfortunate dealing with all the unfolding nightmares. But it’s a comedy show and a beautiful sunset. Not bad.”