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Santa Cruz’s Comedy Guru Reflects on Closing His Comedy Lab

DNA’s Comedy Lab will carry on with weekly online shows and an outdoor comedy series for now

The marquee outside DNA’s Comedy Lab earlier this year noted the tough times.

I’ve spent more one-on-one time with my wife (and dog) in the last nine months than I had in the last 17 years.

And like everyone in Santa Cruz, America and the world, because of Covid-19, I’ve had to redefine my relationship to my job, my family, my hopes, my dreams and my community. Whether you are living with your grandparents, parents, extended family, friends, enemies, lovers or others, or are making it through this strange time alone, quarantine has called into question, blown apart and mutated all our notions about relationships. How are you getting through? Are you OK? What does the future look like? Who or what do you turn to for inspiration?

No time for dancing, or lovey-dovey

I ain’t got time for that now

Give me some dystopic end-of-the world movies and I will have a perfect night. I consider The Day After Tomorrow and 12 Monkeys to be classics. After watching John Cusack drive a limo through a disintegrating Los Angeles in 2012, I feel empowered. I feel like I’ve upgraded my skill set and honed my affinity for dealing with apocalyptic, shit-is-going-down scenarios. After every viewing of The Road, I feel like I just took a master class on how to survive in a grim, treacherous future. But in reality, before this summer, I have only had to deal with a blockbuster catastrophe, one time.

Lived in a brownstone, lived in a ghetto

I’ve lived all over this town

In March 2011, there was 9.0 earthquake in Japan. This caused a tsunami that threatened the coastline of Santa Cruz. At the time I was living in La Bahia, that Spanish-Italian building with the bell tower on Beach Street, whose wrought iron gate and, surprisingly, my old apartment still stand, though the other 40 apartments have been bulldozed. But in the early part of the 21st Century, La Bahia was a vibrant structure filled with international students during the summer and bohemians and weirdos in the off season. It was spring, it was morning, I waked and baked, as it was 8am and that was my routine. I heard a knock on my door. I opened it up, it was a cop. He said, “Tsunami warning, mandatory evacuation.” I said, “When?” He said, looking at his wristwatch, “Five minutes.” It was then that I said something that I never had said to a cop before, I said, “Are you high, because I am and that sounds like something I would say.” He said, “Did you say you’re high?” I slammed the door. I only had four minutes to evacuate the premises, and I had no time to argue about semantics.

The tsunami ended up terrorizing a bunch of boats and yachts, but it was certainly nothing I couldn’t handle. I felt like my decades of watching The Poseidon Adventure had paid off. I’m not going to end up like Shelley Winters. I’m a survivor and I’m ready for any situation.

And then came the pandemic of 2020.

I got three passports, a couple of visas

You don’t even know my real name

Before quarantine, I worked an easy 70 hours a week at my fledgling comedy club in downtown Santa Cruz, DNA’s Comedy Lab. I’m not special in doing that. Many people were working at their self-owned business at the beginning of this year. The Lab was about to celebrate its one-year anniversary when the week of lockdowns began. We had just hired a new chef and were ready to launch our updated menu. We had just come off the busiest weekend we had all year, and I remember thinking that we had turned the corner, we could finally have a month where we broke even. The hard work was about to pay off.

The sound of gunfire, off in the distance

I’m getting used to it now

I had been reading the headlines about a virus that was devastating China and Italy. It sounded very serious. I knew something wicked this way comes. How did I know? Did I mention Contagion? I had already vicariously lived through a worldwide pandemic and watched in horror as Gwyneth Paltrow died. I was self-taught on recognizing a plague.  I told my business partners that we needed to close, and like a slow-motion version of the train crash in Super 8, they agreed. We closed and, according to the governor of California, it is still illegal for us to reopen.

By the end of this year it is estimated the rate of business bankruptcies will be up 158% from 2019 levels, according to one estimate. Will we ever be allowed to open again? What’s the baseline for reacting to all this? Calm terror?

A place where nobody knows

Remember back in January 2018 at 8:07am, when the citizens of Hawaii got an alert on their phone that said a nuclear bomb was heading their way and its arrival was imminent? It was an islandwide Defcon One. Nuclear war is an absolutely terrible way to start your morning, worse than having a cop knocking on your door. So how did people respond? Well, some people panicked. One man put his kids in a manhole. I remember one couple took one last selfie and tweeted, “Worst honeymoon ever.”

With the Covid-19 pandemic we never all received a singular text. We learned about it and it’s seriousness at different times. The news of Covid-19 was in the headlines for months before most realized what it meant.

Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons

There’s no escaping seeing downtown Santa Cruz change its character and nature. It is evolving and transforming in the face of lockdowns and new protocols. The very essence of downtown, the vibrant stores and staff that made Santa Cruz unique, is vanishing before our eyes. Like in the movie The Neverending Story, the Nothing is slowly eroding and erasing the very things we loved about our town. Compound this with summer’s CZU fire and the extremist Boogaloo who murdered Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller, as well as the swelling number of people without homes who have inundated San Lorenzo Park, and it can be quite overwhelming. In fact, it’s shocking.

Hope for an answer some day

Shock. Where were you when you first realized that Covid-19 was going to change everything? Do you recall the second you knew things were not going to be the same? How could we not be in shock? I dare say that if you never recognized you were in shock, you might well still be in it.

Look at the Great Toilet Paper Rush of March 2020. You might think those people had gone mad, reacting to the news of a pandemic by crazily buying hordes of toilet paper. But they were just the canaries in the emotional coal mine of our national psyche. They were an indicator species that showed that our nation was undergoing an imbalance.

I sleep in the daytime, I work in the night time

Like all small businesses going through this crisis, April was particularly brutal as the reality set in. We were getting daily phone calls and emails at the Lab from renters who wanted to cancel their events and get refunded their deposits. What seemed like a short-term crisis began to have long-term ramifications. Would we be able to open our business legally in spring, summer or winter? The shifting landscape made it impossible to plan ahead. By the time Easter rolled around, we had cancelled 100 upcoming events.

I didn’t sleep a lot. I was up every night, mostly deadening my brain, but also researching grants, loans and trying to find an emergency exit. Would live events, comedy, music, theatre ever bounce back? It would have to, right?

I might not ever get home

Depression is where I find almost all my family and friends and myself. Most put on a good face (on Zoom). But in private, everyone is floundering on some level.

The mental health consequences of disasters have been written about, but we’ve never been in a worldwide pandemic of this magnitude in recent history. One study out of Boston University concluded that depression is three times higher than it was before Covid-19. In my comedy world, I have friends that were so close to “making it” and just on the edge of a career. Now, an entire generation is on pause. It is life interrupted on a grand scale, and nine months isn’t a long time to adjust. Heroically, I know a lot of friends and family doing their best, digging deep into their personal reservoir of strength and boldly plowing forward. And yet, no matter how busy we keep ourselves, depression seeps in like rainwater.

Packed up and ready to go

No epic story ends happily, and this story is no different. The weight of running a small business when it’s illegal to be open has become crushing and impossible to maintain. We are leaving the Riverfront Twin space we had called home. DNA’s Comedy Lab will survive with our weekly online shows and an outdoor comedy series starting in the spring. And when it’s safe, after the alien invasion has been thwarted, and coming together to laugh indoors seems sane, we will reopen in a new location. As Bill Pullman said at the end of Independence Day, “We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight!”

Lyrics: “Life During Wartime” by Talking Heads.

Watch Blind Tiger Open Mic on Wednesdays and Sloth Storytelling on Thursdays at 8pm at DNA’s Comedy Lab on Facebook. For the Spring Comedy Series and specialty shows, join the mailing list at dnascomedylab.com.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Shawn

    December 31, 2020 at 10:48 pm

    Thanks DNA, hope to see you soon

  2. Karen M.

    December 31, 2020 at 5:21 am

    DNA, your vision and dedication to comedy, your business, and Santa Cruz are seen and appreciated. Thank you for pouring your passion into our community. It sucks that the Lab is closing but I’m so glad to read you plan to return. Peace.

  3. Karen

    December 31, 2020 at 5:18 am

    The leaders of every single nation in the world did not come together to decide to collectively ruin the worlds’ economy. Unfortunately along with depression, the pandemic has also bred a strange strain of paranoid conspiracy theorist. By following public health measures we can reopen more quickly. Public health, common sense and the economy are interrelated. So those who are paranoid of wearing a mask and getting a vaccine are, paradoxically, the very people who are making it more difficult to reopen.

  4. Patrick True

    December 30, 2020 at 9:24 am

    Right On!!!!
    Santa Cruz has the POWER of LOVE!!!
    Crisis be Damned!!!

  5. Jack

    December 30, 2020 at 8:24 am

    When it’s safe you’ll open up again? It never will be safe to those in charge. They want you broken and beat down. Suicide and drug overdoses are sky rocketing because people refuse to say enough is enough and do something about this unconstitutional edict. We have given our rights away so we can wither and die in “safety” and not risk a 99.9% survival rate virus out in world. Keep submitting to the kings and watch your movies that keep you docile while they lie about wanting you safe when they’re really are forcing you in line and destroying lives. “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

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