Rachel Lander, a Brooklyn stand-up comedian, was in the middle of a joke about the 2020 presidential election — her audience’s ears perked for the punchline — when the train reached its final stop.
“I’ll finish this later,” Lander said into the mic. “We need to transfer.”
Six comedians, a comedy club booker and eight audience members disembarked from the downtown 1 train and walked down the platform like schoolchildren on a field trip to the aquarium. As they passed people waiting for their trains, heads turned toward the group — a strangely boisterous one for a mid-pandemic Saturday night. Two M.T.A. workers glanced at each other quizzically but didn’t ask questions.
When the group reached the last car of the uptown train, they piled in and arranged themselves as before: a comic standing at one end of the car, mic in hand and portable speaker on the floor, and the audience seated nearby.
“All right, I’m going to finish that story about the election,” Lander said as the passengers settled in.
For about three months, New York’s comics had been preparing sets to perform Saturday nights on the 1 train. It may not have been the most glamorous of gigs, but as a comic joked last Saturday, at least it was cleaned regularly. The relentless screeching of the subway had a tendency to drown out punch lines, but a few of the comics agreed that wasn’t so different from the hum of activity in a typical club — the clinking of glasses, the waiters whispering, “What can I get you?”
“I need all the live shows I can get to shake off the rust,” said Jeff Scheen, who closed out Saturday’s show as the train reached 42nd Street.
The weekly subway gigs are arranged and advertised by Stand Up NY, a club on the Upper West Side. Since it closed last March because of the pandemic, the club’s co-owner, Dani Zoldan, has been inventing ways to keep comics performing in front of live audiences, instead of in stilted Zoom shows. The club has put on about 500 outdoor shows in parks and on rooftops across the city over the past year, Zoldan said. Last June, there was an invitation-only indoor comedy show at the club itself without a formal audience — which was undoubtedly against the rules intended to keep people from gathering, but the police never intervened — and in February, it held comedy shows disguised as weddings (one couple actually got married).
When winter came, Zoldan had to get creative again.
“I was just wracking my brain,” Zoldan said. “What else could we do? We couldn’t have shows in the club, we couldn’t have outdoor shows anymore.”
His solution was the subway, which singers, dancers and musicians have long treated as a stage (comics, less so). At the first subway show in late December, Stand Up NY’s chief of staff and booker, Jon Borromeo, recalled that an M.T.A. conductor approached them and said, “Are you guys doing comedy?” The group braced for a reprimand, but instead the conductor said, “That’s awesome,” gave a thumbs up, and returned to his post.
“I was like, ‘Yes! Yes! We have approval from the M.T.A.!’” Borromeo remembered.
On Saturday, audience members and comics, who are paid $25 each to perform, met at 72nd Street and Broadway, outside a Bloomingdale’s Outlet store. Carrying the speaker and hand-held microphone, Borromeo led the group to the 72nd Street station, where they swiped in and waited for the downtown 1 train to South Ferry. (Tickets for the show are $15 each, plus the $2.75 fare, but the rules are as loose as the surroundings.)
The audience of about eight was lighter than usual, probably because it was a warm spring night and the Passover holiday was beginning. Furqan Muqri, a 33-year-old surgeon from Syracuse, was visiting his brother, Hasan Muqri, a 25-year-old medical student, in the city. The brothers — who were both fully vaccinated — had long attended stand-up comedy shows together, and when they searched the internet for shows during the pandemic, this was what they found.
Victoria Ruiz, 25, and Raymond Gipson, 26, showed up after dinner in the West Village, all dolled up for date night. Robert Brock, 38, had visited the club on West 78th Street for years and had brought his 22-year-old daughter, Adonnis Brock, to the show.
Under the glaring subway lights, each audience member was a target for crowd work — there was no hiding in the shadows of a club. Pointing to Gipson, who had cozied up to Ruiz, the comedian Alex Quow joked that he was certain that Gipson had received a pandemic stimulus check, based on the fact that Ruiz’s arm had not left his.
“My brother right here, he got his stimulus,” Quow said, “His girl has been on him all night!”
Then, there were the audience members who did not ask to be audience members. There was the man who rolled his eyes when the show started and did not look up from his phone for 17 stops; the woman who entered the car, glanced at the spectacle and immediately moved on to a new car; the young couple who put up with multiple comics asking them questions about where they were from with good humor.
“Hello, welcome to a comedy show that you wanted no part of — I’m so sorry,” the comic Adam Mamawala said as a man wearing a Yankees cap entered the car.
The show had the chaotic air of something that could get shut down at any moment by a strict police officer who was not in the mood for a joke. A few people sipped beers, but everyone wore face coverings, making reactions to jokes harder to decipher. Still, the comics said they could tell from crinkled eyes and body language.
On the uptown train at the Franklin Street stop, Erik Bergstrom joked about a vegan woman he dated who railed against the unhealthiness of eating cheese, then happily snorted cocaine.
At 28th Street, Scheen recounted the evolutionary tale of how male birds lost their penises, holding onto the metal subway pole for stability.
Often, the amplified voices of the comedians clashed with an M.T.A. employee reminding riders about transfer points.
“He’s making an announcement,” Scheen said. “It’s probably very important and we have no idea. He’s like, ‘Everyone get off the train, the Slasher’s here.’”
During the pandemic year, as artists and performers were deprived of their passions and their income, Zoldan has made himself into a determined advocate for the survival of stand-up comedy. He has toed the line for pandemic performances rules (and sometimes brazenly jumped over it); the club has sued the state over rules limiting comedy clubs from welcoming audiences; he even went up against a New York stand-up behemoth, Jerry Seinfeld, whom he accused of not doing enough to support New York’s comedy industry.
But, come Friday, there won’t need to be any complicated machinations or creative thinking to get comics in front of a live audience. On April 2, the state said, arts venues will be allowed to hold plays, concerts and other kinds of performances at 33 percent capacity, with a limit of 100 people indoors or 200 people outdoors, and higher limits if patrons show they have tested negative for the coronavirus.
Stand Up NY plans to hold its first club shows on Friday evening, with a maximum of 40 audience members. Still, on Saturday, it plans one more night of subway performances, just for fun.