The Columbus open mic comedy scene carries on with questions amid the coronavirus

Since mid-August, Lukas Mateus has hosted twice-weekly comedy shows at Shrunken Head, a decision that has been met with a mix of joy and anger from fellow comics

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Hero or heel? Lukas Mateus poses by the pinball machine in the Shrunken Head, where the stand-up hosts a comedy open mic every Monday and Friday

During a recent Friday comedy open mic at the Shrunken Head in Victorian Village, nearly every stand-up kicked off with a condom joke.

It’s understandable, since host Lukas Mateus greeted each performer as they reached the stage by handing them a protective rubber cover, which the comic was then required to unfurl over the microphone, conjuring images of sex education classes of yore.

Near the mic stand, a single bottle of hand sanitizer rested on a stool, and nearly every patron entered the Victorian Village bar wearing a mask, which, following state regulation, could be removed only when seated and drinking. Between each performer, Mateus would wipe down and sanitize the mic, usually while loudly calling audience members ugly, as in, “Cover your ugly face when you walk around the bar.”

For the most part, those in attendance followed this rule, save for one woman who walked mask-less to the bathroom, only briefly covering her mouth with her hand. Another patron kept his bandana around his neck for the entirety of his stay, even after a bar employee explicitly asked him to cover his face in those times he wasn’t seated.

While most adhered to the mask policies, social distancing felt more like concept than reality, at times, particularly as the crowd started to swell, with more than 40 comics signed up to perform on this night. When I arrived at the bar around 6:30 p.m., a dozen patrons were already seated nearly shoulder-to-shoulder around the bar, and by the time I left around 90 minutes later, it felt like a scene from the Before Times, with most table seats occupied and clusters of people standing around the full bar top. 

“We’re generally not as packed as you saw on Friday. That came out of nowhere,” bar manager Trisha Collins said a few days later by phone, attributing the swell, in part, to the end of the curfew, as well as the recent drop the state has seen in terms of the number of COVID infections. “Honestly, I think people did a pretty good job keeping their masks up and keeping their butts in chairs. … We have a pretty good group of comedians who come in religiously every Monday and Friday, and they’re kind of my eyes and ears. When I get slammed behind the bar, they won’t hesitate to go up to someone and say, ‘Hey, pull your mask up.’”

In terms of the material, the pandemic had some influence, but less than I imagined going in. Knowing that many local comedians are sitting out open mics amid COVID-19, I initially believed the material would trend harsher, attracting stand-ups who would use their time onstage to skewer mask regulations and the like. In actuality, the jokes largely hewed to the typical open mic fare. There were bits about dating mishaps, cultural misunderstandings and sexual miscues. A pair of comics did extended runs about defecating on the bed during sex, which tracks, since the two were actually a couple, spending much of the night seated together at the end of the bar.

A few comedians made jokes about pandemic life, largely centered on the lingering sense of loneliness that has shaped this era, but only one who performed in the time I was at the bar attempted to draw laughs from the most dire aspects of COVID-19, delivering a punchline that explicitly referenced the nursing home death toll. His kicker was met with a silence so immediate and so forceful that, if one were somehow able to bottle the effect, parents and preschool teachers would buy it in bulk.

When Mateus took over hosting the open mic, he envisioned more nights like this, with dozens of comics coming out, celebrating a return to stand-up following months when events were shuttered by the virus.

“When we had the first open mic in August, I thought the place was going to be packed with comedians,” said Mateus, who would perform as many as five nights a week prior to the pandemic. “I thought I was going to see all of the regular comedians, but instead I didn’t see any of them. … Since we reopened, I would say 90 percent of those people don’t come around. They weren’t really saying anything directly to me, but I see [negative] comments on Facebook. There’s been a lot of pushback, and I feel like it makes me look like the bad guy, even though we’re following the rules put out by the state. It’s a strange time feeling like I’m the enemy. But I’m just trying to do comedy and help the Shrunken Head, because before COVID this was the best open mic in the city.”

For almost nine years, up until the March 2020 shutdown, comedian Nick Glaser hosted the open mic at Shrunken Head — a role he declined when the bar opted to bring back the show.

“We were having conversations, and it was very clear from the beginning that there were going to be differences in opinion about when it would be right to go back,” said Glaser, who doesn't harbor ill will toward Mateus for accepting the role. “I get why those differences in opinion exist, and I’m not upset about it, but for my own sake, and for my health and the health of my children, I couldn’t do it.”

Collins said open mic nights were brought back out of necessity, believing them to be less of a risk to public health than concerts, where multiple musicians share the stage and an audience might be less prone to remaining seated.

“We had to do something. I had to save this bar. This bar is my life,” said Collins, who noted that the business, like many in the city, has struggled with steep revenue declines amid the coronavirus and limited governmental support, a combination that has forced many into making difficult decisions about public health. “It was getting to a point where something had to give. … We all can’t have a stay-at-home job, and some of us can’t work from a computer. This is my 20th year in the service industry and my 15th year behind the bar, and I’m not going to hang it up that easily.”

Mateus said his decision to host the open mic, one of two currently operating near the city (the other is at Red Rock Pub in Blacklick), was further influenced by his day job working in a grocery store, which has forced him to engage with the public throughout the entirety of the pandemic. “I don’t have the luxury of working from home. I’m exposing myself regardless,” he said.

In general, the event has operated free of controversy, save for a brief period of blowback after a photo of mask-less patrons circulated on social media, which Collins said led to a visit from the Ohio Department of Health. (Both Mateus and Collins noted that all of the people in the photo were seated, as required by law, and that distancing guidelines were enforced.)

Still, Mateus has heard the whispers, and he’s aware there are comedians in the scene, as well as residents, who believe these kinds of events are a threat to public health. 

“You’re not just making a decision for yourself. It’s community spread,” said Glaser, noting that the best-case scenario he could envision if he had retaken host duties was simply not knowing if someone had contracted COVID or, God forbid, died due to the event taking place. “This sort of thing, we have the choice to fight it, and staying home is how we do it."

At the same time, Glaser acknowledged the dire straits some businesses are in, and the need to take steps to try and drum up sales with COVID relief stalled in Congress. “The government has not made this easy for anybody,” he said. “There are a lot of people making a lot of tough choices from very difficult positions, so I try not to take a moral high ground with any of it.”

As for Mateus, he’s not overly concerned with any long-term blowback within the local scene, in part because he’s hoping to move to Los Angeles in the summer. For the time being, though, he’ll continue to host the open mic while performing an increasing number of headline sets, including a forthcoming show at the Funny Bone. 

“I never [wanted] to upset a bunch of people. I was just trying to continue doing comedy and keep people somewhat sane during the lockdown,” he said. “It’s a strange time. I just didn’t think it was time to stop doing comedy, especially if we’re allowed to be there and we’re not breaking any rules or laws.”

Glaser and others in the local comedy scene, though, make a distinction between wants and needs. "Comedy is a luxury," Glaser said. "When the name of the game is to not go out unless you absolutely need to, for me, comedy just doesn’t reach that level.”