If you’re like me, when you hear the term “vanlife,” you think of annoyingly attractive people with droopy sun hats posing in front of some sweeping valley on Instagram, accompanied by inspirational quotes about how life is an adventure and to “always take the scenic route.” Their endeavors to breathtaking mountains or pristine white sand beaches show a perfect life in a sleek Sprinter van, complete with twinkle lights set against rustic cedar.
What they don’t show is the scramble to find a quick spot to empty your piss jug, eating gas station pizza for breakfast, or having to shit in a paper bag at 2:30 in the morning. Most of the time, though, those people aren’t comedians attempting to pick up the pieces after a global pandemic took away their primary reason for being.
Comedy has been slow to come back, particularly in Portland. Helium Comedy Club was limited to 25% capacity until mere weeks ago, and only a few local shows had found homes as bars lurched back to a sense of normalcy. But as vaccinations rose and COVID began to take a backseat to summer plans, I thought of what a unique time it would be to hit the road and check the pulse of the country via its regional comedy scenes.
With the plan locked in my head, I was able to secure a van of my own: a 2002 Ford Econoline E-150 that a catering company was looking to offload. It didn’t have a cute name or golden hour photos in front of the redwoods—hell, I can’t even stand up in it—but it was well within my budget and would get me where I needed to go all the same.
The goal of the tour was to observe comedy coming back immediately after the pandemic. Has it changed in some fundamental way? Has America? The only way to really find out was to set off with a cameraman and document the experience. My buddy Dan—name changed for the simple purpose that the cameraman wants nothing to do with me after spending a month straight together—was kind enough to come along for the adventure.
As we set off on our journey, I imagined seeing a country in various phases of reopening. As Portlanders living in a city that maintained one of the longest-lasting lockdowns, it seemed any return to normalcy would be slow and gradual. Instead, what lay beyond the Oregon border was a country where the pandemic already seemed far in the rearview. I’m not sure if it was destiny or simply impatience, but one way or another, America was not missing out on another summer. Every town had just lifted their mask mandates, bars were full, and people were out.
Talking to people across the country, I was struck by how quickly the pandemic melted into the background, largely invisible except for the odd mask still being worn at the grocery store. It felt more like a Netflix series everyone had just watched: a conversation starter, something we all had an opinion on, but now that we had binged it, we were ready for something new, yet also begging the world not to bring it back for another season.
Traveling from Portland to New York City, the comedians I worked with were excited to be back. Everyone had to acknowledge the pandemic at the top of their sets, but after doing so, quickly moved on to complaints about their dicks, which no pandemic is strong enough to kill off.
Audiences were obviously happy to be out as well. At a show in Denver, I was constantly interrupted by a drunken couple who claimed to be a surgeon and a flight attendant. Either these were two essential workers letting off some long overdue steam, or just two people remembering how easy it is to kill the vibe of a show. I’m leaning toward the latter. Comedy was indeed back.
In Philadelphia, a middle-aged woman approached me at the merch table while barely managing to keep a glass of white wine from spilling to tell me how happy she was to be out. Usually, dealing with the drunken lady after the show is one of my least favorite parts of doing standup. Now I just feel like I’m seeing an old friend.
It’s hard to truly put a finger on where we’re at right now. I can say with confidence that comedy hasn’t changed that much. I know I’m extremely grateful to be back onstage, even if that stage is literally the bed of a pickup truck in Richmond, Va. I also never want to do another virtual comedy show ever again.
But as we move to being completely open as a new, more contagious variant sweeps the globe, is this a short-lived window of good times before another wave of darkness washes over us? Did we learn anything about ourselves, or each other?
The tagline to the past year and a half seemed to be “America: Are Germs Real?” I wonder if the pandemic wasn’t distinct enough. Any event that lasts this long starts to blur. I clearly remember watching 9/11 unfold in my freshman year Spanish class. The pandemic, on the other hand, was just a series of never-ending days, broken up by the occasional Zoom call.
Maybe the times leading up to the pandemic were too surreal for even a global catastrophe to change us. Or perhaps, after a year of facing our own mortality via an invisible enemy, it’s like walking away from a car crash with a body full of adrenaline even though your leg is shattered.
I’m not sure we’ll understand the full scope for years to come. But while people are getting back together, go interrupt a comedy show. We’ve missed you dearly.