Over the past 18 months, The Comedy Bar co-owner Kyle Lane has learned a tough lesson about his industry.
“Comedians aren’t very funny without an audience,” he deadpanned, as he sat within his comedy venue in Dubuque’s Millwork District on Wednesday afternoon.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of Comedy Bar, located at 333 E. 10th St. in Dubuque, just months after the venue had opened its doors.
With the exception of a few outdoor shows in the building’s courtyard last year, The Comedy Bar has remained closed to the public since that mandated COVID-19 shutdown in the spring of 2020.
The venue will reopen to customers on Oct. 1. It will have live shows on Friday and Saturday during that initial week and then host shows Thursday through Saturday in the weeks that follow, effectively bringing back the schedule it employed before COVID-19 turned the business upside down.
Sahar Chavoshi, who co-owns the venue with her fiance, Lane, is eager for the Dubuque rebirth — and hopeful that it erases some of the bitter memories from its first go-round.
Comedy Bar initially opened in the basement of the Novelty Iron Works building in November 2019. The venue marked the business’ first foray into a smaller market, joining locations in Chicago and Nashville to become the third venue operated by the company.
The first few months in Dubuque were marked by positive feedback and sold-out shows. But the pandemic changed everything.
“It was really disappointing,” Chavoshi said. “We felt like we had some really great momentum and were doing really well. That all came to a stop.”
Chavoshi said the last year-and-a-half have presented steep challenges for those in the comedy industry, forcing them to rethink the viability and sustainability of their business models.
The difficult times have yielded new ideas.
Comedy Bar is currently in the process of rolling out a streaming service, which will allow customers to livestream shows at its various venues or view archived footage from past performances. The Dubuque venue will, ultimately, be outfitted with multiple cameras so shows can be included in the package, Chavoshi added.
The bread and butter of the business will remain in-person shows, however.
Chavoshi and Lane are confident that they’ve booked talent that will attract big crowds this fall. Their first headliner will be Al Jackson, a longtime comedian who has appeared on Comedy Central and HBO and currently hosts a nationally broadcast talk show.
Later in October, the Comedy Bar will welcome Brooks Wheelan, an Iowa native and former member of the Saturday Night Live cast.
Despite the decorated list of performers, Chavoshi admits to being slightly nervous about what lies ahead.
“It’s like when you’re a kid throwing a birthday party,” she said. “You’re a bit scared. You just really hope that people will come.”
The Comedy Bar is banking on a big return after facing major struggles over the past 18 months.
“We lost 93% of our revenue because of the pandemic,” Lane said. “It took everything we had to survive and the industry is facing major struggles.”
He stressed that the struggles haven’t been limited to the venues themselves. Many comedians dropped out of the profession altogether, unwilling to sustain a prolonged period of canceled shows and unsure of whether the industry would ever return to its pre-pandemic form.
Lane said that other performers doubled down on their commitment to the business.
“There were some comedians doing shows for discounts or for free,” he said. “Some were risking their health to be on stage and perform. Knowing what they have gone through has inspired us to keep fighting as well.”
Some things have changed for the better since Comedy Bar last opened up to customers. Gino’s East pizza restaurant and Gary Dolphin’s Iron Bar have opened within the Novelty Iron Works building in the past year. Some of the items from the Gino’s menu will be available to customers at the comedy venue, with eventual plans to give Comedy Bar patrons access to the entire Gino’s menu.
Comedy Bar, meanwhile, is pursuing growth of its own, with plans to open a fourth location — this time, in Detroit, Mich. — in the near future.
Dubuque remains the company’s smallest market by far — but Lane said he is confident in its long-term viability.
“Part of our decision to open in Dubuque was that we wanted to see how we would do in a smaller market,” Lane said. “Things were going great when we first opened. It will be interesting to see if the market looks the same when we come back.”