What does laughter sound like in the middle of a pandemic? In the parking lot of Chilkoot Charlie’s in Anchorage, it sounds like dozens of car horns honking and blaring.
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Maintaining an appropriately distant 6 feet apart, people sit parked in their cars and watch local stand up comics perform their bits while their voices stream through their car radios on the FM channel 107.9
Drive-in stand-up comedy is the production of Alex JustAlex (that’s really his name). He said he was first introduced to Chilkoot Charlie’s, or Koot’s as it’s commonly known, last year when he traveled from his home in Las Vegas, Nev. to Anchorage for the Alaska B4U Die Comedy Festival.
“Koots is is magic to me,” Alex said. “It’s a dive bar that’s like seven dive bars put together and it started as one little shack and they built on it and there’s a room with hundreds of bras hanging from the ceiling.”
The pandemic has forced Koot’s to close its doors to customers for the first time since it opened on New Year’s Day in 1970. Although the kitchen remains open for takeout.
The closure happened just before this year’s comedy festival, which was supposed to take place the first week in April.
Alex said at first, he had hoped that the COVID-19 outbreak wouldn’t last that long, but seeing different statistical models and data showing how long it could actually go, changed his mind.
“That’s when I was like, ‘Okay, this is going to be months,’ he said. “I’ve got to find some way to operate in the new normal and that’s going to involve doing stand up and not just talking at Facebook Live.”
He said he didn’t want to have to compete with national acts on Netflix, YouTube, or the rest of the internet. He had seen another comic in Denver try a similar a drive-in style event, and wondered if it could work here.
Alex came up with this sort of MacGyver’d set up involving renting a truck, plugging a tiny transmitter into the cigarette lighter and connecting that to a soundboard he could plug some mics into.
Shows take place on Fridays and Saturdays and continue to get bigger and bigger. The event has grown from just a few cars the first time around to as many as 70 vehicles filling the lot.
There’s a whole routine for keeping the comics safe, too. Each one has their own mic or waits for Alex to clean one off before using it. They also have to wait for Alex to get into the cab of the truck before hopping on to the flatbed where they perform.
It doesn’t make for the smoothest show, Alex said.
And he did have a few concerns: would honking be a good replacement for laughter? Would they get shut down for gathering?
But, it worked.
“When you’re the only thing in town, promotion is shockingly easy ” Alex said.
Other regular comics attend to perform but they also support and help run the event.
On a recent Friday, local comic Greg Rowland directed traffic. He used the physical wingspan of his body to ensure cars parked far enough away from each other.
Rowland has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. He normally works several different jobs, including running a tour company in the summer and working the front desk at his father’s hair salon.
Both of those jobs are uncertain right now.
“It’s rough because I’m self-employed most of the time, and it’s really hard for me to explain to unemployment what my income is,” Rowland said.
But Rowland said he’s “eternally optimistic” and participating in a project like this show gives him something to focus on.
Alex said, this event was designed in part to help comedians stay sane during a time of uncertainty and disruption.
“As comics, we need the stage,” he said. “It’s [performing] definitely addictive. And if you go a long time without it and all that you get rusty, you just notice that you’re sad.”
But, he said he also wanted to provide a way for people to safely get out of the house and be entertained.
Chris Hennig attended the event. He said he was excited to come out and support local acts.
“I know most of the most of the local performers, so, Matt Burgoon, the guy who went on last, anytime he’s about to go kill and do a really good set, he just paces the room. So it’s funny to watch him pace the parking lot as he would if we were in the club,” Hennig said.
The show is free, although Alex does take donations that he uses to maintain the event as well as distribute to people throughout the service and retail industry who have recently lost their jobs using an online database.
People can also order food from the Koot’s kitchen that will then be brought out to their car during the show.
Other organizations like churches have used the drive-in model as ways to connect with people while maintaining a safe distance. And that, Alex said, is the most important thing.
“Our goal’s zero risk,” Alex said. “I remember writing this down late at night: I don’t want anyone to regret the laughs afterwards because someone got sick or died. So that’s been our vision – laughs with zero risks.”
For him, the only contagious element of the show should be the laughter.