Black Jokes Matter

Black comics are finding new ways to reach audiences during the pandemic.

For stand-up comic and San Francisco native Valerie Vernale, recording a comedy album in her hometown has always been a career goal. Numerous big budget comedy specials and albums have been captured in San Francisco — John Mulaney’s The Top Part, Bill Burr’s Let It Go, and Jeaneane Garafalo’s If I May, to name a few.

As a local comic with few resources for producing and marketing her album, Killing Them Slowly, Vernale might find that she has more hurdles facing her than these three national headliners. Not only does Vernale have no funding, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she also has no venue, and no way to get an audience into a room with her. So it goes in the comedy world during the age of coronavirus. 

“I mean, comics always have some sort of depression, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many people this down,” Vernale says. “I think there’s some people who really believe that stand up is really dead and then there are the people who are still putting out shows and trying to make this situation work.” 

Vernale belongs to the latter camp. And so, she will record her forthcoming album on August 27, her 32nd birthday. In the process, she will test out a relatively uncharted format for a comedian — an entirely remote album, recorded from her Outer Sunset family home, performed live over Zoom. 

As Vernale will tell you, there is no such thing as the perfect Zoom show, but she and her fellow comics are adaptable and have been learning from each other’s mistakes. According to local comedic heavyweight Chris Riggins, the process for producing his show, Black Laughs Matter, has changed heavily since the show rebranded to the COVID-friendly digital format. 

“Everything has changed,” Riggins says. “The only thing that is the same is that funny is funny. People will always respond well to funny. It takes getting used to because of the crowd not being there physically, but it has its perks because it changes how you have to do comedy.”

Right as the Bay Area comedy scene was beginning to adapt to the new changes around live performances, another curveball was thrown our way. 

The struggle for the eradication of white supremacy and the advancement of anti-Blackness weren’t new topics to Black comics like Riggins, Vernale, and myself, but the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement as a result of the murder of George Floyd by police officers did change the way that we as a society started to talk about race. Some conversations around how to eradicate anti-blackness in our comedy community became a conversation we had in tandem with those surrounding COVID-19 and Zoom. For Riggins, each of these challenges informed greater changes and unabashed advocacy on his part — the BLM movement has encouraged him to further his support for marginalized communities, specifically for Black women comics.

“I still book on funny,” Riggins says. “I think that’s most important. I am less apologetic about my support of Black women in comedy because, well, we need to listen to Black women.” Riggins adds that his favorite thing about Zoom comedy shows is not being limited by location. “I can book Black comics from all over the world.”

In fact, some comics are using their Zoom shows to speak truth to power about the systems of oppression that have affected Black Americans for centuries. “There’s a bunch of comedians who were never vocal about issues that are now being more active in stating how they feel regarding the movement,” Vernale says. “And for the comics like us who have always said something, now it has a different weight.”

Vernale adds that the resurgence of the BLM movement has bridged the gap between Black comedians and audiences, as Black comedians no longer have to explain the trials of being Black in America — the discourse around George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have brought many issues surrounding anti-blackness to light.

“I don’t have to say it’s hard to be Black, you all saw a Black man get his neck knelt on for over 8 minutes and die on camera, Breonna Taylor was murdered and still no one’s been charged… the sheer amount of other names on the list in the wake of their murders is insane, in short [white people] get the message.”

Even without access to our normal resources like venues and budgets, comics like Vernale are using their platform to bring anti-racism to the forefront of conversations in the Bay Area comedy scene. She’s more invigorated than ever to record her album — as she says now is when the world needs it most.

“Comedy for me has always been about survival,” she says. “If I’m not laughing, I might as well not be here. For me, comedy is how I interpret the general tragedy of our existence and also grapple with all of the things that we have been complicit in. It’s just a way to cope.”

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