On a mild Tuesday evening in November, comedian and Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson stands sheepishly holding a microphone at the bottom of a hill behind a suburban hotel. As he takes in his surroundings — a backdrop of barren trees, the back of an adjacent two-story home, the chirping crickets occasionally audible over the whoosh of nearby Post Road traffic — he greets his audience of 100-strong with a self-deprecating crack. “What’s weird is this is always how I thought my career would end,” Davidson says, “doing parking lots up and down the East Coast.”
The line gets a laugh, but the crowd knows that the scene is neither part of a larger circuit nor a sign of the comic’s demise. Davidson is actually in the parking lot of Fairfield’s Circle Hotel as part of the Connecticut Comedy Festival, a months-long series of shows put on by the Fairfield Comedy Club, which normally calls the hotel’s lobby home. In a year when the COVID-19 pandemic threw standup comedy, like nearly all live entertainment, into complete disarray, the club found creative ways to not only survive but thrive. In a single week in September, the event hosted industry headliners Bill Burr, Hasan Minhaj, Ronny Chieng, Brian Regan and Mike Birbiglia.
“It’s insane,” says club co-founder Joe Gerics. “All kidding aside, in Connecticut we had the biggest comedy festival in the world this year. There was nothing better.”
It was a far cry from the simple aspirations that inspired the club’s founding. In 2017, after performing and producing standup comedy in New York for six years, Gerics moved back to his hometown of Trumbull with his wife. Without a go-to venue for continued performing, Gerics figured he could guarantee himself stage time if he started a weekly local show. He partnered with two Fairfield Prep classmates — Emilio Savone, a fellow Trumbull native who co-owns Manhattan’s New York Comedy Club, and R. Beecher Taylor IV, a comic from Milford — to begin hosting comedy shows at the Circle Hotel, which is run by another old friend. Through their existing network within New York’s comedy scene, the group was able to attract established names like Davidson and Artie Lange to early shows that filled the lobby’s 120-seat capacity.
“Comics, all they really want is a fun atmosphere and good audience in a nice place to perform,” Savone says. “To come here for them really is a treat, just to get out of the city.”
Thus an unlikely comedy outpost was established. In 2019, the club hosted the first Connecticut Comedy Festival, a four-day event spread across venues in Stamford, Norwalk and Bridgeport. The plan was to do so again in April 2020, if on a slightly larger scale. “Our vision was to grow incrementally,” Gerics says.
When the pandemic triggered widespread lockdowns in March, that vision went out the window. Many clubs in the Northeast struggled or even folded without the revenue from live shows, but without the expenses stemming from owning or renting a venue, the Fairfield Comedy Club was well-positioned to withstand the dry spell. That nimbleness also provided the flexibility that allowed the club’s operators to reimagine its offerings for a mid-COVID world. By summer they had hatched the idea to set up shop behind the Circle for outdoor “picnic-style” shows where attendees would bring their own seating and beverages.
Normally such settings are highly undesirable for comics, who prefer intimate environments that better enhance audience connection and laughter. But when Gerics posted photos from the shows on social media, the comedian Mike Birbiglia, a regular theater headliner with whom Gerics attended Georgetown University, reached out to express interest. He came up from New York to check out a show at Circle and brought a friend: John Mulaney, whose bonafides include a sold-out seven-show run at Radio City Musical Hall. Both left Fairfield impressed enough to book shows there. “That really opened the door,” Gerics says.
Soon Birbiglia was performing so regularly in Fairfield that it was practically a residency. When it became clear the outdoor shows were viable, Gerics says, he realized the club might be able to pull off a second festival after all. It booked a string of big-name headliners promoted under the festival banner; with minimal outside advertising, shows sold out within minutes of the email blasts announcing them. There were some bumps in the road — inclement weather, occasional noise complaints from neighbors — but the festival proved a boon for the club and comics alike.
“It almost felt like old times,” says Ronny Chieng, a correspondent on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show who performed twice during the festival. “In that sense it was very culturally significant. Fairfield was kind of the one place you could drive to and headline. It’s safe, it’s near the city, it’s a comedy-savvy crowd, it’s run by comedy people — everything just lines up.”
All told, the club booked about 60 shows for the festival between September and mid-November, approximately twice as many as it would have expected to hold under normal conditions. “We just wanted to provide some opportunity for entertainment, some opportunity for comics to work,” Gerics says. “It wasn’t feasible to expect that this would happen.”
The new level of success was so sustained it almost became passé. “The first night when we had Birbiglia and Mulaney, we were like, ‘Wow this is huge, this is so exciting,’ ” Gerics says. “Then two months later we were like, ‘Oh, it’s Monday. Birbiglia’s back.’ You kind of adapt to your reality.”
With the dawn of Connecticut’s colder months, the club has had to adapt again. In September, Gerics began scouting venues that could hold shows indoors while complying with the state’s COVID-19 guidelines. Over the winter, the club is planning to hold events at Wall Street Theater in Norwalk, and is exploring additional venues, including Insports in Trumbull, an athletic complex with a full-size indoor football field, and Powder Ridge Mountain Park & Resort in Middlefield. Gerics says he even looked at setting up in a local hospital parking lot. “Every place I looked at, we’re trying,” he says. “Everything is worth a shot.”
It won’t be easy, especially considering how state guidelines can shift based on fluctuating infection rates. But Gerics is optimistic that the club can maintain its momentum with the same open-minded approach that steered it to such an improbably successful 2020.
“It’s like: Well, what is a comedy venue now?” Gerics says. “And honestly, it’s anywhere you can get a stage and two speakers and some people who want to laugh.”