Sometimes the best thing for a comedian to do in isolation is nothing

Comedian Dustin Meadows has plans to move to Los Angeles after his lease is up in June, which means, depending on how long the current restrictions on public gatherings remain in place, Meadows may not perform in Columbus again before leaving.

Given the standup comic’s ambitions and his reputation as a local scene-builder (including founding Whiskey Bear Comedy), you might think he’s been busy organizing virtual open mic nights, livestreaming standup events and using his final weeks in Columbus to push the comedy scene forward during this period of isolation amid Gov. Mike DeWine’s “stay at home” order.

Instead, he’s mostly been playing guitar naked.

Each day in April, while wearing only a guitar, Meadows is performing one song from the 1999 Fat Wreck Chords compilation Short Music for Short People and posting it on Facebook; yesterday he played “See Her Pee” by NOFX while standing in the shower.

“My reaction to [the coronavirus-related shutdowns] has been different than a lot of comics,” Meadows said recently by phone. “I’m excited that people are doing stuff, but I feel like, a lot of the time, artists — and I've been guilty of this myself — we romanticize shit, where we're like, ‘Oh, the world needs art more than ever right now.’ And I’m like, ‘Does it, though?’ Don't get me wrong. I love music. I love comedy. … And I think this is gonna be the way things are for a while, but I don't think we're on ‘Road Warrior’-level shit where there's no more artists and we’re all just fighting for gas.”

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Rather than scrambling to figure out how to translate all of his comedy online, Meadows is giving himself permission to embrace the downtime. If he’s feeling creative, he’ll do something creative. If not, he’ll watch some movies or play video games and drink soda. “It's been nice to just take time off. I lost work due to [the shutdowns], because I actually had a pretty busy month lined up. So it has cost me some paid gigs, for sure. But it's also been nice to just be a person and relax and not have to feel this pressure,” he said. “I’ve been reminding myself that I don't owe anybody anything creatively. The only obligations we have are to stay at home as often as we can and not go around other people. … I feel like our obligations to the world start and end there.”

Comedian Nickey Winkelman similarly hasn’t been searching out online gigs, though she had also recently scaled back her live performances before the COVID-19 crisis. “It's been interesting to see comedians try to do standup on Facebook Live and Instagram Live,” she said. “Music can do just fine without an audience, but comedy, it's really hard to get it across without hearing other people laugh. It's so much a part of standup.”

Some are making it work, though. Winkelman pointed to comedian Amber Falter, who has been incorporating her three very weird dogs. “I think it makes it feel a little less alone that she has an audience of dogs,” said Winkelman, noting that many comedians are making use of fellow standups when livestreaming. “On Instagram you can have two people live at the same time. That way you've got at least one person to interact with and laugh at your jokes, and an audience of one right now is better than an audience of zero.”

That group approach worked well for Meadows when he was a recent virtual guest on Comedy Death Spot (“We were all having a blast, and it was nice to do a performance in some kind of real time again,” he said). Winkelman, along with co-host Erik Tait, similarly enjoyed having fellow comedians to riff with on monthly trivia show The Quiz Box, which went online for the first time in March.

“Our viewers said that they liked the format, and we had a lot of fun with it,” Winkelman said, adding that the show also reached people well outside of Columbus for the first time. “People donated enough money to The Quiz Box that we could pay our comedians as well as we would have at a normal show, and that was huge. … People have been extremely generous. I'm interested to see if that will last. I don't know how long this can go on, and I don't know how long people will continue to support the arts. Everyone is strapped for their means.”

Winkelman and Meadows both see this time of isolation as an opportunity to branch out and flex some other creative muscles. “When I was in my job at Upfront [at Shadowbox], I moved into more of a producer position, and I enjoyed getting other people's shows going. And so I'm wondering now if maybe I can help people with how to format their standup shows and help them promote it,” Winkelman said.

Meadows, meanwhile, is rediscovering his love of music. “Music is something that's always been a part of my life, but I haven't done it as much because comedy has been the focus,” he said. “Music was what I did before I ever got into comedy. And I can't do standup in my bedroom, but I can sit at home and I can play guitar and I can record songs.”

He’s also taking orders for custom mixtapes — an idea he got from Columbus expat Matt Monta. “It’s a way for me to help supplement my income with losing work and gigs, and it's also just a nice little thing for myself to keep me playing and practicing,” said Meadows, who’s also focusing more energy on a music podcast he hosts with Nick Glaser, “Nü-Metal, Who Dis?”

Like everyone, Meadows and Winkelman are looking forward to the day when things return to normal, but they have some anxiety about it, too. “There's a lot of talk, like, ‘I want to go to movies. I want to go to shows.’ I just hope that when we're able to do that again, people put their money where their mouth is,” Meadows said. “I'd like to see more people out at live comedy and just live events in general — whether it's music, poetry or whatever — because I think it's becoming apparent how much we take these things for granted." 

“I'm trying to stay optimistic," Winkelman said, "but I worry about what it will look like when the ‘stay at home’ order is lifted and the pandemic is no longer a threat. Will people still come out to see live shows? Will the bars and restaurants that hosted our open mics be able to reopen? ... I keep thinking of ‘Wall-E.’ This is how ‘Wall-E’ started, because everybody was stuck at home, and they got engrossed in their screens, and then they just stayed that way. But, I see so many people in my neighborhood going for walks, and while everyone is staying 6 feet apart, they're waving to each other much more often. They're saying hello. There's more people outside on the sidewalk than in their cars right now. And that gives me hope that people will want to go back out. There is a yearning for that human connection.”