If you’re like me, when you hear the term ‘vanlife’ you think of annoying people with drooping sun hats posing in front of a vast valley on Instagram, accompanied by inspirational quotes about how life is an adventure and how to do it. “Always take the scenic route. Their efforts toward breathtaking mountains or pristine white sand beaches show off a perfect life in a sleek Sprinter van, with lights twinkling against rustic cedar.
What they don’t show is how hard it is to find a quick place to empty your pitcher of piss, eat pizza at the gas station for breakfast, or have to shit in a paper bag at 2:30 a.m. . Most of the time, however, these people aren’t comedians trying to pick up the pieces after a global pandemic takes away their main raison d’être.
Comedy took a long time to return, especially in Portland. Helium Comedy Club was limited to 25% of its capacity until just a few weeks ago, and only a few local shows had found homes as bars returned to a sense of normalcy. But as vaccinations increased and COVID began to take a back seat to summer plans, I thought about what a unique time it would be to hit the road and check the country’s pulse through its regional comedy scenes.
With the plan locked in my head, I was able to get myself a pickup truck: a 2002 Ford Econoline E-150 that a catering company was looking to unload. There weren’t any cute names or golden hour pictures in front of the redwoods – damn it, I can’t even stand in them – but it was well within my budget and would get me where I had to go all the same.
The purpose of the tour was to watch the comedy return immediately after the pandemic. Has it changed in a fundamental way? Does America have? The only way to really find out was to go with a cameraman and document the experience. My buddy Dan — name changed just because the cameraman didn’t want anything to do with me after spending a month together — was kind enough to join in on the adventure.
As we went on a trip, I imagined seeing a country in various phases of reopening. As Portlanders living in a city that maintained one of the longest lasting closures, it seemed like any return to normal would be slow and gradual. Instead, what lay beyond the Oregon border was a country where the pandemic already seemed far in the rearview mirror. I don’t know if it was fate or just impatience, but somehow America wasn’t missing another summer. Each town had just lifted its mask warrants, the bars were full and people were out.
Speaking to people across the country, I was struck by how quickly the pandemic faded into the largely invisible background except for the odd mask still worn on the grocery. It felt more like a Netflix series that everyone had just watched: a topic of conversation, something we all had an opinion on, but now that we had bunged it, we were ready for something new, but begging. also the world not to bring it back for another season.
Traveling from Portland to New York, the comedians I worked with were delighted to be back. Everyone must have recognized the pandemic at the top of their list, but after that they quickly moved on to complaints about their cocks, that no pandemic is strong enough to kill.
The public were obviously happy to go out too. During a show in Denver, I was constantly interrupted by a couple of drunkards pretending to be a surgeon and a flight attendant. Either they were two essential workers who had been letting off steam for a long time, or two people remembering how easy it is to kill the mood at a show. I lean for the latter. The comedy was well and truly back.
In Philadelphia, a middle-aged woman approached me at the merchant table while barely managing to keep a glass of white wine from spilling to tell me how happy she was to be out. Usually, dealing with the drunk lady after the show is one of the parts that I like least about stand-up. Now I just feel like I’m seeing an old friend again.
It’s hard to really put our finger on where we are right now. I can say for sure that comedy hasn’t changed that much. I know I am extremely grateful to be back on stage even though this scene is literally the bed of a van in Richmond, Virginia. I also never want to do another virtual comedy show again.
But as we prepare to be fully open as a new, more contagious variant sweeps the globe, is it a short-lived window of good times before another wave of darkness overwhelms us? Have we learned anything about ourselves or each other?
The slogan for the past year and a half seemed to be “America: Are Germs Real?” I wonder if the pandemic wasn’t distinct enough. Any event that lasts that long begins to fade. I clearly remember seeing 9/11 unfold in my first year Spanish class. The pandemic, on the other hand, was just a series of endless days, interrupted by the occasional Zoom call.
Perhaps the times leading up to the pandemic were too surreal for even a global catastrophe to change us. Or maybe, after a year of dealing with our own mortality via an invisible enemy, it’s like walking away from a car crash with a body full of adrenaline even though your leg is broken.
I’m not sure we understand the full scope for years to come. But while the people are getting back together, go stop a comedy. We have missed you very much.