After a year of empty clubs and quiet theaters due to COVID-19, stand-up comedy is slowly making its way back. John Mulaney, Bill Burr, Chelsea Handler, Sebastian Maniscalco, Jim Gaffigan and Nikki Glaser are all on tour or will be in the coming weeks, back to doing shows across the U.S. And yet the scene is very different — and much more complicated — than how they left it.

“The good news is that the shows are happening. The bad news is that they’re a little clunky,” says Brillstein Entertainment Partners’ Alex Murray, who manages tours for Gaffigan, Glaser, Jim Jefferies, Nate Bargatze and David Spade. “Each week there seems to be a different type of challenge that we have to solve.” The obstacles include COVID-19 safety, vaccine mandates, international travel limitations and fierce competition for dates as comics and musicians plan simultaneous returns to the stage. As a result, comics may be doing fewer shows and more traveling — and a careful selection of cities and venues with COVID-safe regulations can leave lucrative areas off a tour route — all while navigating a wildly inconsistent ticket landscape that’s packing some venues and leaving others with hundreds of no-shows.

“Some places we’ve sold 75 tickets and have 400 to go; some places we sold 4,000 tickets. Like what? Who are all these people that want to go out?” says Avalon Artists Group manager Kara Baker, who reps Rob Delaney and Iliza Shlesinger and sees red states enjoying a particular comedy spike amid more relaxed COVID rules. “The spectrum is so wild right now.”

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In 2019, the last normal year of touring, the world’s top 10 highest-earning comics brought in a combined $272 million, according to Forbes; insiders estimate this year’s total will be half that if the industry is lucky, with some of the biggest comedy names, including Kevin Hart, Jerry Seinfeld, Amy Schumer and Chris Rock, having not yet returned and with full-scale world tours now off the table.

Comedy agents and managers report that international shows are extremely challenging because of each country’s varying COVID situation and quarantine rules. Murray says Jefferies went to Australia for a short tour this summer and quarantined for the required two weeks, but as soon as he was free to start performing, the country shut down, forcing him to postpone shows for which he had sold 40,000 to 50,000 tickets. “Canada’s probably been the most difficult for American acts. They haven’t allowed American acts to even be booked until recently,” adds Innovative Artists comedy agent Christina Shams.

And in the U.S., while the Mulaneys and Burrs of the world are selling out, for less-than-superstar acts, “the turnouts for theater shows, especially out the gate of summer and into the fall, are not as strong, just across the board,” Shams says, with several comedians noticing the 50-plus demographic is especially lagging. On top of that, since the delta variant took hold, there’s been a drop-off. “For about four to five weeks in August and September, ticket sales really slowed down and halted,” says Murray. Plus, some people are simply not using their tickets.

“On an average [pre-pandemic] day, you might see 3 to 5 percent of people who just don’t show — something happens, they can’t get a babysitter, the dog dies, whatever it is,” says AEG Presents comedy vp Sam Kinken. “Now we’re seeing rates that can be sometimes between 15 and 30 percent.” He credits about half of that to folks forgetting about rescheduled dates but sees a “10 to 15 percent drop that I think is entirely due to the delta situation.”

Audiences aren’t the only ones concerned about the risks; many performers are, too. Some, like Fortune Feimster, have opted out of meet-and-greets (which typically add about $100 per ticket); she’s now in production on NBC’s Kenan and has “to be even more careful because we get tested every day.” Others will only play venues that require vaccinations.

“I’ve canceled gigs that won’t require vaccinations so we’re able to do it in a safe way, and [do require] masks between bites if people are eating and things like that,” says Hacks star and comedian Hannah Einbinder. Jeff Garlin is requiring the same (“There’s going to be some people who put up fake stuff, but fuck them”), as is Jenny Yang, who found a new venue for her Northeast leg after one refused to enforce protocols.

“As comedians ask for more protections, hopefully comedy club owners realize that it’s in their best interest to have stricter COVID protocols,” she says.

That was an especially strong stance for Yang, considering the extreme competition for venues. “It’s almost like a real estate game, that’s how we look at it,” says Shams, while Murray lays out a logistical nightmare he thinks will last until 2024. “Every touring act — whether it’s a comedian, musician, whatever — they’re all on the road right now,” he says. “So in any city, any weekend, from the comedy club all the way up to the arena, there’s going to be some kind of act performing.”

Clockwise from top left: comics Fortune Feimster, Jenny Yang, Jeff Garlin and Nikki Glaser.

Larger stadium and theater shows are booked with a first-come, first-served hold system, but agents say clubs are giving priority to top acts that will sell out their venues and bring in more revenue. Feimster says she’s seeing the booking challenges on her end from the erratic routes her tour is taking, rather than the usual cross-country journey. “People will look at my tour and be like, ‘Why are you going backward from here to there?’ ” she says. “We did the best we could. Don’t worry, I’m the one that’s having to be on the plane and travel all over the place. As long as you come to the show, I’ll be OK.” Darren Pfeffer, executive vp at Madison Square Garden Live, adds that the company’s venues, including MSG, the Beacon Theatre and Radio City Music Hall, are seeing more residencies and multi-night runs to simplify booking logistics.

While the big venues fill up, Garlin is doing a small U.S. tour for free to support some of the smaller clubs hit hard by COVID, paying for his own travel. “I’ve been filming The Goldbergs and Curb Your Enthusiasm all during the pandemic, so I feel truly lucky that I’ve been employed,” Garlin says. “I’m making sure every weekend that I play that my openers are getting $1,000 for the weekend for four shows, because they’ve gotten screwed during the pandemic, too. I want to get money in people’s pockets.”

Ticket and venue logistics aside, the pandemic also has changed what some stand-ups want out of their careers. Glaser, who is playing some of the biggest crowds of her life after a breakout gig hosting HBO Max’s F Boy Island, says she had an epiphany during her time off. “I don’t need to keep up this exhaustive rat race like before,” where she got onstage almost every night for 17 years. She moved home to St. Louis and got into therapy, learning to “slow down and not compare myself to others so much and really just focus on what makes me happy.” And though she’s actively doing fewer shows, she’s playing bigger rooms and selling more tickets.

All of this is setting up what the comedy world is betting will be a full-blown comeback in 2022, with more comics planning returns and hoping for larger festival and international shows, which for some can translate to multimillion-dollar stints. “If you think it’s an onslaught now, wait until the first few quarters of next year,” says Kinken. “Everyone is out [on tour] because nobody’s worked, and people got to eat, people got to make some money.”

Chris Gardner contributed to this report.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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