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Stimulus Bill Throws Lifeline To Small Venues

Journey Gunderson, National Comedy Center executive director, speaks about the COVID-19 pandemic's effect on comedy clubs. Gunderson spoke during a visit to the center by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York and Senate majority leader. P-J photo by John Whittaker

For Journey Gunderson, the American Rescue Plan’s help for entertainment venues is doubly important.

It will help the National Comedy Center, of which Gunderson is the executive director, access money to keep the center afloat as the COVID-19 pandemic dissipates. Just as importantly, the American Rescue Plan has a couple of provisions that could extend a lifeline to the art form of comedy — without which there is no National Comedy Center.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York and Senate majority leader, visited the Comedy Center Monday to discuss the American Rescue Plan. For a few moments, Gunderson directed the spotlight away from Chautauqua County and onto comedy club stages that have largely been dark in recent months.

“Comedy clubs are the gyms of the art form and profession,” Gunderson said in her remarks Monday. “No comic gets good without hundreds and more often thousands of sets on stage, in front of a live audience. If there is not a healthy and thriving network of clubs nationwide, many, many comics will never be able to make the leap into doing it full time — without enough paying gigs, nights to work, opportunities for sets and stage time — countless artists won’t quit their day jobs.”

Gunderson spoke with two comedy club owners over the Easter weekend about how they’re weathering the COVID-19 pandemic. Mike Lacey, owner of the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, Fla., opened his club in 1978 and told Gunderson he is concerned about how his club survives the pandemic without federal funding and also how stand-up comedy survives. Chris Mazzilli, owner of the Gotham Comedy Club in New York City, had similar sentiments. Mazzilli’s club has played host to Jerry Seinfeld – including last Friday when the club reopened at 33% capacity — Dave Chappelle, Sarah Silverman and David Letterman.

The loss of live performances doesn’t just damage comedy clubs, Gunderson said.

“Now, if you’ve never been to a comedy club, and many Americans haven’t, consider that the notion that the disappearance of clubs won’t affect the quality of the sitcoms you watch on television or the movies you consume or the specials you stream is like thinking eliminating training facilities wouldn’t impact the quality of professional sports,” Gunderson said.

Schumer fought for a provision in the American Rescue Plan that allows the Save Our Stages program to work more seamlessly with the Payroll Protection Program. The Save Our Stages provision included an additional $1.25 billion for independent live venues, performing arts organizations, independent movie theaters and cultural institutions and allows venues to access a PPP loan and a Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, deducting the PPP loan amount from the grant amount. Schumer said the additional funding and technical fix would be a lifeline for New York’s independent venues, hard-hit by the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Previously, a venue had to choose between getting a PPP loan or a Save Our Stages grant. The application process for the $16.25 billion program begins this week on Thursday, April 8.

The federal Small Business Administration also released an updated PPP application that now allows venues to apply for a PPP loan as well as a Save Our Stages grant, as Schumer intended with the fix included in the recent COVID bill.

“So, we can talk about the impact on the art form, but we can’t not talk about the impact on the economy,” Gunderson said. “Each of these clubs employs 50 to 100 or more people in addition to the artists. Guess where Sebastian Maniscalco honed his skillset and delivery for years before selling out a record breaking four shows in a single weekend at Madison Square Garden? At Gotham, as well as Hermosa at each of these clubs. Live performance venues are a critical part of our nation’s fabric, culturally and economically.

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