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‘We’re still standing’: How the Spokane Comedy Club survived the challenges of the pandemic

UPDATED: Fri., June 25, 2021

Even though it was the last night of relative normalcy in Spokane, the weird vibe at the Spokane Comedy Club 15 months ago was tangible. Veteran comic Gabriel Rutledge was about to perform before about 100 fans who ignored the fact that a pandemic was creeping closer.

Rutledge was a last-second replacement for comic Brian Posehn, who canceled like most entertainers were doing at the time. Recording artists such as Joe Bonamassa and Aaron Watson nixed their Spokane dates and tours that week, as well.

Virtually every event throughout the country was postponed as a force akin to an invisible hurricane was about to arrive. However, Rutledge drove from Olympia to Sprague Avenue for the final local event before COVID-19 altered everything.

“I remember talking with you after the show,” Rutledge said. “I remember us talking about how long we thought this would last.” Adam Norwest, the owner of the Spokane Comedy Club, wondered the same thing.

“When the pandemic started, I thought we were going to be closed for two weeks, which seemed detrimental to me at the time,” Norwest said. “In hindsight, I was so wrong. It was frustrating and confusing.”

What was so difficult for Norwest to digest was that Washington restaurants reopened last summer at a limited capacity, but his club remained shuttered. Why was it fine for a waiter to speak to customers in close proximity, but it was verboten for a comic to crack wise across the room from an audience?

“That’s what I couldn’t understand,” Norwest said while calling from his Tacoma home. “It didn’t make sense to me. I have a bunch of gray hairs from enduring all of that. I had so much stress and anxiety from it.”

Norwest, who also owns clubs in Tacoma, Oklahoma City and Appleton, Wisconsin, had to figure out a way to keep his Washington clubs alive. Virtual comedy events were booked starting in April 2020, and some shows scored huge numbers due to humor-starved fans.

More than 800 fans signed on for Spokane native Kelsey Cook’s event. “That was so exciting,” Cook said while calling from her Los Angeles home. “It was like a drug, like heroin. I had to walk that feeling off.”

But not all shows fared as well, and some comics, including Dan Cummins, hated the virtual events. “Zoom is not for me,” Cummins said from his Coeur d’Alene home. “That show with the Spokane Comedy Club was a one and done for me.”

There is nothing like entertainers feeding off the crowd. Zoom comedy shows weren’t drawing as well by summer, and Norwest had to switch gears. The Spokane Comedy Club has a kitchen. Norwest decided to feature milkshakes.

“We did what we could to hang on,” Norwest said. “It wasn’t easy with how strict the protocols have been in Washington. We’re not the only ones to struggle through this. We had to do what we could during a very difficult period, but it’s getting better now. I couldn’t wait to get back to some sort of normalcy in Washington.”

The Spokane Comedy Club is at half capacity, which is 150, and the vibe is much different than it was 15 months ago. During a recent show with Cook, the veteran comic connected with the capacity crowd, which cracked up consistently during her hourlong set. It felt like old times.

“It’s been really great since we returned with live comedy,” Norwest said. “I’m feeling good about now and the future.” Norwest has good reason to be happy since shows are selling out.

Jason Mewes’ two shows and Trey Kennedy’s six performances each sold out. Summer, which is normally a quieter time for comedy clubs, is busy and filled with big names at the Spokane Comedy Club.

Mike Epps (“The Hangover,” “Next Friday) and Big Jay Oakerson (“Hustlers,” “Isn’t It Romantic”) will headline in July, and Bobcat Goldthwait (“Police Academy,” ‘Shakes the Clown”) and Chelsea Handler (“Chelsea Lately”) will perform in August. The latter’s dates are already sold out.

“I’m very excited about everyone who is coming in, but I’m particularly excited about Chelsea and Bobcat,” Norwest said. “The schedule is really good, and we’ve survived. At this time last year, I had no idea what this time would be like, but we’re still standing. We made it through the darkest times, and now it’s time to just offer the best entertainment that we can.”

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