“I don't think it’s fair to make a baby wear a shirt with an attitude, like ‘Born to Shop' ... that could not be their persona at all,” stand-up comedian John Mulaney quipped, testing out a joke on delighted fellow comedian Mike Birbiglia and nearly 73,000 other viewers tuning into their live Instagram conversation.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Birbiglia and his fellow funny friends have taken to the social media platform, now serving as a pseudo-comedy club, to test out material in a show their calling "Tip Your Waitstaff" -- all in the name of raising money for comedy club workers out of work.
The idea came about after Birbiglia had to cancel several shows as concerns about the coronavirus began to reach critical mass in the country. The comedian reached out to the owners of the clubs he was meant to play to apologize, offering to help the staff who would be hurt by the cancellation.
The cause is a personal one for Birbiglia, who got his start in comedy working the door at DC Improv, a club in Washington, D.C., while in college.
“[Birbiglia] called me and, you know, expressed that he wanted to just simply send the staff $300 each on his own,” said Jared Thompson, the owner of The Comedy Attic in Bloomington, Indiana, where Birbiglia was set to play.
“And, of course, I told him that he didn't have to do that, that no matter who was scheduled to be here, the shows were going to be canceled, so the staff was going to be out of what they would have made that weekend anyway,” Thompson told ABC News, saying he didn’t want Birbiglia to feel he was personally responsible for the lost wages.
Birbiglia, along with "The Daily Show’s" Roy Wood Jr. and Mulaney of "Saturday Night Live" fame, began to ask what they could do to help the workers in the clubs who would be hit hard by their closure.
Those conversations led to "Tip Your Waitstaff," named for the common closing phrase used by stand-ups, where Birbiglia and other comedians like Mulaney, Wood and Sarah Silverman connect via Instagram, letting viewers inside their joke-writing process while imploring viewers to donate to GoFundMe pages set up for several clubs across the country.
“I think what's special about it is that usually comedians don't -- they're not comfortable sharing with people what's in their notebook,” Birbiglia said.
“Comedians are actually very proprietary over like, ‘I'm not going to show you my early version of this.’ And so, I think they're all sort of making an exception in this case because everything is so uncertain ... people just need to laugh.”
Thompson said a few days later after their conversation, he got a text from Birbiglia, telling him to tune into his Instagram page
“Most of my staff watched it. And it was the first one, so it was a lot different than what we see now. But it was just such a touching thing,” Thompson said.
Birbiglia’s management team set up a website to compile GoFundMe pages for several comedy clubs, including some funds organized by larger clubs on their own.
The GoFundMe for the Comedy Attic had a goal of $2,700, enough to give each of its nine staff members $300. Ten days later, the fund had raised $3,670, exceeding the goal by nearly $1,000.
Overall, Birbiglia estimates the videos have helped to raise more than $50,000 total.
While the money raised will help to make up for some of the wages lost as society has largely ground to a halt, the anxiety about when business as usual will return lives in Thompson’s mind.
“I mean, there's a huge possibility that we won't be able to operate fully until there's a vaccine. I mean, that's an absolute possibility that it's going to be 18 months until we can actually have a sold-out audience worth of people. Which, of course, is sort of how we stay open, is having as many people as we can in a show,” Thompson said.
“The question is when we will be able to have a comedian who needs a sold-out show for us to be able to afford them -- like, how long will that be?”
For now, he’s doing what he can to minimize his own family’s spending, pinching pennies and opting for frugal food options such as pasta, and holding a fundraiser of his own on their website to increase the odds the club can reopen when the pandemic passes.
“It really is a test of like, your will basically, of how little amount of money can you spend so that when you come out of this on the other side, can you be open? You know, that's honestly, where we're at, is just trying to spend next to zero dollars on anything so that we can keep enough money to be able to reopen. I mean, I know that sounds crazy, but that’s just a fact.”
That uncertainty is not lost on Birbiglia, who says he hopes to grow the program with sponsorship and create a consistent schedule to raise enough funds to “really make a dent,'' and help the workers the best he can,while also offering “no pun intended, virally positive” content.
“I started pointing this out the other day on the live stream you can give three bucks or four bucks, or you could give nothing. Just by watching, you're part of creating this thing in real time that's attempting to do something positive,” Birbiglia said.
For now, the comedian is focusing on some of the clubs who have yet to meet their goal with new shows and ensuring the money raised goes straight to the workers.
“You feel a little silly because you want to point out to people that this is not -- this isn't the solution. Like we have no answers, we only have jokes, you know?” Birbiglia said with a laugh.
“We're not doctors and nurses, you know, we're comedians. And so it's really just a group of people trying to do the best to support the people around us, and in our ecosystem, who don't, who don't have an income right now.”