For stand-up comedian Bert Kreischer, thinking outside the box to get laughs is still the norm, even in the age of COVID-19. His latest Netflix special, “Hey Big Boy,” dropped in March right as the entire live-entertainment business shut down amid the growing coronavirus pandemic. But instead of letting the shutdown to put the kibosh on his national tour, the less-than-svelte comedian came up with an idea that allowed his shirtless standup show to carry on.
In June, Kreischer teamed up with concert promoter Hotbox to launch the Hot Summer Nights Tour: a string of summer drive-in style shows across middle America; a full-scale, socially-distanced stand-up performance. The format allows comedy fans to see him live just like they would a drive-in movie on a Saturday night, with the show captured by three camera angles and projected on a massive film screen with sound piping through their car stereos while parked in the Great Outdoors.
“When you think drive-ins, all I think is glorified parking lot and the places where we’ve performed have been amazing,” the comedian told TheWrap last month before a stop in Fort Collins, Colorado. “I mean I’ll be performing with the Rocky Mountains behind me tonight.”
Setting up shows on plots of land several miles outside of the major towns, rows of cars file into designated spaces before the show several yards away from the stage. The result is the combination of a football tailgate party and a comedy club. Drive-in concerts have become one of the few ways to produce live entertainment during the pandemic. Kreischer says he was pleasantly surprised by the tour’s success, which continues with dozens of dates stretching from Kansas to Massachusetts this month.
“It is intimate. You’re inside their cars, you’re inside their small groups and everyone’s tailgating it’s got a communal feeling,” Kreischer explained. “I think for everyone whose been following the rules when it comes to quarantining and social distancing and following the rules during the pandemic, this has a real gift-type of feel.”
Kreischer remembers plenty of hesitation from his team when he first came up with the idea after his Netflix special came out. “I felt castrated that I couldn’t tour it and be out on the road,” he said. “So I called my agent and the managers and said I wanna be in drive-in movie theaters, and they were like ‘really?’ It’s an idea I’d had before there was really a need for it and now there’s a need for it and they were like ‘I don’t think that’s a thing.’ And I said it will be a thing. It is a thing, make it happen, get me an offer.”
Less than three months later, Kreischer was out on the road blazing a trail as the only comedian to take these type of drive-in shows on tour. While it is a thing he believes many top-tier performers could pull off, Kreischer says this approach probably isn’t feasible for every comedian.
“I think you have to be someone who can sell at least 1,600 tickets of people wanting to see you in a car, so not every comic’s gonna have the opportunity to do it and you have to be a little larger on stage and people have to be fans,” he said.
A production like this is also pretty expensive. Kreischer says he travels with a 10-person crew to operate production, which includes a full stage. He travels with two tour buses and a semi-truck that hauls the stage. “It’s a legit Metallica production which is different than a guy who usually travels by himself and is just used to walking into a club and performing,” the comedian says. “For me, I’m in a position where I could do a tour and money will not be the driving thing for me.”
Then there’s also the issue of the crowd’s ability to remain socially-distanced, which doesn’t come without risk. In states across the south and midwest, Kreischer says he didn’t see many audience members wearing masks even though he and his crew had a strict, mask-on policy. During the initial leg of the tour in July, Kreischer says he also had zero personal contact with anyone and hasn’t come within 10 feet of another human for the entire tour.
“I’ve also been hyper-aware of not judging people,” he said. “I’m not a fan of L.A. comics who shit on what they call the fly-over states and shit on their belief systems too much, in all honesty with this coronavirus I just shut my mouth and if anything I tell people, ‘Hey, I’m a little bit of libertarian on this issue.’”
Trying to remain sensitive to the times we’re in — especially for a touring stand-up comedian — isn’t easy when your main source of income is taken away. There’s also the jitters of being one the first major headlining comic to set out on a national, socially-distanced comedy tour. Kreischer says his comedian friends like Joe Rogan and Tom Segura all questioned his plan at first and tried to caution him against it.
“After I started doing it both of them were the first ones after that first show to call me and ask ‘how was it?!’ Kreischer said with a laugh. “Because we’re all hungry to get on stage and it’s more like keeping in touch with your fans. You don’t wanna just be gone for a year.”
In a time when so many fans are looking for any shred of escapism, the feeling of giving that back to his audience is Kreischer’s biggest accomplishment. And despite the unorthodox circumstances, when he hears thunderous laughs outdoors and cars are flickering their high-beams and honking their horns in celebration at the end of every show, it’s feels like at least one tiny slice of the pandemic has been cured for the night.
“I think more comics should do this, I think Live Nation should put together a Funny or Die tour like they used to do just do them at drive-ins,” Kreischer said. “It sounds like we’re going back into lockdown so if that’s the case, let’s find a way to socially distance and have fun and still live our lives.”