The pandemic-forced shift to working from home came more naturally to some professions than others. Just imagine your livelihood depends on connecting with an audience, inspiring contagious laughter, a give-and-take that doesn't really happen easily on Zoom.
Kelsey Cook doesn't have to imagine. Like so many, the standup comic found herself navigating technology and all its, um, joys as the Inland Northwest native worked to keep the momentum going in her career.
"It's been intense," Cook says. "I joke about it on stage now, but I got divorced a week before COVID. Then all the comedy clubs shut down. I pivoted to doing a lot of virtual shows the past year. For a long time, I was using my cat tree as a mic stand. Most of the pandemic I was resting my laptop on this cat tree, and I'd have to tell the audience beforehand that if at some point the camera starts shaking, it's my cats. I'm in their space.
"Some of the virtual shows have been a lot of fun because they feel a little bit more intimate. On the other hand, I've done college shows [online] where there's only been eight students in the audience, and seven of them will mute themselves. I'm performing for one person for 45 minutes, and you feel like you're in an insane asylum. It is such a weird experience."
It's an experience that most comedians will gradually leave behind as clubs across the country reopen in fits and starts. The 31-year-old Cook is dipping her toe back into live performances at clubs she trusts are keeping customers and comics safe, including five shows this weekend at Spokane Comedy Club. It's her "home" comedy club of sorts, even though it wasn't around when Cook attended Cheney High School and then WSU.
Pullman was where Cook got her unlikely start. Granted, she comes from a creative family; Cook is the daughter of a professional foosball champion mother and international yo-yo champion father (Chris Cook, who is also Spokane's current poet laureate. Perhaps you've seen their father-daughter "Trumpet Tuesday" videos during the pandemic). But Cook says growing up she always planned on a steady, reliable career. Specifically, being a math teacher at Cheney High School. But she tired of the math courses at WSU and switched to a broadcasting major. A required public speaking class was the first indication she might want to hit the stage, as she "kept turning my assignments into basically comedy sets."
"Everybody else in the class is just trying to get a grade and get the hell out of there, and I was going way above and beyond really for no reason other than I was having so much fun," Cook says. "Everyone had to give a eulogy, and I ended up giving a eulogy of myself, but in this character of a weird relative. I was doing way, way too much."
Apparently not, because Cook's teacher encouraged her to pursue comedy, and she started going to open mics in the WSU cafeteria. ("A nightmare. I'd never recommend somebody start in comedy that way," she says.) That was 11 years ago. She eventually started her own weekly comedy show in Pullman, then moved on to Seattle before heading to Los Angeles, her base when she's not on tour, six years ago.
As you might imagine, pursuing a standup career is not exactly the kind of thing that brings a lot of job security. Certainly not as much security as a small-town math teacher might have. But during her Seattle stint, Cook started to make a little money and "have some doors open up," and that pushed her toward Los Angeles.
"I kind of let go of that fear of pursuing a career that is so unpredictable," Cook says. "There's no set pathway to make it in comedy. You just have to hope that it happens, and hope that you're not, like, 68 when it does."
The classic "big break" happened in 2015. Besides doing sets in town, she was hosting a podcast. Comedian Jim Norton was heading to Los Angeles for some shows and asked via Twitter what podcasts he should do to promote his shows. Cook reached out, Norton did her show, it went well, and soon she was tapped to open a weekend of shows for him. Those went well, too.
"The next week, his manager sent me the rest of his tour dates for the year," Cook says. "I remember getting that email and sitting at my receptionist desk at my day job that I hated, just crying.
"That really changed my life because he made it possible for me to do comedy full time. It became my full-time job. And I got The Tonight Show and Comedy Central, and once I got those TV credits, I was able to start headlining."
Now she has her own comedy special as well. Cook's episode of EPIX's Unprotected Sets debuted Feb. 24 and is available to stream. In addition to material she's honed for years, this socially distanced show filmed outdoors in July 2020 includes plenty of pandemic-related laughs she wasn't able to perfect in front of club audiences before they were preserved forever.
"When you picture shooting your first comedy special, you would never usually do new material," Cook says. "You would usually be running the set over and over and over. But those of us who shot the EPIX specials, there were several of us, we hadn't performed in four months. It's kind of like a period piece. What else are you going to write about for a special during a pandemic?"
Hence, jokes about being allowed to buy only one roll of toilet paper at a time or friends getting sober during quarantine blend in easily with lines about relationships and sex toys. Given the confidence Cook has grown into over 11 years of writing jokes, there was really no need to worry that the less-tested jokes wouldn't work.
"Over time, the way I've made [writing] easier for myself is to just pay attention to my conversations with my friends," Cook says. "I think your friends, whether you're a comedian or not, are the people you're funniest around, the people you make laugh the hardest and that make you laugh the hardest. When you're not thinking about it, and not trying to be funny." ♦
Kelsey Cook • Thu, April 8 at 7:30 pm; Fri-Sat, April 9-10, 7:30 pm and 9:30 pm • $6-$26 • Spokane Comedy Club • 315 W. Sprague • spokanecomedyclub.com • 318-9998