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Helium Comedy Club opens to live audience shows this weekend with safety protocols

But will comedians tweak their material to avoid sensitive racial issues during a pandemic, or will they address it head-on in our "cancel culture" world?

PORTLAND, Ore. —       It's officially okay to laugh now. Helium Comedy Club on S.E. 9th and Hawthorne in Portland is open again for live shows with an audience. Because they're classified as a bar and restaurant, it's allowed in Multnomah County's Phase 1 guidelines.

    "We're reopening!" That's what their flyer of headliners reads for the next month. Since the Covid-19 shutdown in March, Helium got creative, doing upwards of 75 live-streaming, video comedy shows where audiences pay for the link.

    "It's been a great opportunity to engage with fans in a different way and keep them laughing and forget about Covid for a second," said Brad Grossman, co-owner of Helium Comedy Clubs. The operate 7 clubs across the country. Indianapolis and St. Louis opened their locations two weeks ago, and things are going well.  

    It's one awkward thing to crack jokes on a muted video conference. But it'll be another for comics to get back up there on stage and do it in a very touchy, cancel-culture world of race issues amid a pandemic. We've seen heavy social media backlash recently for big names like Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon and Kevin Hart. Will comics dip their toe into current events? Are they nervous about audience reaction? Or will they steer clear of it altogether? Grossman says, we'll see.

    "We could go back 20, 30, 40 years ago with George Carlin, Lenny Bruce...comics have always been challenging social norms. Cancel culture is really big right now, but a lot of these issues are really important. There are a lot of things that need to be addressed in the way we live. But I think comics have learned to re-write their acts so they're appropriate," Grossman said. 

  He suggests researching the comedian's material before you purchase tickets, so you know what you're getting into. Helium always provides links to past performances from every performer and a description of what kind of subject matter they tend to talk about.

Credit: Helium Comedy Club
Helium's layout pre-Covid. Tables and chairs were close together.

    As for you, the customer, while Helium's club used to be packed with several hundred people per show twice per night, now it's very spaced-out and open. Many tables have been removed so they're 6 feet apart. A max of 4 per table, and they must be in the same party. They'll have temperature checks at the door, anything 100 degrees and over won't be allowed inside. Masks are required. Food and drinks will be served in disposable containers. And everything will be sanitized between shows.

Credit: Helium Comedy Club
Helium Portland's new layout during Covid-19's distancing orders. Tables have been removed, the remaining ones are spaced 6 feet apart, with only 4 chairs per table.

    "We're only going to be doing about 100 people per show," Grossman said. "That allows us to do a little bit of business with the people who are ready to go out and who are comfortable leaving their homes."

    Portland is likely to see some pretty big comedians come through town Grossman thinks, primarily because of how close we are to Los Angeles. It's easier for comedians to get here, and the heavy hitters who normally sell out entire arenas or theaters, and can't right now because they're closed, will be looking to the smaller venues like Helium. Check their site here for upcoming shows.

Credit: Helium Comedy Club
Helium Portland's upcoming lineup of acts. But the owners say, except some surprise acts to come through town in between.