‘Laughter is essential’: Local comedy club provides outdoor entertainment

Manny Maldonado headlines socially distanced ‘Silent Comedy’ night


Dominic Vitiello

Headlining comedian Manny Maldonado performs from the outdoor stage on the boardwalk outside Laughs Unlimited in Old Sacramento Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. Maldonado said he drove seven hours from Los Angeles to perform in front of the small crowd but was happy to do it saying “Laughter is essential.”

Chanelle Muerong

Set at the corner of Front Street and Neasham Circle, right next to the Tower Bridge Parking Garage in Old Sacramento stands an establishment that is one of the oldest comedy clubs in the area, having been around since 1980. While usually free for people and cars to pass, its cobblestone corner has been blocked off on weekends for the last month, with tables and chairs set up for a night of fun.

Laughs Unlimited Comedy Club is used to their dark rooms and packed nights, but in the heat of the pandemic they have to settle for something different.

Friday was just one of the nights that Laughs Unlimited held its socially distanced ‘Silent Comedy’ show. The shows are usually held Thursday through Sunday, and have been going on for about a month. The two-hour long event Friday featured several local comedians as well as headliner Manny Maldonado, who came all the way from Los Angeles.

“I drove seven hours to be out here,” Maldonado said. “It’s worth it, to make you all laugh. I always come here, I was going to come here, COVID or not.”

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Ryan and Beth Hillhouse enjoyed a front row table at Friday nights silent comedy showing Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. Food, wine and laughs were enjoyed the whole night. (Dominic Vitiello)

Running off the idea of a Silent Disco, CEO and owner of the establishment Jennifer Canfield came up with the idea to combat the loud noises of the cars passing by the block. For $20 per person, the audience enjoyed a night out under the stars, with LED headphones allowing them to hear the comedians without the noise of the outside world.

The tables were spread out enough to allow the audience to safely enjoy the show. About 40 people attended Friday’s show. Tickets can only be bought online for the time being.

Laughs Unlimited is used to having at least 200 people in the audience, but since March the number has been scaling down to below 80, Canfield said.

“We’ve been doing social distanced comedy shows since we got shut down in March,” Canfield said. “We’re not totally back on our feet, we’re only doing around three shows [a week] right now. We’ve been doing outdoor shows for a little over a month. It’s been as successful as it can be.”

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The headphones provided for the event on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020 had three different sound settings represented by certain colors. Staff walked around during the shows masked and distanced taking drink orders for guests. (Dominic Vitiello)

With fewer opportunities to put on shows, Canfield said that the company had been running off federal funds for about two months and now they’re running on their savings.

“It’s hard,” Canfield said. “Right now, we’re just trying to survive, us and the rest of the businesses out here. We’re just trying to hold on as long as we can.”

As for the rest of the comedians that work for Laughs Unlimited, the change has been difficult for them.

“It’s a little bit harder because there’s less people,” said Chris Smith, the host of Friday night’s show.  “I like more people. When they’re tightly packed, the laughter is more contagious. With them being further apart, you gotta work harder, but that’s also a challenge I gotta accept.”

Smith said that with the pandemic came a lot of challenges. Due to there being very few performance opportunities, a lot of comedians have had to quit.

The fact that we still get to go up and perform is such a blessing,

— Comedian Manny Maldonado

“At Laughs Unlimited, Jenny has been going out of her way to do shows like this Silent Disco, she didn’t have to but it’s given us all something to look forward to,” Smith said.

Despite the smaller audience, the show still continued late into the night, with the wait staff working hard to take everyone’s order. The staff followed safety protocol and wore masks as they made their way from table to table.

Also following safety protocol, the comedians were not allowed to move from the stage unless they were wearing a mask.

“The fact that we still get to go up and perform is such a blessing,” Maldonado said. “Even tonight it was great. It was a small audience but you guys were wonderful.”

The audience got a kick out of Maldonado’s jokes, and their laughter was heard loudly, despite wearing headphones.

Lisa and Jared Huntsinger have been to Laughs Unlimited a couple of times in the past, but this has been their first visit since the pandemic happened.

“We live in Lodi and we wanted to have a night out, so we booked a night on the Delta King,” Jared Huntsinger said. “I went on Google and saw that they were open and were doing outside shows so I thought, ‘Let’s do it.’”

The couple said they were excited to laugh and enjoy the nice weather since they had been cooped up.

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The new stage for the Silent Comedy event was built in-front of the property on the boardwalk. Comedians stand far from the small crowds of 40 to 80 people, who wear headphones to hear the jokes. (Dominic Vitiello)

Ta’Vi, one of the comedians who performed, said that she was excited about getting on the stage that evening but also expressed her concerns about performing in front of a much smaller crowd.

“I think that it feels awkward because we’re not used to it, but if we had to continue doing it, I feel like we would get used to it,” Ta’Vi said. “It feels different from what I know — dark rooms, crowded spaces and laughter — it’s really changing how we’re defining live entertainment.”

Throughout the night, the comedians joked about how weird this pandemic felt, and they all shared their thoughts on what it was like to be in front of an audience again.

“I like this,” Maldonado said in regard to an employee’s shirt that read ‘Laughter is Essential’. “Laughter IS essential, we don’t do hair, we don’t do nails but we do make you laugh. We make you feel good, that is essential.”

Laughs Unlimited will continue to have socially distanced shows every weekend.