Comedian Kermet Apio continues looking for punchlines during the pandemic

Kermet Apio performs standup comedy. (Photos courtesy Kermet Apio)

Why did the comedian perform bits from his bedroom? Because he was Zooming in on the humor.

Professional comedian and longtime host of Edmonds Comedy Night, Kermet Apio recently discussed challenges he has faced with writing and developing new material during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Apio is a past winner of the Seattle Comedy Competition and won the 2009 Great American Comedy Festival. He has appeared on Comedy Central, A&E and National Public Radio and has regularly performed at a variety of shows throughout the U.S., including comedy clubs, casinos, cruise ships and corporate gigs. Later this month — Feb. 18-19 — he will be hosting Edmonds Comedy Night, a fundraiser benefiting Parent Leaders for the Edmonds School District at the Edmonds Center for the Arts.

The Mountlake Terrace resident said that in the spring of 2020, as gigs were cancelled and venues shut down due to the pandemic and health restrictions, he “really just watched my calendar wipe out.”As a comedian, he noted it required a complete adjustment and also led to some difficult internal questions.

“This has been my only job skill,” Apio said. “So when you start thinking if I can’t do this, what can I do when I’ve been doing this for 29-30 years? And it was a really bizarre like, wait do I have anything other, like do I have any skill that’s marketable?” He added that he also realized many other people “who are actually working and who had job skills, all of a sudden, were looking for jobs as well,” especially those in occupations that rely on in-person interactions such as restaurants and many service industry positions.

As “a comedian you’re thinking: Well, not only do I not have any job skills there are people who have job skills looking for jobs right now. So it was a tricky one,” he said.

In addition, Apio had to adjust his own approach to writing and crafting stand-up material, which relies on audience feedback. He said that as ideas for jokes come to him throughout the day, his process involves pinpointing them in notes he jots down or stores on his phone, which can be revisited and worked through later.

“It’s a matter of, for me, just coming up with a basic premise and the basic idea and one or two, hopefully, punch lines,” he said. “Then I just go on stage in front of an audience and work it out. I’ll do it probably three or four times live on stage and then sort of try and write it through and get it written down. But I don’t like to write it quick and so before COVID it took me live shows to make it happen.”

Apio noted that he doesn’t initially commit to a particular punchline when coming up with bits, because early in his career he came to realize that stand-up comedy is “not necessarily tested in a notebook, it’s tested onstage.”

“If you were to stumble by one of the lists, you would think I’m insane, or something, because it’s just these little words or phrases that make no sense — they don’t mean anything,” he said. “But in my head, they serve as reminders of what I want to do and talk about in the material,” Apio added.

Without live comedy shows, Apio said that, like many other comedians, he began to start performing material on Zoom as a way to still test out new ideas in front of an audience. Although even that approach took some refining because of the medium.

“You wanted to hear people laughing, but by the same token if someone’s kid came up and started asking them questions everybody in the show will be listening to that conversation and like if somebody’s dog was barking a lot, everybody hears that,” he said. “And so it was really difficult to figure out how to do this without just muting the whole audience, because if you mute the whole audience, you can’t tell how you’re doing – you have no clue. Also, the people sitting at home don’t know how you’re doing and that’s really important in a live audience. People hearing other people laugh is huge, that defines the whole show to the audience.”

He noted that part of the solution comedians came up with was identifying 10-20 people before each show who could have their microphones on as a way to provide audience feedback without creating distractions in the background.

“Most of what I wrote in those shows was about the situation we were in because to me it was like you have to talk about it,” Apio said. “So I had jokes about being on a screen and I had jokes about performing from home and jokes about how I’m wearing a blazer and a shirt and sports shorts, but it doesn’t matter because you guys don’t see that.”

Apio said that — other than when his children were born — he’s typically not home for more than a month at a time and even that rarely happens. “And then all of a sudden March of 2020 hits and I’m home for 16 months,” he added. “Like I’ve never been around my family that much.”

Instead of being on the road performing comedy, he was in his bedroom making jokes on Zoom about being sequestered. “Like, my only connection with humanity or actual human beings, was Fred Meyer,” Apio said. “I only see human beings when I go to Fred Meyer and even then I’m not going near them or talking to them, I’m actually avoiding them.”

Apio said his jokes mainly came from finding the situation to be so bizarre and also funny in a way. “So by trying to relate to the audience, the only thing I was writing are those kind of things about our shared situation,” he added.

In his 30 years of experience, he hadn’t previously had to write materials for an audience on a computer. “I’ll be totally honest, it’s been really hard to write for the actual (stand-up) show and I didn’t do that much at all in a year and a half,” Apio said. “And then when I started working again, once the vaccines came out, then I started actually working on some new bits.”

He said that throughout the pandemic, there have been opportunities for comedy gigs in various states and locations with less-stringent health guidelines. But he has chosen to avoid those due to concerns for his family and also relatives who are immunocompromised.

As a result, Apio has lately been performing mostly at comedy clubs in Washington and Oregon. “There’s not as much work as it was before COVID,” he said, “but a lot of clubs have opened (back) up and then it’s up to you as a comedian to decide how much risk you’re willing to take for the gig.” About his own booking schedule, he added: “It’s not a great calendar right now, but it’s a calendar I’m comfortable with because I’m not putting my family in that much of a risk.”

Apio said he’s happy for the opportunity to again perform for in-person audiences. “I’m glad comedy’s come back, I’m glad people want to see comedy because many of us worried with people watching and getting so entertained by streaming stuff, are they going to want to go back to comedy clubs? So I’m glad they are, but I’m also not ready to jump full into it right now.”

He reported feeling both incredibly excited and also particularly nervous before his first live gig after more than a year away from such performances. “Once you reach a certain point in your career, you kind of know that you can pull off a show you get,” Apio said. “And all of a sudden, I went into this, that first show, feeling like an open mic again. I was worried and scared.”

Kermet Apio will again be the host of Edmonds Comedy Night Feb. 18-19 at Edmonds Center for the Arts.

He said his audiences have been quite supportive and also appreciate the return to watching live shows. Initially, “there was a moment there where I was like, wow, not only were people coming to comedy but they were excited about it,” he said. “The audiences were like, you almost you almost kind of feel yourself like, folks I’m not that good. Like, I know I’m a decent comedian but you guys are reacting way too well.”

Hearing comedians talking about shared common experiences and also examining those through humorous lenses is an important part of the format’s specific appeal and benefit for many in the audience, Apio said.

“I think it’s something about live comedy, plus comedy (in general), can talk about whatever is going on,” Apio explained. “People in the live shows sort of enjoy our talking about being sequestered and COVID, and the fears about it and all that. It’s a relief a bit to kind of, you know, hear people talk about it.”

Apio said he’s known for having “a pretty clean act,” which he described as being akin to a PG-17 type of rating. His comedy doesn’t rely on writing jokes and crafting stories that insult or roast people.  “And that’s kind of how I think I approached COVID, which was like, OK, what tools do I have to figure out how to write material for the situation,” he said.

Edmonds Comedy Night, a fundraiser benefiting Parent Leaders for the Edmonds School District, is at the Edmonds Center for the Arts and features four professional standup comedians. The event, which is now in its 14th year, is at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 18-19. Saturday night’s show will also offer a Comedy in Your Living Room livestream ticketing option for those who don’t wish to attend in-person.

— By Nathan Blackwell

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