By Bradley Cole
(CHARLOTTE, N.C.) When the lights went down and the curtain dropped on June 10, Comedy Zone owner Brian Heffron took a deep breath.
It was the first time in over 15 months that his Charlotte comedy club hosted the show after an extended closing period due to the pandemic.
“I’m thirty years into this business. There’s not a lot I get worked up about,” said Heffron. “I was very emotional on Thursday.”
Heffron not only owns the Comedy Zone Trademark but also oversees comedy clubs across 20 states anda location in the Bahamas. This year marks Heffron’s 30th year in the business and he faced one of his toughest years yet.
It was business as usual in March of 2020 and then rumblings about the coronavirus started to spread. Heffron says there wasn’t much worry until the big events started to be canceled.
“I have old texts to the staff that say ‘don't worry about it, it will be over in a couple of weeks,’” he said. “Then the NBA went, March Madness went, MLB went. Then I started to get nervous. I started to go into a crisis mood. It became all about the employees at that point.”
As the Charlotte location and the rest of the country closed its doors, Heffron quickly found ways to pay his employees across the company by putting on virtual shows to raise money for workers. He also used money from the government’s Payback Protection Program.
As those funds started to dry up by mid-summer, however, Heffron started to see things get even worse.
“It started to go downhill by the end of July and I knew we were in big trouble,” he said. “I left (comedian) Brain Regan on the calendar for August because I thought there was no way this would go past August. Then when I canceled Brain Regan, I knew we were in it for the long haul.”
As the Comedy Zone was filed under the non-restaurant entertainment category, they were not allowed to operate, even when Gov. Roy Cooper allowed clubs such as the Comedy Zone to open up in March at 30% capacity. Heffron decided it would cost his club more money to open at a lower capacity, so he began a remodel: all new tables and chairs, a new backdrop, bathrooms, flooring, paint, website and other small makeovers were completed to give the Comedy Zone a new look.
It all wasn’t gloomy for Heffron, however. Some of his other locations in states such as Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina were able to open earlier and host shows. Back home in North Carolina, he had to improvise. Heffron and his comedy club held events at Triple-A minor league baseball parks across the East Coast, which helped save the business. Heffron says they put on about 50 shows and still have around 10 more to go.
When Cooper signed a new executive order in May that allowed clubs like the Comedy Zone to open back up in North Carolina, it was back for business as usual for the Charlotte staple.
The first event brought in a household name in the comedy world: Ali Siddiq. The Houston based comedian was named the no. 1 comedian to watch in 2013 by Comedy Central and even hosted a special event titled “It’s Bigger Than These Bars.”
He too had to be flexible during the pandemic and began performing shows virtually just a couple weeks into the pandemic.
With most of the limited-capacity crowd days behind him, Siddiq is happy to be back on the stage and giving audiences what they want: a laugh or two.
“It means everything to a comic to be able to come back out here, especially when you give someone their first experience in a longtime,” Siddiq said. “You want to put on a show and set a standard for what standup (comedy) actually is.”
The Comedy Zone in Charlotte is located at 900 NC Music Factory Blvd. and will host shows throughout the summer and beyond on the weekends. Upcoming acts include Paul Hooper, Gary Owen and Mike Speenberg. A full list can be found here.
The last year and three months haven’t been the easiest of roads for Heffron and his team. But when the lights went down for the first show, the Charlotte resident felt a special feeling.
“When I heard the crowd roar, saw the lights down and hear O’Bryan in the back say you’re the first crowd back in this building in 15 months and everyone cheer, I thought ‘we made it,’” Heffron said. “We made it.”