Laughing through the pandemic: Seniors do comedy in Greenwich Village

Backstage preparing.
Backstage preparing.
(Photo by Tequila Minsky)

Jokes, laughs and heckles emanate from little squares on a computer screen. With her husband glued to the computer, Bill Burke’s wife recalls 45 minutes of laughter coming from the other room, every Monday starting at 10 am. 

A nascent Greenwich House Senior Center comedy class, only three weeks old, barely missed a laugh when during lockdown the class segued onto Zoom. That was late March 2020.

With most folks forced to spend time at home, more joined the class.  

Prompts, riffs and jokes—with optional homework —are all part of the merry Monday routine. Is it standup?  Hey, it’s Zoom, they’re sitting down. 

As soon as the class logs on, the laughs begin thanks to teacher extraordinaire Jo Firestone.  No sloth in her own right (with plenty of TV comedy credits), the competitive comedy scene was getting to her when she decided to volunteer with folks who just wanted to be funny and make people laugh. 

Class, first time together in person in 15 months.(Photo by Tequila Minsky)

Prompts kick off the silliness and sometimes extemporaneous responses erupt on a tangent. Warm heckling is accepted. No one is grading the homework assignments. 

One fellow’s repeating theme is “his banana”, another class participant turns a two-line assignment into one page (is she used to a captive audience with her student classes?) 

One woman sometimes runs chores during class, another, on camera, fell asleep.  One changed her clothes (your camera is on!), one man works at a reception job (bosses don’t have a clue).  One with a plethora of jokes posts in the chat and won’t turn on her camera; another took the class once from the Apple store. 

Teresa Hommel comments,  “Everyone comes up with ideas that seem random, out-of-nowhere, and unexpected…very funny and entertaining.” 

Helaine Witt who is a comedienne (and sold Joan Rivers a joke used three times) quips, “Jo is theeeee most patient human being on the planet…nothing is ever ‘wrong’, everything is always ‘funny’, and she’s always shocked (in a great way) by the people in the class.” Al Di Rafaele reveals, “I never knew I’d be an x-rated comedian.  

Is anyone not funny?  It’s how you spin it.  Deadpan, funny.  A sincere straight response? By the time Jo bounces off that, it’s funny. Seems that Jo can make anything and anyone funny.  

From a previous week’s challenge, one morning one fellow showed up dying his beard blue, while another fellow wore a blue wig, both responding to their classmate with blue hair. 

Barbara Bova, Helen Yalof, and Bibi Evers with Jo on the party bus.(Photo by Tequila Minsky)
Evana Lewis, retired, and a deacon, “I’ll have some more,” (of that non alcoholic champagne, sparkling cider.)(Photo by Tequila Minsky)

The class, part of a varied schedule of classes, is offered through Greenwich House Senior Centers, was originally held in person at 20 Washington Square North. Director Laura Marceca reports that the comedy class was the very first brought online on Zoom at the beginning of the pandemic. Now there are 25. 

After a year as a volunteer, teaching class every Monday without fail since March 2020, Jo is now a “consultant” and getting paid. 

SAG member Alix Elias jumped at the opportunity to take the class and signed up with her husband Richard, “ I thought it was about learning to write comedy, but Jo was just so delightful we stayed and stayed.” 

Tom Padovano, 66,  who is quite versed in comedy, selling jokes, song parodies and performing since the 80s, sees the class as “a wonderful way to interact with others wanting to express their sense of humor through the great prompts given to us by Jo Firestone.” 

Bibi Elvers, 88, says that people type her as tentative or serious.  About the class, “I think I’ve blown my cover. I almost can’t imagine my life without it!” 

Backstage, before the show.(Photo by Tequila Minsky)
Backstage, listening to what to expect.(Photo by Tequila Minsky)

During the beginning of the pandemic there was no more work teaching corporate employees for Teresa Hommel, 76, and her outlook changed. Her pandemic epiphany, “I was ready to laugh. I think people should laugh more.” 

Director Marceca beams, “This class proves age has no limits.”  Adding, “Particularly in the dark days of those first pandemic months, it was a joy to have Jo bring this small community together.”

The class gets gigs.

Around Valentines Day, the class was prompted to write about a piece of their body they love for the holiday. Invited to perform on Zoom, an audience bought tickets and surprisingly, this became a paying gig, all arranged by Jo.  

A new opportunity arose this spring—a gig, three days in June, ending in a three-minute standup set for a show to be broadcast on NBC’s streaming channel, Peacock.   Blind trust or love of comedy propelled 16 from the class of 24 to participate; half never did comedy before. 

So began the adventure that became Good Timing with Jo Firestone, the culmination of a three-day shoot at Abrons Art Center. The show premiered on Friday, October 15, on Peacock. 

The shoot.

Bill Burke tests the microphone.(Photo by Tequila Minsky)
Before the show, Jo explains the game plan.(Photo by Tequila Minsky)

After 15 months on Zoom, classmates, ages 60s through late 80s, most retired, a handful still working, meet in person  For many,  it’s the very first time. 

Jo conducts one-on-one personal interviews on day two of the shoot, discovering people’s relationship with comedy including two who regularly perform and/or sell jokes. 

The third day sees revving things up for the show— on a party bus driving around the Lower East Side. The class is singing, chanting pep cheers and drinking non-alcoholic champagne.  That afternoon, five cameras tape the performances with a live audience. 

Three months later on Oct. 15, the finished edit hits the streaming waves. 

Jo who had previously been a writer for and had performed on Jimmy Fallon, appears on his show and plugs Good Timing with Jo Firestone

Not only that, Jimmy Fallon screens classmate Zygy Susser’s interview where Zygy, 71,  details how he had always been funny but accepted the fact that his dream to be on the Tonite Show would never happen. Jimmy Fallon counters straight into the camera, “You’re on the Tonite Show!”

To great reviews, local papers, blogs, and podcasts are covering the show. 

Framing Good Timing with Jo Firestone, retiree Evana Lewis, 73, who is also a deacon, speaks about the great value of laughter, “(People) might have a bad day, but you give them a joke and they start laughing. You feel good after.”   

And classmate Tom Padovano shares his relationship with comedy, “Anywhere I can get a laugh, I’m fine with it.” 

And as one classmate says about the class,  “Remember how in years past, anticipating school or work come Monday morning, dread might loom on Sunday nights. Not here. Mondays are always something to really look forward to! And what a way to start the week, Monday at 10 am, laughing for 45 minutes! Of course (pause), it’s all downhill from there (wink wink).” 

A moment between Jo and Evana.(Photo by Tequila Minsky)
Nicki Cochrane prepares for time.(Photo by Tequila Minsky)
Backstage, before the show. Orlando, Rebeca, and Zygy.(Photo by Tequila Minsky)