Comedy’s Hottest New Venue Is a Nursing Home

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It was Karaoke Night at the nursing home and things were rolling right along — rolling as smoothly as the wheels on a freshly-oiled wheelchair. The volunteers were setting up, excitement was in the air, the snacks were on the table, and then… tragedy struck: the karaoke machine refused to perform.

A night of BINGO appeared to be in the cards.

“Noooooo! Not BINGO again!” moaned an older woman from her wheelchair. It had been a brutal winter and all the nursing home’s outdoor activities had been replaced with BINGO. What began as a fun way to pass the time quickly devolved into hours of numbered and lettered torment.

“B2. B2. B2.”
“WHAT WAS THE NUMBER????”
“YOU’RE GOING TOO FAST!”
“NO, YOU’RE GOING TOO SLOW!”

These people were all BINGO’d out. I looked around at their devastated faces. I could practically hear them thinking “I stopped watching TV for this?”

The volunteers started passing out the BINGO cards. The senior crowd was now officially surly. I didn’t want this to become another Altamont — all those wheelchairs were starting to look like motorcycles and the faded dark wool shawls resembled worn-out leather jackets. I knew I had to act fast.  

Suddenly, I saw an upright piano and microphone in the distance. Then I heard a voice I recognized as my own call out into the chaos: “Can I be the Karaoke machine tonight?”

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I had gotten myself into this dramatic situation by signing up for “Karaoke Night” on the New York Cares website. NY Cares is kind of like a dating service, but for volunteer opportunities. It’s an awesome non-profit that makes it easy to sign up for events like taking care of shelter animals, gardening in the parks, leading after-school activities, and other things that help out the community in creative, engaging ways.

I’ve been volunteering since I was a pre-teen. It wasn’t court-ordered, but it was a requirement of going to Catholic School (which is kind of the same thing). After I graduated I realized I missed showing up at random places and asking strangers if I could hang out and help them with stuff, so I maintained my volunteer habits long after I dropped my Catholic ones.

Karaoke Night at the Cobble Hill Health Center, a nursing home in my home base of Brooklyn, seemed totally in my wheelhouse — snacks, singing songs, light dancing — I was excited! Until Altamont II began to take place.

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“Can I be the Karaoke machine?” I said again, only louder in order to be heard through the wires of a dozen hearing-aides.

The wheelchairs parted (in reality I just made my way around all of them because those things are hard to move and they already had their brakes engaged) and I made my way to the piano with its trusty microphone stand. I found some chords to classic songs on my phone and faked my way through some 60s hits and gospel standards.

In between songs I did some light crowd work and told some “dad jokes.” Everyone had fun, and I’ve been doing a version of that show every month for the past year at the lovely Cobble Hill Health Center. It’s a pretty sweet deal; NYCares supplies the volunteers and snacks, and I bring the entertainment.

I couldn’t wait to get my performer friends in on the action — a full audience and free snacks are always worth sharing.

My friend Selena Coppock has done several of the nursing home shows. “In comedy, it’s easy to get down on yourself because you think you aren’t hustling hard enough or you’re not making this or that connection or getting this or that opportunity,” Coppock says. “So a nursing home show is a wonderful reminder of why you got into this racket in the first place.”

My standard set for senior audiences involves playing music, telling stories and jokes, and razzing the crowd with some not-really-shocking shock humor. A favorite bit is pretending that I hate Frank Sinatra (it really riles them up). But every performer entertains the crowd differently.

Once when I was sick I was lucky enough to have my talented friend and mockstar Kelly Dwyer fill in for me at the Cobble Hill Health Center. She brought her rockin’ dance beats and her husband and then shared songs and stories of their romance, which was perfect for Valentine’s Day! It was a nice feeling knowing that the show went on… and went on awesomely.

For a recent St. Patty’s Day show at Sunnyside Community Services in Queens I invited my pals Mindy Raf, Katie Compa, and Rebecca Vigil to join me. This Sunnyside show was not Vigil’s first senior audience. She’s a total pro who has entertained with me at the Cobble Hill Health Center many a time, the first of which was an eye-opening experience.

She started her set off with some musical improv like she does at her other shows, but this senior crowd believed that improvisation was meant for jazz AND JAZZ ALONE. They didn’t understand why she wasn’t singing “God Bless America”.

“SING GOD BLESS AMERICA!”

After that first show she stuck to singing “The Hits” and riffing with the crowd (who have since stopped demanding that she sing “God Bless America” and have started yelling about how beautiful she is).

“YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL, BABY!”

Did you know that there are more nursing homes in the United States than there are comedy venues? (This is a fact that I did not have to look up to know is true. There are a lot of seniors out there.) It turns out that the people living in nursing homes are, well… people. Despite their age, they have a lot in common with the millennial audiences you’re accustomed to entertaining: both groups take drugs on a daily basis, watch a lot of TV, and love comfortable pants made of faux-denim.

The folks living in nursing homes need to laugh as much as any audience — maybe even more, because some of them don’t get basic cable. If the pictures from the St. Patty’s Day celebration at Sunnyside Community Services look like it’s super fun, it’s because it is! And you can join in on the fun, too — there’s a rec room out there filled with seniors just waiting to laugh at your jokes.

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Here’s some advice to help you start the nursing home show of your dreams:

1. Find a venue. Look up some nursing homes or senior centers in your neighborhood and make some calls or e-mails. Or better yet, join a volunteer organization like New York Cares and get involved with a variety of non-profits that way.

2. Get a Gang. Ask your talented pals to join you so they can add their own special comedy magic. The more the merrier!

3. Plan a Run-Order. What kind of performer are you? Do what you do best, whether it’s jokes, stories, songs, characters- but shape your material to be universal and positive (generally, because they do enjoy mild razzing).

4. Be Prepared. Senior audiences are super supportive… But are brutally honest. They will start chatting amongst themselves or yelling if you are too quiet or too boring. “Speak UP!” “Keep Playing!” “What are you talking about?” Project your voice, turn the microphone up a lot, and make tons of eye contact. When doing crowd work, be sure to focus on the past and not the future. Instead of asking “Where do you want to go this summer?” Ask “What was the best trip you’ve ever taken?” These people’s lives are super rich and interesting, which makes for some great crowd work- if you ask the right questions. (PRO TIP: Always ask who their favorite grandkid is. They will laugh and then tell you the truth in a conspiratorial tone.)

5. Get on the Schedule. All nursing homes and senior centers have event calendars. If you have fun at your first show, set it to be on a recurring schedule. This way the seniors can look forward to your next visit.

But be careful: Performing for a full audience of supportive people can be a heady and addictive experience. Use your newfound powers wisely.

Photos by Giancarlo Osaben.

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