As comedy clubs open back up in New York City, comedian Casey Balsham is relishing a return to the stage. The city scene missed out on lots of personalities and content over the past year, but if it weren’t for the strangely opportune lull that lockdown provided, it might’ve lost one permanently. Because if the pandemic hadn’t happened, Balsham still would’ve up and left. It just would’ve been out of exhaustion, and she wouldn’t be going back.
“Before the quarantine, I was so close to quitting,” says Balsham. “I was crying before sets, crying after sets, regardless of how they went.” She couldn’t stop performing, though, since it was how she made the majority of her income, she says. “I just wanted to collapse.”
When the world began to shut down, it gave her a break she wouldn’t have given herself. “It was really, really nice to know that nothing was happening,” as well as to have fewer opportunities to compare herself to other comics, she says. “I needed that to just go away.” And when it did, when it denied her an in-person audience and left her only with herself and her ideas, she remembered something: “I like the act of telling jokes.”
Before, performing meant being on a stage for fifteen pressurized minutes at a time, in front of spectators and under hot lights. Peeking at Balsham’s life as a comic throughout the pandemic, when she hasn’t been gesticulating for a Zoom show, she’s been alone with a mic, creating comedy remotely, such as for her new podcast, Shady Shit. And she’s been comfortable.
By separating the act of exploring ideas from the direct response of an audience, she’s been able to create more honest material, she says, which, ultimately, feels good to her. “When you’re just kind of talking with no immediate reaction,” she says, “I find myself surprised by what I say or think.” Feedback only comes later, which allows her to review and incorporate it more thoughtfully, if she chooses to do so at all. “I really enjoyed getting support on things that I didn’t realize I even said.”
Balsham has always mined her personal life for content. (Listing all the topics she avoids: “I’m not great at topical humor; I can’t really do politics… ”) Quarantine was a time for both living through personally challenging things and figuring out how she could make them funny. One of those things was deciding, after looking at her circumstances, to try in vitro fertilization, or IVF.
Speaking about this process privately or with one other person — and recording it so that other people could hear it later — softened the blow of introducing this personal struggle into her routines. “It definitely made it a little bit easier to approach,” says Balsham, who was intent on addressing it but needed some time to first do it herself. “Anybody going through it deserves to laugh, because it’s so heavy.”
She’s since worked out some jokes about such things as the cost of the process and certain worries she’s had about the outcome. “IVF is your best baby,” explains Balsham, saying this naturally makes her concerned that a kid, made up of the “best” parts of herself, might not even be that great: “What if it’s a JV volleyball player or something?”
Balsham has introduced the topic of IVF during Zoom performances as well, citing this as a lower-stakes way to try on a joke than her previous, mostly live standup career. “I’m adjusting back to being in front of a live audience,” she now says, and “saying ‘IVF’ on stage in front of a hundred people is definitely a different feeling.”
But it’s a feeling she feels prepared for, one she almost certainly wouldn’t have embraced as readily before the pandemic. Lockdown brought pensive, independent time, in which she really thought through what comedy meant for her. The turn to remote work also brought greater options — and opportunities — for collaborating with people she wouldn’t normally work with, which has developed her craft even more.
Balsham has had other funny folks like Heather McMahan and Amanda Hirsch on Shady Shit, which she launched with Dear Media last October, and she credits such women with helping her realize how compelling honesty can be when connecting with an audience. Within the pandemic context, collaborating with a friend in L.A. has also felt much more normal, as has working with one in Minnesota.
“My friend Bradley, we write really well together,” Balsham says. “Whenever we do, we’re very creative. He helped me with my other one-woman show.”
She says “other” because she’s currently working on one, for her piecemeal return to the stage. “I’ve gone on a few podcasts to talk about my issues with fertility and got a lot of positive feedback about that, so I’m actually turning it into a one-woman show,” she says. Details are forthcoming, and podcasting, she says, was the “catalyst.”
Time spent away from a standup mic was instead spent speaking into a handheld one under the covers in her bedroom. “I think I needed to strip it down,” Balsham says, because only then was she able to reset.
On a recent episode of Shady Shit, Balsham opens by saying, “I could be, fuckin’, completely naked! Or I could be wearing every piece of clothes I have, like Joey in Friends.” She calls this the best part of making audio: that, regardless of how she looks or whether she’s lying down or standing up (ba-dum ching), she can do the work. In fact, it might even be how she does her best work.
“It feels like it hasn’t felt in a long time,” she says. “I feel like a new comic.”