“The whole year was timed out,” recalls comedian Steve Shanyaski of March 2020. “I was supporting John Bishop on tour, I had gigs lined up. Then lockdown happened and my whole diary turned white. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life. It felt alien.”
Scariest, says Shanyaski, 44, is that “there was nothing I could do. A few online gigs popped up over the next months, some podcasts, but the reality was: where’s the money coming from? My wife was working from home. Suddenly, all the pressure was on her shoulders.
“So, two weeks into lockdown, I went out and got a supermarket job, driving a delivery van for Sainsbury’s. It was a shock to the system – my head was spinning. But I knew nothing was going to change. There was nothing to wait for.”
This, after building up a successful live comedy career over 18 years. “The uniform was probably the worst bit - it didn’t fit. I’m a medium and they gave me a medium, but the trousers would have been big on an elephant. I was flapping in the wind. As soon as the weather was warm, I became one of those guys who delivers shopping in shorts.”
It must have been galling after playing sold-out shows to cheering audiences. “If you can suppress the sense of pride in what you used to do, you’re OK,” says Shanyaski. “I did enjoy going out to work, and it kept me off social media and checking the news, which was good for my mental health.”
Shanyaski’s friends outside of comedy “were fine – they had their jobs still, they were just working from home. I was seeing this weird side of life, being the only person on the Manchester ring-road.”
Were customers friendly? “That first couple of weeks of lockdown, I turned up at people’s houses and it was like you were delivering deadly uranium. They’d just stay in and shout ‘Box’, and point to this box in the garage. So I’d dump the shopping in there. Everyone was terrified.
“I’m a stand-up comic, so I’m really chatty. Some would be up for a chat, and about a minute in, the penny drops: ‘I’m talking to someone I don’t know’. And they’d shut down and go back inside.”
Shanyaski was happy to be doing something that helped lots of people, including delivering to nursing homes. But he also worried about getting sick himself – and he did. Thankfully, his experience of Covid wasn’t too bad, other than losing his sense of taste and smell. “I was sniffing bleach, nothing!” A blow to a keen amateur chef, who has his own YouTube cooking channel.
He stuck with the delivery job for several months, doing 14-hour days and “falling asleep at 9pm because I was so tired, which I never did as a comedian.” At least Sainsbury’s supplied sufficient PPE. “With another supermarket – which I won’t name – I spoke to someone driving one of their vans, who said they hadn’t been given any masks.”
When it looked like the comedy work was picking back up, with restrictions lifted, Shanyaski handed in his notice with Sainsbury’s. “I hadn’t done my set for so long, I couldn’t remember it. So I started rehearsing. Then everything just got cancelled again.”
He’s now hoping to play shows booked in for December, but “if lockdown continues, I’m going to have to get the Sainsbury’s uniform out again. It’s been in the back of my car since August 1.”
Yet even if lockdown lifts as planned, Shanyaski is worried about the future. "After what’s happened, with the economy completely haemorrhaging, how can I expect to turn up at a venue and find it packed as normal? And with social distancing, lower capacity, of course that will have a massive effect on my income.”
So, he’s working on a Plan B: training to become an electrician. “It’s Covid-secure, and stand-up can co-exist with it. You write material in your mind all the time anyway. If I want to protect the house, think about having kids and becoming a dad, I need to be able to support the family.”
Has the Sainsbury’s work thrown up any new material? “I chatted about it a bit in an online gig last week. But there’s not much that’s funny about delivering for a supermarket.”
Comedy itself is needed though, Shanyaski believes. “I did a gig a couple of years ago, and this woman and her family in the front row were howling, really enjoying themselves. Afterwards, she came up to me and explained that she had terminal cancer – they’d all come together for a night out, and they’d managed to forget everything and have the biggest laugh. You can’t tell me that’s not an important job.”
Shanyaski is concerned about vulnerable comedy venues. “They’ve got staff, overheads. Without support, they’ll just close. Or it could take them 10 years to get out of debt again.”
The situation has made him realise “how fragile it all is. Even the seasoned pros on the circuit are struggling. You have to strategise. Comedians should all be thinking, ‘What else could I do, if the worst happens?’
“There’s no shame in going out and getting a job. It’s like being in the war. We all have to do whatever it takes to get by.”