Comedy in the Time of Corona

Comedy in the Time of Corona

It’s hard making stand up comedy in quarantine. I have to ask my cat how I’m doing. His reply: “Meow, meow. Meow meow meow, meow,” which I think loosely translates to “I love you Dad. But if I’m gonna eat, you better find a new line of work.”

 Comedians need an audience. For some, it’s like an AA meeting. Without it, they relapse into despair. They have jokes they want, nay, need to tell, and more importantly, they need an audience to listen to them.

 When the Covid crisis hit and clubs were shuttered and large gatherings banned, the risk of relevant jokes going untold became the real tragedy, in my humble opinion. The only alternative: get virtually funny.

I dove into stand up comedy just over a year ago. I’m from New York City and I live in Bucharest, where I started my stand-up career. Occasionally I perform at English-language open mics in other European countries when I visit them, such as Germany and the UK.

This proverbial furlough came at a time when I was just getting the hang of it and hitting my stride. I had reached some milestones including my first paid gig and my first opening and closer slots. What was I and thousands of other comedians to do?

james-longshore-berlin
James Longshore performs live at Laughing Spree, Berlin. Image: Chris Doering

First I tried the solo video approach and recorded a series I called “Future Jokes”. I reached out to some facebook groups in countries where I had performed to see if they would share them or contribute their own. Likes may not be laughs, but they’re something. There, I found I was not alone.

The rabbit hole led me to Virtually Funny, a weekly facebook live streaming open mic hosted by Leaf Plant. The fantastic Phil Minns Comedy Lockdown Guide was another helpful lead. Next, I decided to google “virtual open mics” and found a few in California, some just comedians working out material, others streaming for a live audience.

The culmination came when the oldest and most respected comedy club in Bucharest, The Fool, grew a pair and got a select few comics, including myself, permission slips to film a private open mic at the club! Without an audience, just a laugh track, to stream on their youtube channel. Yep, us class clowns got a field trip! Comedy is, after all, an essential service.

It’s a brave new world and it begs a number of questions about the stand-up comedy experience and how it will adjust and if it can survive. I think the answer is yes, but first, let’s look at some of the pros and cons of stand up comedy online.

First big pro is reaching a wider audience. Virtually Funny gets about 30-40 eyeballs during live stream – about the same size as an average open mic room. But upon live +3 ratings, to use a television metric, it gets anywhere from 500 to over 1000 views. The Fool Open Mic got 25,000 views. A staggering amount equal to opening for Louis C.K. in a stadium. I have to keep telling myself it doesn’t mean I was good, just that 25,000 people watched it.

 Bringing us to the obvious question: Where are those viewers coming from? Let’s examine that. Virtually Funny is broadcast out of the UK, so mostly UK but comedians from the Netherlands and Hungary perform, so that brings some international viewers. I know my friends from Philadelphia to Romania were watching. What does that say about our globalized world?

Another pro. It opens up doors for comedians to reach people and perform alongside fellow comedians they never could have before. Take me, for example. I am used to tailoring my material, performing in different countries. In Bucharest, tell jokes for Romanians. In Berlin, expats like myself. In London I bombed because I mis-calibrated that British sense of humor. These days it’s Biden jokes for the US, Boris for the UK.

I am lucky to be in Romania. Contrary to preconceptions, everyone pretty much speaks English here. Because communism fell in the nineties and American culture represented freedom and the best of capitalism, the country was flooded with American entertainment. In fact, fun fact! – ask almost anyone from the post-revolution generation and they will tell you where they learned English – Cartoon Network!

 Romanians get most of my jokes. But it’s not the same as telling jokes for my countrymen. I’m from NYC and I lived in L.A. for 8 years, but never went beyond sketch and improv. A lot of my material springs from there and there are many bits I don’t have anywhere to try out. Now I do! I can perform alongside comedians who get me! And so can a first-timer from Oklahoma or a moonlighter from Florida.

So these are some of the pros. But is it a good thing, for example, to reach a wider audience but not a live one? Comedians spend years refining their acts, performing in front of diverse audiences, learning to feel them out in pursuit of the elusive “tight ten”. That first-timer might be able to pop their cherry without fear of a crowd, but will they learn to finely hone their comedy skills?

 Let’s examine the ways a comedian might get a virtual reaction. With the zoom sessions, it’s the fellow comedians, some of which are laugh-out louders, some stone-faced. In either case, you get a much better close up of their reaction than you do in a dark performance space. Live Streams are fellow comedians + real time comments, which if you’re fast enough you can respond to.

The odd one is the live club with laugh track. You’re at the mercy of what the sound guy deems a punchline, then people comment on the “live” stream. What are you, supposed to respond to heckling 24 hours after you tell the joke? My favorite comment on my set was “The Joker post-breakdown”.

The annoying thing on both the live stream and the zoom is the delay, which the laugh track kind of has too, that split second of pressing a button as opposed to spontaneous human expression. So you hold for laughter, you hold for delay, and then just as you’re about to start the next joke, you hear the laugh. That can certainly throw an inexperienced, nervous comedian off.

On the other hand, the novice comedian can get more practice than may be possible in live times. If you’re not in New York, L.A., London or Berlin, opportunities may be limited. In Bucharest, I get to perform 3 times a month, once a week if I’m lucky. Because location is not a factor, just time zone, I am performing more than 3 times a week! But admittedly, the times are weird – 6 am in California?

I am telling plenty of covid jokes. I’m not the only one. Because who is going to want to talk about it when it’s all over? And no comic likes a missed opportunity. But it’s not just covid material. Musings about all kinds of subjects are trickling out, maybe because people are in the mood for dark humor these days. It’s a good time to be experimental because the audience is just relieved for any sense of whimsy in an uncertain period.

Will virtual comedy replace live comedy? I don’t think that’s possible. Can they peacefully co-exist? I know I am going to miss it. There are more questions to resolve. What does globalization mean for the quality of the content? Comedy is localized and has to be relatable. How will it affect normal career trajectory, like landing an opening slot, or touring? What about having your jokes always recorded and online? Can it be monetized? Clubs depend on food and beer sales and comedians depend on drunk audiences.

These are all valid questions and if you’ve enjoyed reading this musing, maybe we can address them in a follow up. If you are a comedian looking for somewhere to tell some jokes, here are some resources I used:

Slotted (search ‘virtual mic’ or ‘open mic’)

The Comedy Bureau

The Lockdown Comedy Guide

Displaced Comedians