Usually, comedians only drop their mics for performative punctuation, an over-the-top marker that a joke cannot be topped.
As soon as COVID-19 quarantine went into effect, however, comics across the country had to drop their microphones altogether—some of them for good.
“I think a lot of comedians are trying to pivot to other ways of expressing themselves,” says stand-up comic Kate Willett. “Like podcasts and videos and other writing.”
With an indefinite ban on public gatherings, live comedy effectively collapsed back in March. Performers scuttled their tour schedules. Venues laid off their staffs, or permanently closed. Audiences turned their attention to Tiger King. But the dust had barely settled around the old reality, however, when a parade of powered-up AirPod microphones signaled that live comedy wasn’t going into hibernation or extinction.
It was just going online.
“The act of leaving your house and buying a ticket and sitting in a dark room and not knowing if there are gonna be hecklers—all of that’s obviously not the same,” says Jo Firestone of the new digital frontier of live comedy. “But we’re trying to get as close as we can.”
For the past two and a half years, Firestone has cohosted Brooklyn’s hottest weekly stand-up show, Butterboy, with Aparna Nancherla and Maeve Higgins. Comedy fans would crowd the Gowanus venue Littlefield every Monday night for margaritas and reliably solid lineups—a mix of local comics and bigger names who happened to be in town. Then in March, the three hosts, like all other comedians, suddenly found themselves without a venue or an assembled audience, navigating a new world where comedy was nowhere near top of mind.
It didn’t take long before comics started cracking jokes on Instagram Live, though, and Butterboy producer Marianne Ways decided the show must go on.
In the first flush of quarantine—whirly weeks where time slowed to a crawl—comedy fans weren’t hurting for content. Aside from entire libraries of stand-up specials on Netflix, there were still comedy podcasts (more of them than ever, actually); there were the late-night talk shows, which quickly adapted to at-home versions; and there was eventually even a remote Saturday Night Live, although it was now “live” in name only.
But something was obviously missing.
As comedians scrambled to figure out new ways to make a living, their fans mourned the absence of live comedy: its immediacy, spontaneity, and rawness; the electric, rollercoaster-hill feeling that anything could happen; the idea that you might be at a show people end up talking about for years, and everyone who couldn’t make it would have just missed it forever.
There had to be a way to recreate that dynamic online.
One by one, people in the comedy community independently found it in their own way.
Birth of a new medium
“I decided early on that I wanted to sell tickets and have the link to the show remain as private as possible, so that’s why we went with YouTube over Twitch, Instagram, or Facebook,” says Marianne Ways, the producer behind Butterboy. “Keeping the link hidden behind a paywall creates some semblance of a ‘safe space’ for performers. Paying even a small amount, like the $5 minimum to attend the show, assures that the audience is there because they are supportive fans who just want to enjoy an hour of comedy, which has luckily kept trolls and hecklers away.”
The inaugural outing of Butterboy: Live from Home hit the internet on March 23, with such guests as Emmy Blotnik, Josh Gondelman, and Naomi Ekperigin, all Zooming in from their respective apartments to a feed broadcast over YouTube. The basics of the show remained in place: the hosts bantering up top with their house DJ Donwill before bringing on their guests one at a time. The main difference was that these guests’ time slots were cut in half from the usual 10 to 12 minutes, based on Ways’s hunch that short sets would work best for this format.
Kate Willett decided to start Couchbound Comedy after performing an unlikely set for a yoga friend’s virtual wellness studio.
“The first time I did stand-up on Zoom, it was very much like, ‘This is an experiment,’ but the audience really liked it and I think it made me feel a little better,” Willett says. “It’s not quite like doing stand-up in person, but it’s fun in its own way.”
I just did a virtual comedy show in Zoom and it was much more like stand up than I was expecting. We had the crowd unmute and turn on their cameras (if they wanted) so you could see and hear people laugh. I recommend this format to comics considering this!!
— Kate Willett (@katewillett) March 22, 2020
On March 21, Willett hosted a trio of other comics on Zoom and blasted out the link over social. An audience materialized and laughed into their unmuted microphones.
Willett has been hosting the show every Saturday since.
The audience for Couchbound Comedy currently averages between 30 and 75 people, which Willett considers the maximum amount she would want to have unmuted for a show. (Butterboy, which features only the laughter of its three hosts and Donwill, brings in around 275 to 300 viewers a week, in comparison.)
But the importance of hearing laughs at these shows cannot be overstated.
The necessity—and perils—of virtual laughter
Anyone who has only been an audience member at a stand-up show, and not set foot onstage, might not have ever given much thought to how crucial their role is to this exchange. But without the sound of laughter, a comedian’s jokes sound vacant, vectorless—a feather floating into a brick wall.
“Stand-up is a conversation of energy,” comedian Steve Hofstetter tells me. “It’s not a conversation where the audience should butt in, but it’s not a monologue either.”
For proof that laughter is an aural necessity for live joke-telling, one need look no further than the monologues on quarantine editions of late-night talk shows. Seth Meyers or Stephen Colbert deliver a punchline and then pause briefly, in case you at home care to fill the void with laughs of your own. It’s a painful, alien silence that makes an already unnatural setup feel even less natural—which is why the monologues on those shows are so truncated in their current forms.
“That joke used to get a very big laugh back when people would gather,” veteran comic Jackie Kashian said during a recent Butterboy, when one bit sailed past the hosts with nary a giggle.
Although leaving mics unmuted has helped Couchbound Comedy field audience laughs, its open nature led to an unexpected problem in its second week.
Not long after Chipotle had to end a public Zoom due to an interruption of pornography from an unknown hacker, a digital heckler intruded on Willett’s show. The interloper entered the room, began broadcasting racial slurs and eventually even screen-shared one of them.
It ruined the show.
Since that week, Willett has changed the permission structure of her Zooms to make sure no one else except the host can screen-share, and brought onboard a digital bouncer. Rather than the beefy-necked tension-defuser familiar to meatspace venues, a digital bouncer merely monitors the gallery of Zoom audience members in search of mischief-makers—and either mutes or kicks them out when appropriate. Willett hasn’t had any problems at her show in the weeks since.
The difficulty of dealing with digital crowds is why Scott Rogowsky has mostly spurned stand-up since the world went into quarantine.
“You tell a joke, and by the time it’s done bouncing through outer space and to the person listening, there’s a bit of lag there,” says Rogowsky, a comic best known for his tenure hosting mobile game show HQ Trivia. “If they put a heart emoji in the chat, that’s one substitute. And I guess if they put three crying laugh emojis in a row, that’s a gutbuster. That’s a hearty guffaw.”
The enduring power of the talk-show format
Rogowsky was set to host a baseball show on the MLB network starting March 26, opening day for the league. Then baseball got cancelled, and the workaholic suddenly found himself without a gig. After doing one stand-up set online that felt too far removed from the real thing, the comic went on Instagram Live and launched a talk show, IsoLate Night. (Rogowsky can’t resist puns. His current Twitter handle is “COVID Letterman,” and he referred to himself as “Cedric the Quarantiner” on a recent episode of his show.)
“I think the best way to do comedy well in this medium is to do it in the talk-show style,” he tells me over the phone. “It has to be rehearsed in a way. You’ve got to talk to your guest ahead of time. Like, ‘You got some funny jokes you want to tell? How can you get there? I’ll set you up and then you can do your bit.'”
IsoLate Night started out as a nightly show but has since pared down to five nights a week. It’s not much of a stretch for the comic, who has been running a sporadic talk show called Running Late with Scott Rogowsky on stages around New York for years. The digital edition finds the host each night in a suit jacket and tie, trading banter with guests like David Cross, the Sklar Brothers, and Richard Kind, in between Letterman-indebted bits like Top 9 Places to Look for a Coronavirus Vaccine.
It’s not stand-up, but it’s a version of live comedy that Rogowsky is uniquely suited to, having performed for a digital audience on a daily basis for years during his HQ days.
“I was essentially online doing a live stream every night,” he says. “Most people are watching these shows on their phones now, and what I’ve learned from HQ is when you’re competing for someone’s attention on the phone, you’ve got to be quick. You gotta be zeroed in and tight.”
Technical difficulties are the new dropped tray
The biggest challenge for Rogowsky has been the one that’s facing everyone in the world of live digital comedy: technology. When you’re reliant on a Wi-Fi connection and multiple platforms functioning perfectly, there are bound to be mistakes. The IsoLate Night host had to scrap one episode with SNL’s Kyle Mooney when Instagram Live simply wouldn’t let Mooney join Rogowsky’s feed. (The host moved his show off of Instagram and onto a platform called Hovercast soon after.) On just about every other live digital comedy show, there’s occasional freezes and glitches as well—and those weird, metallic crinkles that crop up in the audio, sometimes mid-sentence.
There are ways to use technological setbacks to one’s advantage, though.
On a recent Couchbound Comedy night, Laurie Kilmartin’s mic cut out right in the middle of her punchline, robbing her of a laugh. Without missing a beat, Willett the host jumped in to speculate that the glitch was the patriarchy’s attempt to take down the show. Kilmartin, whose animated Zoom background draped her in an old-school comedy club’s red brick wall, shot back a not-very-family-friendly tag to Willett’s joke—and it brought down the virtual house.
The view from Nowhere
Hofstetter, former host of the Fox show Laughs, started experimenting with VR stand-up on platforms like Altspace and Sansar back in 2015, while Gleib, formerly of Chelsea Lately and GSN’s Idiotest, was the first comedian ever to perform an entire headline set on Facebook Live. (He eventually played eight cities of his 2016 tour on the medium, getting almost 4 million total views.)
The pair recently collaborated on creating Nowhere, the world’s first entirely digital comedy club.
“Steve and I have both separately been doing things that had elements of this for a long time,” Gleib says. “And as the greatest business ideas always do, it just took a global pandemic.”
On Thursday, March 12, the day after the NBA shut down, Hofstetter took a deep breath and cancelled the 40 sold-out dates of his weirdly prophetically titled Bring Out Your Dead tour. The following day, he and Gleib got together and experimented with a live stream, trying some tech options on for size. A few days later, they launched the Social Distancing Social Club, a live stream that is part-talk show, part-stand-up, and part-goofing around, where the audience can watch, participate, and tip the performers.
After two weeks of putting on the Social Distancing live-stream five days a week with comedian friends also looking for gigs, they came up with the idea of Nowhere Comedy Club.
Their vision for the venture included limiting capacity to 300 tickets per timezone-specific show, to add an element of exclusivity, security measures to outsmart would-be Zoombombers, a digital bouncer to check Zoom-names against ticket buyers, and careful instructions to make sure the unmuted mics didn’t lead to pandemonium. Hofstetter did a test run of three shows on April 6 and sold about 600 tickets total. He and Gleib were delighted with how the shows went, and set out to pack their new venue’s calendar with such headline talent as upcoming guests Greg Proops, Myq Kaplan, and Erica Rhodes.
After buying a ticket, you receive an email explaining how everything works, for those who haven’t experienced live comedy on Zoom yet. You click on the link and enter the waiting room. Dad Rock like “Life’s Been Good” by Joe Walsh plays over the preshow wallpaper, a mix of rules and ads for upcoming shows, as you scroll through the gallery, seeing each audience member at home. Some of them have silly backgrounds—the beach perhaps, or The Matrix’s glowing green code-scroll. There’s an approximation of true preshow anticipation, that waiting period where you run through your first drink of the night; a stretch that may have felt annoying when it went on too long in the past, but now feels so close to normal that you may want to cry.
“What if this is the new normal?!” one audience member writes in the chat.
“Normal is relative,” another replies.
People start declaring which part of the country they’re watching from, and whether it’s raining there, something that doesn’t happen at in-person comedy shows. It’s a communal vibe Kate Willett conjures at the top of Couchbound Comedy each week by chatting with the audience, and it’s sprung up here at Nowhere organically.
Once the show gets going, a digital stage manager alternates between the two separate Zoom camera angles on Hofstetter, the night’s headliner. When Hofstetter decides to try out some crowd work, the stage manager puts the subject in a digital spotlight momentarily.
The night goes off with only a few slight hitches—a garbled mic here or there, and a dog barking over someone’s punchline, which is a dream compared with the recent show where someone’s parrot wouldn’t stop squawking. The only persistent noise on this night is a weird stretchy sound that’s hard to place.
“What is that, bubble wrap?” Hofstetter asks, looking more amused than upset.
After methodically scanning through the gallery, trying to identify the sound’s origin, someone whose screen name is Bouncer Taylor writes in the chat: “Yes! I finally found you! No worries though!”
The problem is solved.
A new performance space
Any comedians who claim to know how long they’re going to have to perform this way are only kidding themselves. Luckily, many of them have already adapted to their new virtual environment.
Kate Willett found it difficult to book Couchbound Comedy at first. Several of the comics she approached were resistant to the idea of telling jokes over Zoom. Over the past six weeks, though, that resistance has melted as more comedians either realize this form is becoming more than a fad, or start to get good at it.
“Every comic who’s done this for the first time, the second they get that first laugh, you can see their demeanor change,” Hofstetter tells me. “You can see them go, ‘Oh, this is just like real life.'”
The thing is, though, it’s not quite just like real life. It’s different in ways that comedians are only beginning to scratch the surface of at this point. Everything that used to feel slightly gimmicky at a stand-up show, back when people would gather—visual props, a PowerPoint Presentation—is now a welcome wrinkle. Scott Rogowsky has been playing Rolodex Roulette with his audience, polling them to choose a contact in his phone to call at random. Patrick Susmilch used his time on Couchbound Comedy to rate the social distancing in old music videos, with the help of some clips. Jo Firestone, Maeve Higgins, and Aparna Nancherla collectively did a tarot reading for last-minute addition Phoebe Robinson on a recent Butterboy.
It’s the Wild West out here.
But none of these performances are as wild as what Jon Glaser did for his set on the same edition of Butterboy as Robinson.
Glaser is known around New York for doing oddball drop-ins at comedy shows, describing in depth every dry detail about the jacket he was wearing at a show I once caught, for instance, and somehow landing laughs with it. This time, he appeared on Zoom with a fresh mohawk, wearing over his face a dog poop bag with his own face on it—a promo item for his TruTV show, Jon Glaser Loves Gear—while reading from a book about the Boston Red Sox.
The bit probably wouldn’t have worked if Glaser walked onto a stage in this get-up. You need to have a front-row seat, which everyone now does, to see the details of his face-bag, and you need to have the context of Glaser hunkering down in a quarantine-friend’s home office, reading a book about a team he doesn’t like because it’s the closest he can get to experiencing sports right now.
Just before he starts reading, he dons a pair of eyeglasses over the doggy bag on his face, and all three hosts laugh uproariously. You can’t hear the 300 other viewers, but it’s a safe bet many of them are laughing too.
“Everyone is wearing masks on the mouth, so it’s refreshing to see a mask that’s everything but the mouth,” Nancherla notes at one point.
“I think what you’re seeing here is the light at the end of the tunnel,” Glaser says drily, through the dog poop mask. “This is the embodiment of hope.”
His words are truer than he possibly intends.