Comedian Nate Bargatze had 100 stand-up gigs lined up for 2020. All of them were canceled. But after six months of navigating the pandemic, he has figured out how to replace at least a portion: He’s about to embark on a two-month, 20-city tour of live shows at drive-in theaters.
For the most part, the tour is good news. “The bad part,” he told The Daily Beast, “is if someone is bored and wants to leave, I’m going to see their headlights turn on and watch them drive away during the show.”
Since early spring, stand-up has seen traditional sources of income—live gigs—disappear. Comics have had to get creative: Jim Gaffigan turned to live-streaming his family dinners and making web shows with his kids. Sarah Cooper’s stint of lip-syncing to Trump on TikTok landed her a Netflix special. In late March, Reggie Watts launched an app, Watts App, which helps him share his comedy without any risk of spreading germs. Others are exploring the wild new world of online stand-up, rearranging their living rooms into makeshift comedy clubs and acquiring mics, pop filters, webcams, editing software and green screens to make paid or by-donation gigs possible via their laptops.
The first live-streamed show for Dhaya Lakshminarayanan, a comedian, writer and a host of The Moth in Los Angeles, was a members-only event at The Battery, originally conceived as a dinner-and-wine event, and hastily repurposed for Zoom. “All of us said yes to the new format, mostly because they guaranteed the same payment as before,” she told The Daily Beast.
“Most comedians will tell you that online events are the opposite of what our super power is,” Lakshminarayanan said. “We are masters of being in the moment.” Stand-up, she added, was never meant for the Internet, where laughs lag with the internet connection and most or all of the audience is muted.
“They had a staff person selectively unmute ‘designated laughers’ because early experiments where everyone was unmuted was an unmitigated disaster,” she said. “I’d rather get heckled by a drunk frat bro at a bar show where the bartender is blending a margarita in the middle of my closer.”
Lakshminarayanan misses being able to see the audience’s reactions. While some comics are experimenting with Instagram shows, she’s avoided the format altogether, which she imagines would be like performing into a silent void of heart emojis.
But it’s not all bad: Among things she loves about Zoom are “no weirdo guys trying to hit on me after my set by giving me ‘advice’ or telling me ‘I’m really funny too,’” and that on Zoom, one can do shows dressed only from the waist up without anyone really noticing.
That said, not hearing laughs can really throw a comedian off track—especially when they’re sure they should be getting them. When stand-up comic Sebastian Maniscalco first started converting his stand-up gigs to Zoom events, his biggest concern was the Internet going out, until a call with 3,000 attendees went slightly awry.
“Twenty VIPs were unmuted so I could hear the laughter,” Maniscalco told The Daily Beast. “So I’m hearing laughter a little delayed, it’s a little distracting, but at least I know that what I’m doing is funny. Now, 20 minutes into this thing, I don’t hear any laughter anymore, and in my head I’m thinking I’m dying over here. So, I did a story that I know is funny, and throughout the beats of the story, I’m like, nothing? It went like that for the next 40 minutes. After the call I talked to the tech guy on my side, who was like ‘Oh, I had turned those mics off because I thought it was a distraction.’
“I’m a comedian,” he said. “The laughs are what I need.”
But at this point, he has the hang of it. He has even solved the riddle of virtual crowdwork—heckling audience members in their Zoom squares.
Other comics have put different spins on the online show format: Ron Funches recently live-streamed his new material in an hour-long set on YouTube called Awakening, and some of his audience were actually in the room—socially distanced and temperature-checked at the door. “It felt almost orgasmic to be on stage in front of a real audience again,” he told The Daily Beast. “I performed mostly for the live audience but would occasionally mug to the camera for effect so, if anything, it just felt similar to recording a special,” he said.
Meanwhile Kevin Fredericks, a.k.a. KevOnStage, is also trying out live-streamed, professionally produced shows. His series, called “Keep Your Distance,” takes place at an outdoor set in L.A., where he does a 20-minute COVID-related set and invites a cohort of other Black comics to perform too, for a socially distanced live audience plus paying ticket holders online. One week this summer, 7,000 people paid to attend online. The next, 14,000.
Not all have such great luck—or interest—in trying to replicate the feel of a “normal” live show to COVID standards.
Sarah Harvard is in the process of reviving her stand-up showcase Nervous Laughter—in which a diverse line-up of comics share material that calls out social injustices and cultural taboos—as an outdoor show, accounting for safety concerns that never existed before, from COVID to the absence of show security and bouncers.
“As a comedian, it's been tough trying to transition into outdoor comedy,” she told The Daily Beast. “I have a chronic illness and it's always a risk to be performing right now especially when mics are being shared and it's hard to keep track of who is COVID-free.”
“Moreover,” she said, “it's a bit harder to find comedy shows and scenes that are BIPOC, Women, and LGBTQ friendly. Before the pandemic, there were so many comedy shows and open mic rooms that offered a space for us to work on our material, since a lot of the bro comics tend to get super sensitive when our jokes tackle white supremacy or fragile masculinity.”
Harvard has dipped her toe in Zoom comedy—in fact, she has a corporate gig and a benefit booked for next week—but the lack of live shows has pushed her, too, toward other mediums, like Instagram and writing a show pilot about growing up in a Muslim American family in the wake of 9/11.
Rosa Escandon, a sketch comic in New York City, agrees that this has been a time of experimenting with new mediums: She has had to push herself to find ways of being funny that aren’t traditional stand-up. In addition to her podcast and new crafting newsletter, she said “I’m on TikTok now, which I have become addicted to. I think you just have to keep making and keep doing things to stay sane sometimes.”
She added that it has also been harder to come up with new material at a time when everything is so not-funny. “A lot of jokes work by being unexpected and big and lampooning, and that’s hard to do right now. When everything feels crazy, it’s hard to make that feel bigger,” she said.
“On one hand, you want to address that the world is on fire, but on the other hand, you know people are often there to forget their troubles.”
Funches agreed writing these days is a different process, adding that it is frustrating knowing that most material will be dated by the time he is able to get back to performing it live in clubs. But, he said, “it has forced me to dig deeper into myself and write more evergreen material, and I truly enjoy that. I just have to focus more on writing on a schedule since I don't have nightly shows to keep me sharp and on focus.”
Overall, comics realize this is what they have to work with right now, and they are trying to make the best of it. Lakshminarayanan said she is also grateful she still has a way to connect with an audience — and safely, at that.
But there is still a lot of calibrating to do. For example, the etiquette rules to online stand-up are being written from scratch: “Some people think you have to stand,” she said. “But this isn’t stand-up. This is like a sugar-free brownie when you know that chocolate cake is what you miss. So, why stand until I can have the real thing?”