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“Stand-up comedy, under its current model in most cities, is effectively dead at every level,” wrote comedian and Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood Jr. as social-distancing measures were ramping up across the country, “from the stadium act down to the open mic–er who just started last week.” That was on March 16. In the months since, comedy hasn’t recovered, but it has adapted. Although a lot of the solutions are undeniably Black Mirror–esque, stand-ups have found venues to tell jokes, and audiences have found ways to laugh.
On this week’s episode of Vulture’s Good One podcast, we talk to Nikki Glaser, Jim Gaffigan, Laurie Kilmartin, Nore Davis, and Jenny Yang about how they’ve adjusted to the pandemic and how it has changed how they think about their comedy. You can read some excerpts from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.
I bought myself a mic for my birthday, and I was not sure if performing would even work. I was really one of those comics [thinking], I’m just gonna hold off until this blows over, thinking, COVID is just this little virus, it ain’t gonna do that much, and we’ll be back out there in the world. But I was in New York then. I was in ground zero, and the stages were taken away from me. I didn’t want to sit down and write a screenplay, like, What, I’m gonna sell it to the bodega man? Fuck that.
I love stand-up. So I did a couple of shows on Twitch, where you just see people texting you their laughs. That doesn’t work. And Instagram Live, you can’t hear nothing. That’s when I discovered as a stand-up comedian, we are just like musicians. The audience is our instrument. They’re my saxophone; I gotta play ’em. I need that interaction. I can’t jukebox this shit. So I went on Zoom for the first time, and I just ranted about my experiences. I had a DJ — he was my host because I feel like Zoom was just so dead air. Someone talk before I “apple + Q” this fucking app! So having music definitely set the tone that this isn’t a research meeting.
Then I had comedians to set the tone that Hey, this is a quarantine comedy show. And after that, I did 35 to 45 minutes of new material I wrote in quarantine and probably like two or three jokes pre-quarantine. And there, I was hearing digital laughs. I would throw it out there, and it would go through the Wi-Fi, go through their speakers, and they hear it and then they come back. What was interesting about it was nobody’s in the same room. So somebody hears it and keeps laughing, and another person hears that person laugh and it makes them laugh, so you had this ripple effect. I was like, Oh, this is cool. And it’s digitized. The texture of it was just attractive to me. So from there, I was like, I am getting the same satisfaction from what I do onstage. It’s working. And I’m giving joy to my fans, or whoever clicks on the link. And time is going faster.
There is the risk, there’s the reward, and there’s the creative fulfillment. Depending on your appetite, depending on the comedian’s desire to work or perform, I think [outdoor shows] are safer than performing inside. Could you tape a special? Yeah, I could. I think it lends itself to probably different styles of stand-up. I think a drive-in show is not the perfect venue for Stephen Wright stand-up, but I think it is great for someone who is like Bert Kreischer, who also does these drive-in shows, that’s creating a celebratory thing. For me, people drive up with their family in a car. And again, I’ve only done two of these. They’re sick of everyone in the car, but at least maybe they might enjoy this show. But I don’t know, it’s weird. It depends when you ask me, because after each of these shows, my agent or my manager who had spent the last four months scheduling and rescheduling shows, they are always like, “So what can we learn?”
I think there is an appetite, but I do think that the quality of the experience, outside of it being eccentric, is not there. We know that [when] you go to a drive-in movie theater on a date, you can make out with your date. The movie’s not that important; it’s the experience. Like American Graffiti. But does that work for stand-up? For music, yes. But my wife said, “We’ve got to mic the audience.” And I’m like, “But people are dealing with different things. There’s a certain privacy.”
I guest-hosted Kimmel this past Tuesday, which was so weird because you do this monologue, which I adapted to, instead of doing topical jokes or whatever like a late-night host. I just was like, Let me just try to do this as a stand-up kind of thing. It’s so weird because there’s no audience. There’s just you with a cameraman in the room who’s not even allowed to laugh. You don’t even get titters, like on The Soup or whatever, from the producers. It’s just nothing, and it’s so awkward.
But I liked it because it was a challenge to be like, How do I make everyone watching at home not feel bad for me right now and know that I am fine without getting laughter and that I’m comfortable and they don’t have to worry about me? So in this new era of no audiences, I feel like I’m developing a really special skill that is going to be needed in TV because there’s no audiences — of being okay without laughter, and not looking awkward, and not making people at home feel awkward. Because it ain’t easy.
Watching late night right now is not comfortable. It’s like watching a really embarrassing episode of The Office where you’re just cringing the whole time, some of those unwatchable episodes because you feel so awkward for them. That’s what late night is right now. I’ve always wanted to be a late-night host, and now I’m like, This is my time, I think, because I’m okay without laughter and trying to figure out what TV now looks like in this world without a live studio audience. We might not need them.
My mom was diagnosed on the 11th of June. I didn’t know what I was going to do, I just couldn’t fucking believe it. She had done everything necessary to avoid getting it. I think I was in shock because I thought California was good. She was part of the first wave of, Oh, we’re not good. Not good at all. It’s really bad. And then maybe I mentioned it after seeing some “COVID is a hoax” tweet or something like that. I was like, Fuck this shit, it’s not. I maybe started from a place of anger at that point.
I had a couple of Zoom shows while she was dying. It was so easy. I would just dart into my bedroom and tell jokes and then go back to watching her die on my iPad. Very convenient. It was much more convenient than my dad’s death, so I do thank her for that.
I guess the [joke] that’s still working is “My mom was a Trump supporter, and she died from COVID. And as a result, the coroner ruled her death a suicide.”
It’s just something that’s percolating the whole time. One reason I wanted her to become conscious for a second was I wanted her to admit she’d made a terrible mistake. I never got her to admit it was a mistake to vote for Trump. By the time she was diagnosed with COVID, she was unconscious and unable to respond to things. So I feel cheated, because I fucking won that argument. Finally, I won it! And you’re not here to admit that I won it.
My take on why Comedy Crossing works is because right now we are lacking the very visceral experience of being in community with each other in a physical space. When you go to an actual physical show, [there’s] this whole ritual of getting ready; you go there, you’re mentally preparing for it, you show up, you’re taking in the physical environment, you’ve got the energy of the crowd, you’ve got the energy of the stage. That’s so much of what live comedy is. So how do you re-create that? What level of production value can you bring to an online show?
So in a weird way, being able to do a show inside the cutest video game is like a cheat. It’s like a production-value cheat: You get stimulated in these different ways through the art of the Nintendo Switch video game. It automatically makes what we’re doing cool and fun and aesthetically rewarding in an additional way beyond just the jokes. I feel like getting lost inside Animal Crossing has been such a great escape during this very unique pandemic time. I don’t imagine it lasting longer. A cute video game with cute art can’t compete with the feeling of being shoulder-to-shoulder and seeing people’s faces.
Not to wax romantic about it, but that’s literally why I got into stand-up comedy. I love comedy. Why do I put myself through the risk of rejection every single time I try to tell a joke in front of people? It’s because you get the reward of communing and being in that space. I feel like we’re so starved for that right now. I can’t even imagine why you would choose, once everything is safe, to look at a video game if you’re capable of showing up somewhere.
Maybe I’ll do it once in a while because I do feel like there’s a lot of indoor people who love the fact that they don’t have to go and face social anxiety and the real world. It’s a real segment of the population who have actually given me feedback and said, “Beyond the pandemic, I would have loved a show like this.” So I think it’d be cool. I think it’d be cool to figure out a way to still bring stand-up comedy in a live form online. We watch live comedy through recorded movies, so how’s that different than the sort of risk of actually doing it in real time?