How live stand-up and the comedy industry have been impacted due to COVID-19

Despite the impact and difficulties, new types of comedy have emerged and painted a picture of the future.

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There is nothing like being seated at a local comedy club- the ambiance, the clinking of glasses, the people talking, waiting in anticipation for the next act and then the spotlight pointed toward the middle of the stage. There is a connection within the room, every good quip is followed with laughter. The entertainer and audience gain understanding through one another. When the last set is finished, the audience leaves feeling content and happy. But what happens when COVID-19 inspires an early curtain call?

Live entertainment is a business with a science of its own. The status, genre and methods of production form a delicate ratio necessary for business to run smoothly. With the pandemic added to the mix, comedy shows find it hard to thrive. COVID-19 has brought with it preventative measures that block or slow down live productions, such as social distancing, capacity limits and mask requirements. For small live entertainment businesses without the income to adapt, change or halt production without consequences, these restrictions are drastic.

In the world of comedy, energy matters, and connections need to be established. The audience reacts only for the entertainer to react. Comedians learn to orchestrate their sets to fit the mood of the room. For comics who obtained work through in-person acts, this is difficult. Limited capacity and six feet of distance while wearing a mask is not exactly the most comfortable atmosphere for enjoying comedy, let alone if the comic is abiding by those rules as well.

Roy Wood Jr., a comedian and writer for Vulture, explained his reason for canceling one of his shows. “To [host a show] and possibly infect a loved one or co-worker didn’t seem worth the risk — not with the information we currently have on hand,” Wood said.

But to not take the risk for comedians and the businesses they perform at could be detrimental for their financial stability. Sure, big-time comedians with their own comedy shows and specials like Trevor Noah have nothing to worry about; however, for other new or lesser-known comedians, the story is different.

Comedians, club managers and other staff are left in tough situations when income dries up. Some stages and clubs have closed due to lack of income or strict regulations, postponing openings for better times in the future. This leaves those dependent people out to dry. The ones that have opted to stay open have adjusted to try to make lemonade out of lemons. Owners of these venues are aware that times like these will bring less income and have opted to continue at a cost, even after the pandemic is over.

As for independent comedians who hold a fair amount of status or have stable platforms, they have converted to performing live from home on social media, Zoom or at drive-in venues. Comedians who perform online have to put trust in their material to know the show is well-received or running smoothly. Using Zoom as a platform is great because faces can be seen to emulate real-life standup without risking COVID-19 exposure.

Other comedians opt to perform on Instagram Live; yet, they may find it hard to judge audience reactions without hearing laughter. People can comment and express themselves in comments, but even this form of expression is not reliable enough for the entertainer to truly know without taking a closer look and pausing their set. Some comics, like Kenneth McLaurin, have likened this pandemic stand-up to TV.

“Yeah, it’s odd, but in some ways it’s more like TV and less like live stage performance, and you have to approach it that way,” McLaurin said in an interview with the Ithaca Times. “Generally, in [television], you don’t get the same feedback you get from a live audience.”

One would think that stand-up would suffer without intimate bar settings or stages. However, pandemic drive-in shows are doing well. Performances at these locations eliminate the social distancing factor because the audience are in their vehicles while the performers man the stage. Additionally, people can honk, slap their roofs or shout their feedback instead of being stuck behind a screen. 

Bert Kreischer, a comedian with Netflix specials like “Hey, Big Boy,” spoke about his move to perform at drive-in theatres during an interview with The Wrap.

Despite limits, expensive costs of production and the medium not being feasible for every performer, Krescher explains that drive-in performances are intimate and “everyone’s tailgating. It's got a communal feeling.” He expands on this concept by stating that the performance, for those who have been following social distancing, has “a real gift-type of feel.”

It's a tough time for comedians and comedy events to thrive. However, it is possible. Comedy is forced to be creative which can bring positive growth to the community. By continuing to perform and test their limits, audiences get to watch and experience comedy in its raw form. After all, laughter is the best medicine during hard times, and who doesn’t love to laugh?

Edited by George Frey | gfrey@themaneater.com

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