Wayne Federman is an Emmy-nominated stand-up comedian, actor and podcast host. In this excerpt from his new book, ‘The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle,’ available to purchase now, he explores how the most recent digital comedy boom was upended a year ago this month by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The heights of the latest comedy boom were stunning.
Kevin Hart sold out a football stadium: Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field. Dave Chappelle did a 16-night “residency” at a small comedy room called Radio City Music Hall. Sebastian Maniscalco performed four shows over a single weekend at Madison Square Garden, grossing a jaw-dropping $8.28 million dollars for his Friday/Saturday gig.
The list of comics who can sell out MSG grows every year. But the internet comedy boom was not just confined to acts at the top of the pyramid. A growing circuit of medium-sized theaters and music clubs were filling their calendars with stand-up headliners. Plus, traditional ’80s-style two-drink-minimum comedy clubs still flourished in multiple cities.
YouTube became a powerful platform for comics looking to release their own full-length stand-up specials. Sam Morril, Mark Normand, and Joe List’s straight-to-YouTube specials generated millions of views and a slew of new fans.
Three universities and colleges, most notably Emerson, now offer comedy nerds a fully accredited bachelor’s degree program in comedic arts. Perhaps Albert Brooks, who satirized the idea of a “School for Comedians” back in 1971 in Esquire magazine, could give the commencement address.
Then, in March 2020, as the comedy boom was surging, the COVID-19 pandemic stopped it all in its tracks.
Comedy clubs and theaters were among the first businesses to shut down and will probably be among the last to fully reopen. Humans inside, laughing out loud, with close-packed seating and low ceilings were ideal conditions for great stand-up comedy, as well as the transmission of airborne viruses.
Stand-up comedian Jacqueline Novak spent years creating her one-woman show, Get on Your Knees. After a successful run in New York City, she was booked on a 2020 theater tour of the US and Europe. Then, it all vanished as the world struggled to contain the virus.
Novak was not alone. Tom Segura, Jo Koy, Jim Gaffigan, Bert Kreisher, Whitney Cummings, Jim Jefferies, Iliza Shlesinger, Gabriel Iglesias, Roy Wood Jr., Nate Bargatze and hundreds of other touring comics were all in the same boat. Even Eddie Murphy’s long-awaited return to stand-up in 2020 was put on hold.
Optimistic comics first rescheduled their dates to late summer 2020, and then to the fall, and then to spring 2021. No one knew when it would end.
COVID-19 restrictions varied state by state. Various cities still allowed some indoor comedy shows to soldier on with a creative array of modifications: limited seating capacity, mask use, plexiglass between tables, or making comics use separate microphones—that they’d have to disconnect after their set.
New York City was extremely resourceful repurposing some indoor spaces, without liquor licenses, to host stand-up events. Shows were held in churches because religious institutions were somewhat exempt from social gathering rules. The Tiny Cupboard, a hipster multi-use Brooklyn venue, attempted to get certified as the “The Science of Humor-tology” church.
Some comedians decided to wait it out until it was completely safe to tour. But others, like a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland plotline, were determined to put on a show. Even if it meant performing from the back of a U-Haul.
And so, a new era of live stand-up comedy began. There were three primary options for fans to catch shows during the pandemic.
The outside option transformed public parks, backyards, patios, courtyards, parking lots, and rooftops as makeshift stand-up venues. There was a guerilla theater aspect to these pop-up shows. They were sometimes illegal and always a health risk. On occasion, law enforcement shut them down.
Most outdoor shows used portable microphone systems but a few went old-school amplification-free comedy. There wasn’t much pay, contribution buckets were passed around or funds were transferred to Venmo accounts. But soon both promoters and comedy clubs stepped in and augmented the budding outdoor DIY scene with ticketed admissions.
Netflix postponed, and then cancelled, its inaugural Netflix is A Joke festival in Los Angeles, but somehow Dave Chappelle managed to produce his own mini festival near his home in Ohio.
For a few months in 2020, the city of Yellow Springs became the nation’s stand-up mecca. Dave Chappelle & Friends: An Intimate Socially Distanced Affair presented an all-star lineup of comics that included Michelle Wolf, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Tiffany Haddish, Michael Che, Brian Regan, Louis C.K., Chris Tucker, Trevor Noah, Mo Amer, Ali Wong, Kevin Hart, Bill Burr, and even David Letterman.
Netflix crews documented the goings-on in what became known as “Chappelle’s Summer Camp.” Every show was sold out, drawing audiences from all over the country, until concerns about the virus shut the whole thing down.
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“Drive in” comedy in parking lots sprung up as a smart way to keep audience members safe and isolated. Fans paid a per car cover charge and the comic’s audio was broadcast over FM radio. Positive audience feedback was delivered in the form of flashing headlights or car horns.
In New York City, when the winter weather drove audiences out of parks and off the rooftops, one work-around was utilizing the last car of the Seventh Avenue local subway. For the first time ever, the 1 train was transformed into a rolling comedy club.
Zoom, Instagram Live, YouTube, and Twitch became the primary platforms used to stream live stand-up during the pandemic. It was the safest option. The playing field was leveled somewhat as both headliners and open-mic’ers struggled with the technology’s challenges and limitations.
The primary drawback with digital streaming was its inability to replicate the immediate audience reaction which lies at the heart of live comedy. Comedian Dana Gould once described stand-up as, “A conversation—but only one person is talking.”
It was difficult for comics to get on a roll when the only feedback were emojis of hands clapping or LOLs typed into a scrolling chat window. One work-around was cherry-picking enthusiastic laughers from the online audience and unmuting their audio.
A whole generation of performers had come of age in a live/digital hybrid comedy world, and their transition to online shows was not as daunting. In fact, for some, it seemed like the logical next step.
In a few areas, streaming stand-up had unique advantages over in-person shows. For example:
Comedians, from their bedroom, could now perform live shows for audiences across the globe.
Real-time tipping was a nice bonus.
A gallery view on Zoom could be helpful for crowd work.
Superfans were willing to pay a premium for post-show meet & greets, Q&As, or photo opportunities.
Popular themed shows (Hot Tub, UnCabaret, Cabernet Cabaret) could now be enjoyed by a wider audience outside of their origin city.
Companies like RushTix, Bonfire, House Seats, NoWhere Comedy Club, and HoldThePhone quickly moved into the streaming marketplace. They were able to promote, produce, and monetize shows for comedians with large fan bases, or for comics who teamed up for multi-act “concept” nights. Maybe the biggest corporate winner (besides Zoom) was Eventbrite, the online ticketing service.
Even before the pandemic arrived, there was already a popular genre of performers known as front-facing comedians. They used their smartphone cameras to create intimate virtual content.
These remarkable videos were able to showcase an aspiring comics’ talents in the most direct way yet imagined. Why create a whole web series when you can boil down your comedy, acting, and writing skills using just a phone and Instagram, Twitter, or TikTok? It was another dramatic example of how comics continue to exploit technological opportunities. And it’s already paying huge dividends.
During the shutdown, Sarah Cooper, a lip-sync artist (exactly how Jerry Lewis started) became an online phenomenon and got signed for a Netflix special and a CBS sitcom. While Ziwe Fumudoh signed on to create, and host, a new variety show on Showtime.
Ziwe is a perfect example of a 21st century hybrid comedian—equally comfortable performing on stage at Brooklyn Hall or live streaming her interview show using Instagram.
How the acceleration of online streaming will change stand-up comedy is anyone’s guess. Perhaps digital content will become the dominant comedic force leaving live stand-up comedy as a quaint, old-timey curiosity. A relic from another century. Or, maybe, when fans get to finally go out and experience the juice of a live in-person performance, they will view digital streaming as a pale doppelgänger.
Whatever the answer is, the next stand-up comedy historian will chronicle that story.
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