As millions of people stay quarantined in their homes, sheltered from the outside world, comedy is seeing a resurgence on streaming platforms. This is Pyrrhic victory, however, as the coronavirus pandemic has deprived the entire comedy profession of its lifeblood: live performances.
“My career as a touring live stand-up comedian is temporarily on pause because crowds can’t gather,” explains Arlington-born comic Jasmine Ellis, who currently resides in Austin. “I can’t do what I love most, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be funny. I’m utilizing social media in different ways and attempting some virtual shows for now.”
Indeed, some comics are keeping the stand-up format alive via online performances, and assisting in these endeavors are respected comedy clubs like Laugh Factory and Flappers, which are livestreaming shows and open mics alike.
“I was fortunate enough to do a live comedy show through Facebook Live last week that seemed to go over well, and I was able to cover rent for the month,” says Los Angeles-via-Dallas comedian Justin Foster. “Maybe I’ll do another one. Maybe I’ll become a webcam girl. Who knows?”
Many comics have steered from livestreamed sets, however, and have shifted their focus toward more versatile mediums. Among this contingent, podcasts have been an important creative outlet.
“[Our podcast] is the one thing that’s keeping us sane. We’re just trying to bring in silly guests and stay away from the news,” explains Denton comedian Tony Casillas, who co-hosts the Before and After podcast. “We just want to give people a place where they can escape.”
Another Denton comic, Joey Johnson, has experienced a similar catharsis as co-host of Hot Pod Pie but has conceded that commercially successful podcasts are few and far between. “It was already a saturated market, but now man, it’s crazy. You see so many comics doing podcasts, so many doing TikToks. I think, to a point, too many people are expecting those to take off. I don’t think people are expecting to monetize off them, but it’s something to keep the brain busy.”
Podcasts are challenging ventures largely because of the time listeners are required to commit, which generally varies between 30 minutes to two hours. In TikTok’s online culture, however, brevity is the soul of wit, and the 60-second ceiling on all the app’s videos makes it a far more digestible format for viewers. Some of the app’s more established comics include Kevin Hart, Tom Green and Hannibal Buress.
Gen Z celebrities have been able to master TikTok with ostensible ease, but crafting a presence and obtaining social capital on the app are easier said than done even for professional comedians.
“These Instagram and TikTok stars — I’ve honestly learned to appreciate their craft, because I’ve realized it’s a lot harder than it looks, and it’s not my style of comedy,” concedes Casillas.
While some comedians have previously been able to coast without a social media presence, maintaining an online following has never been more crucial. As Foster explains, “This is a perfect time … to keep producing content.
“I keep trying to throw out funny jokes/tweets, write and record sketches, etc. Part of it is to give people something to laugh at in this weird time, but the other part is purely for me," he says. "I need to keep being funny and creative so I don’t go crazy in my apartment.”
According to Ellis, aspiring comics should take on a similar approach during this time. “This is a great time to work on sketches, scripts and maybe even write a film. You can also use TikTok and Twitter to keep entertaining, but there’s also nothing wrong with collecting your body of work.”
What comedians are more focused on than their social media following, however, is the same question everybody else is asking: What is going to happen once things go back to normal?
Of course, a return to normalcy seems unlikely — this collective anxiety we are experiencing may very well become “the new normal,” and even if social-distancing requirements are lifted, some comics wonder if there will still be a market for stand-up comedy as we know it.
They remain certain of one thing, however: Nobody will be laughing about COVID-19 in this period of new normalcy we’re all longing for.
“When things come back, I don’t really want to be joking about [coronavirus]. I don’t think anyone wants to hear about it at that point,” Johnson says. “Once people are comfortable to be around people again, I don’t think they want to be reminded of it.”
Casillas agrees. “I do not want to have a single coronavirus joke. I do not want to have a single Tiger King joke. I feel like people are still going to be a little scared. We’re all still going to be on edge.”
To Ellis, the “new normal” may very well signify a new era of opportunity for stand-up comedy. “I think there will be an interesting period where tons of people want to try out performing stand-up because they’re going to feel like, ‘Hey, this is the time to try something new. I survived the pandemic of 2020.’ Some will be good, most will be bad, and then they will quit. This also happens every year around New Year’s.”
But until that happens, Foster urges aspiring comedians to take advantage of the unique opportunities that are available right now. “Enjoy the downtime. If you continue down the road of stand-up, this might be the most rest you get for a very long time.”