There's no question that the coronavirus pandemic shutdowns of clubs and venues have been a hard hit on comedy communities, from open mic performers in coffee shop corners to headlining acts who are unable to pack theaters.
Comedian Steve Hofstetter used to spend most of his year on the road performing live shows in clubs and theaters. He'd go home with months worth of video clips with his most memorable material or takedowns of rude hecklers and pompous critics.
The last time he performed live on a stage was in March, and Hofstetter says he doesn't intend to risk his health or his audiences' until the situation drastically improves.
"It's very hard," Hofstetter says. "Part of me thinks that I've forgotten how to be a comedian, and part of me thinks this has made me a better one."
Fortunately, Hofstetter is very adept when it comes to rolling with what's thrown at him, whether it's an insulting retort from a Trump lover or a viral outbreak. He's found creative ways to increase his own digital presence, and he and his comedian friends Ben Gleib and Chris Bowers have found ways to feature and even provide work to comics who have long been out of work.
Hofstetter and Gleib founded the Nowhere Comedy Club, a virtual comedy club space that gives comedians a place to perform for an audience and get paid for it. Hofstetter, Gleib, Bowers and comedian Rachel Gallagher also created The Social Distancing Social Club, a daily, livestreaming comedy show that also showcases comedic talent and gives them a new way to interact with audiences who have built a unique following of their own.
He's also one of the headlining acts at this weekend's Plano Comedy Festival, which has also gone virtual.
"I've gotten to learn a lot of other things," Hofstetter says of this time period. "I never did green screen before this. I wish I'd known how simple it was. Having a USB mic that doesn't look like a robot testicle but an actual handheld mic that works with USB. There's all these things I didn't use before the pandemic started that I use now."
One of the biggest challenges of doing digital comedy is maintaining the relationship and connection between the comedian and the audience. Hofstetter says that in some ways, a digital stage can enhance the experience for both.
"Being able to see not only my own expression in real time but also the reactions of the audience, you really get a sense of how people are taking things when you tell a joke to complete silence," he says. "You can see the difference between boredom and interest. At a comedy club, if you hear silence, you don't know if they're hanging on for the next word but with a digital show, you can see that sometimes they're really just interested in what's coming next."
The new digital environment has even given him a chance to explore new facets of his life and his comedy. Hofstetter is known for his unapologetic views of political and social issues and brilliant improvisational skills with audiences. Lately, he says he's been getting more personal with his material.
"I'm talking about growing up with my family and losing my dad, things like that," Hofstetter says. "I'm not out there doing a version of John Oliver. What I've been doing is more vulnerable lately than I have been doing and that's something new for me, but it's also something that's very important to me."
Hofstetter says it's not only important for him to talk about his personal experiences and struggles in his life. It's also important for his audience, especially now that isolation is slowly becoming a new norm in our daily lives.
"It reaches people in a different way," Hofstetter says. "It's the human condition. We all go through similar things and being able to feel like you're not alone in the world is really important."