Why Zoom comedy nights don’t stand up

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As an erstwhile stand-up comedian, used to noting down ideas for my set, I’d never have imagined trying to write, instead, a comparison between real life and its substitute.

In common with many other performance arts, live comedy has been totally shut down by the Covid-19 pandemic and possibly will remain so until next year. In response, a brave and talented promoter, whom I’ll call Graeme, told me of his plans to create a Zoom comedy night that really works, sourcing fresh technology and special backdrops.   

Graeme’s live comedy nights are always wonderful events fizzing with suspense, excitement and enthusiasm. But I’m regretfully convinced that he’s flogging a dead horse, or at best a limping one, with regard to Zoom: in common with all the other promoters who are doing the same thing.

Photo credit: Chris Montgomery

I’ve reached this conclusion by watching some of these Zoom events and it seems so clear that the whole idea is no good and never can be, that I’ve politely declined a few offers to perform. At some point one just has to admit defeat. You can’t make a Black Forest gateau out of a carrot.

When a comedian is delivering a set on Zoom, Skype, or whatever, the other participants have to be muted so that they can be properly audible – thus the comedian’s success gauge and life-blood, laughter, is brutally withdrawn.

But this is only one of the deprivations. This whole situation has, if nothing else, taught me to appreciate for the first time the beauty of being there in the moment, on a real stage, with all senses engaged. The movement of the air in the room, the physical distance between me and the back row, the stage lights glinting on the beer glass of the guy in the front row, the possibility of reaching out and grabbing a gulp, feeling some of it splash on my dress and all the time that tense, vibrating thread, almost tangible, between my actions and words and the unified reaction of the audience. The audience is (almost) always at one, and that in itself is an inexplicable phenomenon which can only be felt in a real-life setting.

The moments before and after one’s turn on stage are also part of the experience – the temperature of the room (usually too hot or too cold), the abrasive contact of a friend’s cheek in a kiss or a hug, how they smell, the pounding intro music, the general hysteria and craziness.

It could probably all be summarized in a word – movement. In contrast, on Zoom, one is a butterfly in a frame, transfixed by a pin.

During lockdown, I saw a TV presenter doing some vox pops on how the public felt about the actions of Dominic Cummings. The presenter loomed in front of a giant screen divided into forty identical squares each containing a person. This gave the interviewees an instant air of uniformity like a clinically neat if colourful patchwork. The disparity in size between them and their interviewer seemed to diminish their opinions – they weren’t even toddlers to his giant, more like gerbils.

I hope news programmes don’t hold on to this as a great discovery, expediently to continue after lockdown – so that interviewing people in the street with their actual height, strength and unpredictability goes by the board.

My view on virtual comedy nights is reluctantly held and full of sadness. I should end by saying that I’m full of admiration for the courage of all the people who are striving to give it a go, in face of all the odds.

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