As the COVID-19 pandemic brought an abrupt end to in-person live entertainment, it took with it a treasured pressure release valve for millions of people.
Stand-up comedy's digital transition last year was neither seamless nor universal, but it gave many artists a way to keep working. It gave audiences a chance to experience something truly live and in the moment. And it gave everyone involved a break from the full-scale psychological battery that was the year 2020.
When it comes to comedy, virtual stand-up isn't perfect, but for a long time it was all we had. Some of the first comedy shows held via Zoom occurred early last spring, before most of us had any concept of how long the Great Pause was going to last.
A year later, virtual stand-up has come a long way, but it's still no substitute for the real thing.
Alonzo Bodden arrived in Miami last March just in time for his cruise ship gig there to be canceled. He landed back home in Los Angeles just as the governor ordered clubs to be closed indefinitely. Within a few weeks, Bodden was onstage again at an empty Laugh Factory, broadcasting his set to an online audience for the first time.
"We came down to the club, got onstage and did the show with no audience," he tells Q104.3 New York's QN'A. "It was very weird. The only thing that helped was that I was used to that stage, so I could pretend in my mind that people were there. But of course there’s no timing or anything else."
Live comedy doesn't work in a vacuum; it needs real live laughter, for both the performers and the audience. Fortunately, for Bodden and many other comics, they didn't have to pretend to hear laughs for much longer.
About a month after the widespread shutdowns, comedians Ben Gleib and Steve Hofstetter launched the world's first virtual comedy club, Nowhere Comedy Club. Audiences were admitted to shows via a virtual ticket and encouraged to keep their device's video and audio on, so performers could see and hear their laughter.
It wasn't perfect but from Nowhere's first 'Social Distancing Social Club' show, Gleib could see that with some refinement the idea could work.
“We raised a ton of money at the beginning of the pandemic in the early months to give grants to comedians who were struggling," Gleib said. "We gave over 30 $1,000 grants to comedians who were struggling, plus everyone who performed on the show would get to keep all their tips as well.”
As the pandemic dragged on, the Nowhere Comedy Club proved its staying power. Gleib and Hofstetter diversified their programming to include live podcast recordings, TV watch parties, game nights, improv shows and more traditionally run stand-up shows, anchored by the likes of Mike Birbiglia, Bodden, Bill Burr, Godfrey, Natasha Leggero, Greg Proops, the club's co-founders and many others.
They even created a physical location for Nowhere — a studio where willing comics can perform on an actual stage in front of 30 feet of video screens where the audience is 'seated.' It's as close to an in-person comedy performance any digital venue has achieved, Gleib says.
Challenging as they can be, virtual shows offer a unique space to connect with an audience. Gleib finds that crowd work is more on-the-mark when you can see inside someone's house. The popularity of Nowhere also revealed the appetite for live comedy in parts of the world comedians don't typically visit or among people who are unable to go far from home for any number of reasons.
Nowhere has been able to reach people everywhere. But that doesn't mean it's for everyone.
"On the creative end, it’s not even close," Bodden said of virtual shows. "The Zoom thing is not creative at all. It’s creative in the sense of doing it, but there is nothing like being in a room full of people doing new material.”
While virtual stand-up can be an art in and of itself, for many comics it's been more necessary evil than creative salvation.
Last April, Alex Kumin took her weekly Cole's Open Mic show in Chicago and its many performers to Zoom. The neighborly connection afforded by virtual shows felt vital in the early months of the pandemic, but the excitement was soon eclipsed by fatigue from constant use of the technology.
"It was really helpful in those initial months, when things were really scary, to have this thing to come to and have a bit of community… we stopped over the summer and we haven’t been back since," Kumin said. "I think everybody was just kind of Zoomed out."
The hospitality and live entertainment industries suffered the earliest and most significant losses from COVID. For touring musicians and comedians, that meant as much as a year's worth of income evaporated in a couple of days as the shutdown orders went into effect.
Daniel Van Kirk walked offstage at Cap City Comedy Club in Austin, Texas, on March 15, 2020. Soon afterwards he watched two stand-up tours, his Dumb People Town live podcast tour with The Sklar Brothers and plans for a Pen Pals podcast tour with Rory Scovel all disappear in a matter of days.
"I already had a new hour and was going to do a European tour at the end of summer, plus I had already headlined ... five or six cities," he recalled. "So that whole portion of my income and my career was just gone."
After last March's abrupt end to in-person stand-up, Kumin describes her work in comedy dwindling over several months, as audiences and students in her stand-up classes lost the motivation to spend any more time on Zoom than their employers required of them.
“I’ve been nannying for the last seven months, doing voiceover stuff, little side hustles here and there because all of the other avenues totally dried," Kumin said. "That’s what a lot of my other performer friends did, and just had to scrounge and find whatever was available."
Van Kirk found plenty of opportunity in the digital space, but doing stand-up in a watered-down format wasn't it.
"I don't want to do stand-up until I'm doing stand-up. I tell people it's like eating sugar-free ice cream," he said of doing his act virtually. "Technically, you had dessert, but... did we really?"
With the convenience of home, come all the distractions of home. Audiences are less engaged watching a show from their couch than they are when seated at a real life comedy club. And those at-home distractions are more likely to affect other viewers and the performers themselves.
After three virtual sets, Van Kirk swore off doing stand-up in front of a computer screen. But he recognized the power of video conferencing platforms for engagement. In addition to regular live podcast recordings of Dumb People Town and Pen Pals, Van Kirk began hosting ticketed pub trivia and Bingo nights with fans via Hub City.
Those events, aren't so easily disrupted by the sounds of landscaping, dogs barking, neighbors practicing the saxophone and whatever other variables there may be. Steady digital gigs, writing work and the support of his podcast audiences have kept Van Kirk afloat.
As bleak as the past year has been at times, with so many people finding comedy in new ways, there's reason to be optimistic that stand-up's full-on live return will be as robust as ever.
Caroline Hirsch, owner and namesake of Caroline's on Broadway in New York City, applauds how digital platforms have given comedians and small venues a way generate income over the last year.
While Caroline's has been closed since March 2020, Hirsch plans to reopen by the end of May in limited capacity to eager audiences, even if it means taking losses for a short time until capacity restrictions turn back in her favor.
“We’ll get through the summer and feel confident that we’ll end the year on a positive note,” Hirsch said. "I think that as more and more people come back to work, we'll see the city coming back to where it was before. I'm excited about seeing the customers again, coming in, laughing and having a good time."
Many smaller venues around the country have begun to welcome performers and customers again with state-mandated restrictions in place. While there's plenty of COVID rigamarole to go through to get into a club these days, audiences are willing to do it if it means they finally get a night out. For performers who've gotten back onstage, the lights have never been more comforting that after such a strange, painful year.
“The first live show I did coming back, I cried when I heard the audience," Kumin recalled. "I was like, ‘God, I missed you guys!’ We just really love doing this so much and we really miss being a part of live performance and being able to create these magical spaces where we can exist as a group for a night and go from there."
Despite the success of Nowhere, Gleib is as eager as any of his peers to get back in front of an audience in-person. But he also now knows that his virtual comedy club isn't going to end when the pandemic does.
“I anticipate that I’ll be doing virtual shows to supplement my touring career and TV hosting career and acting career for the rest of my life," Gleib said. "There’s no reason I wouldn’t do shows to entertain a global audience from my home when it’s so easy to do and it brings so many people so much joy, and it supplements my income."
Van Kirk expects to return to the stage late this summer or early this fall, after the COVID vaccines have been readily available for a few months. He's hopeful that audiences will come back with a better understanding of how essential they are.
“If something does come from this, I hope it’s fans recognizing the impact they have on artist’s lives, restaurants, all that stuff," he said. "This all matters way more than we thought.”
Photo: Nowhere Comedy Club