“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
– Alan Kay, American Computer Scientist
When the whole world went into lockdown earlier this year, it was predicted that live entertainment will be among the worst hit sectors. Four months in, it’s plain to see that these fears were not unfounded. According to a survey by the United Kingdom’s Live Comedy Association (LCA), 3/4th of all British comedy venues are on the brink of shutdown. And without a share of the government’s £1.57bn Emergency Arts Fund, according to comedians and promoters, standup comedy will find it near-impossible to survive the pandemic. In India, comedians are alternating between panicking about lost revenue and apologising for old tweets. In the US, comedians are so worried that some of them are performing on adult entertainment website OnlyFans (yes, that OnlyFans).
These concerns are universal, which means that the intimate nature of live comedy shows must be reimagined—at least until a vaccine can ensure our safety from COVID-19. And, left to their own devices, that’s exactly what comedy venues and performers across the world are doing. They’re re-inventing the future of live comedy.
From drive-through gigs to quarantining performers together, here’s a snapshot of what live comedy looks like around the world right now:
On 11 July, 2020, the United Kingdom’s Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden announced that outdoor comedy gigs would be allowed as part of the latest lockdown relaxation laws, according to Chortle. A list of safety precautions was also issued by the government to regulate these shows, and includes things like ensuring contact-less payment, online ticket bookings, providing sanitisation stations and operating at lower capacity.
Outdoor shows are also emerging as the way forward in the United States; TimeOut reports that comedian Michael Che has been performing to a socially-distant audience in the parking lot outside a warehouse space (The Plaxall Gallery) in Long Island City for the past few weeks.
Indoor venues around the world are gingerly re-opening for shows—but with dramatically reduced capacity. Advance bookings, social distancing, temperature checks for audience members, wiping down mics between performers and sanitising seats, and the mandatory use of face masks and face coverings (except while eating and drinking) are among the precautions that comedy clubs are taking to ensure that these shows are both safe to attend and perform at. New Zealand led the way here, with socially distanced live comedy shows allowed as early as May. But now, even venues in countries with more serious outbreaks are getting in on the action.
Interviewed by TheKnow for a story about the future of live comedy, Denver’s comedy owners and promoters agree that live standup will only return if audiences feel good about the safety measures implemented by venues. So they’re going above and beyond to COVID-proof them. In addition to operating at lower capacity and ensuring hygiene practices at her Comedy Works’ clubs—popular with the likes of Dave Chappelle and George Lopez—venue owner Wende Curtis has even applied for a grant so she can turn the paper towel dispensers and faucets into touchless devices.
In-car entertainment is on the rise across the world. Raves, movies and even comedy shows—drive-through entertainment ensures that audience members can sit at a safe distance from both the performer as well as other attendees. From one-off drive-through performances to recurring, weekly standup gigs, this form of comedy consumption is gaining popularity across the world.
A group of San Diego-based comedians—Jim Pine, Chris Espinoza and Alexander James—started hosting open-mic shows in parking lots as Drive-Up Comedy, to resuscitate the local scene. Just like they would when watching a drive-through film, audience members stay in their car the whole time and listen to the show—broadcast by an FM transmitter to a local radio station—from their car radio. Comedian Steve Farmer is also programming regular drive-through comedy gigs in Austin, Texas where they are quickly becoming a hit with comedy-starved audiences. In an interview with a local news website, Farmer says, “This is the safest way to do comedy. You’re inside your car, the comedian’s so far [away] you have to hear him on a radio in the back. This is the most fool-proof way to see comedy and stay safe at the same time.” And while the comedians can’t hear you laughing from your car, Farmer says, audience members are encouraged to flash their lights when they enjoy a joke.
Drive-in comedy is also gaining popularity across the UK, with regular shows in cities like London, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Bristol and Cardiff.
In an attempt to ensure the safety of comics, a comedy group in Norfolk, Virginia is quarantining its performers together. Brad McMurran’s Push Comedy Theater has arranged all the performers into smaller teams, who would otherwise be spending time together anyway, to quarantine with each other through the season. All shows, McMurran said in an interview, have also been moved outdoors for the time being.
In terms of returning to indoor shows at their preferred venue in the city, McMurran told the local newspaper that, among other things, the collective will implement cabaret-style seating. They’re also working on a scripted show that has been written so that all actors are always six feet away from each other.
Of course, if nothing else works—or is allowed—there’s still the option of taking your set online. Despite some grumbling and muttering, comics have jumped on the opportunity to perform live online, whether it’s on Zoom, Instagram Live or even Twitter. In March, Patton Oswalt performed a tight one-minute set from his balcony and posted it on Twitter.
But four months into the lockdown, live-stream comedy has gotten much more polished and sophisticated. Our new favourite is the Super Secret Comedy Show, a pop-up show featuring both well known headliners and up-and-coming talents. The Hunter Hill operated out of a black-box theatre pre-pandemic, but now they’ve created a new live-streaming comedy format that strives to bridge the gap between the stage and your living rooms. Expect to see many more innovations in this space in the coming months. Live-streaming comedy may not be the most fun or familiar iteration of post-pandemic coemdy, but it has one big advantage—it’s definitely the safest.