By Matt Benoit
— On the evening of March 5, I did a four-minute stand-up set at Bellingham’s Upfront Theatre, a place where I’d had many good times in eight years of performing live comedy. The show was normal for the theater’s monthly stand-up night until the final performer: a man rapping to a pre-recorded beat while dressed in blue latex gloves, safety goggles and a white mask.
Though I appreciated the creative risk involved in performing “Baby, Wear Your Mask” to several dozen people trying to temporarily forget about the news in a darkened theater, I’m pretty sure some of those folks weren’t sure how to feel about it. Maybe it seemed silly to them, or overreactive, or surreal. Now, of course, it seems downright prophetic.
Just ten days later, the closures and quarantines came crashing down at our feet. We all know what happened next: a deluge of fear, death and — perhaps worst of all — the inability to find toilet paper.
That March 5 show remains the last stand-up show held at the Upfront or any other entertainment space in Bellingham.
Everything kind of sucks
In the months since, the local comedy scene has taken more hits: The Firefly, the bar that was home to Guffawingham (Bellingham’s longest-running and only weekly comedy open mic), closed permanently this summer. The Upfront Theatre has closed indefinitely and is working to reorganize as a nonprofit. The transition is complicated and is likely to be many months away regardless of coronavirus.
Long story short: Everything kind of sucks, and every comedian in our local scene wishes we could wave a magic wand, or maybe more appropriately, a magic mic. This would allow various Channing Tatum look-alikes to emerge shirtless and glistening from their sexy quarantine lairs and … wait. Wrong magic mic.
What I meant was: Everybody wishes we could wave a magic microphone and make COVID disappear, giving us back our old-fashioned indoor comedy shows, free from social distancing and mask-wearing and full of people ready to potentially hate our material. I asked several local comedians what they’d be willing to do to bring about a return to normalcy, and based on their answers, it’s clear we’re all pretty desperate.
Kris Anderson, area hair stylist and producer of Guffawingham, promised not to yell at anyone she didn’t like for “at least a month,” while also promising to stop running up her boyfriend’s credit card. Mount Vernon’s Ben Menard told me he’d become a registered Republican who’d attend fundraisers while refraining from poisoning the food there.
Longtime Upfront performer DK Reinemer said he’d hop aboard The Royal’s infamous mechanical bull, while Bellingham trivia emcee Randall Ragsdale said he’d endure listening to hours of hacky masturbation jokes. And finally, Dan Mills — our most family-friendly comedian (who is also a healthcare provider and COVID-19 survivor) — said he’d he gladly drop some F-bombs if it got us back to status quo.
I think it’s pretty clear we’re all ready to see each other in person again. We want to laugh, to socialize and to complain to each other about why the audience didn’t like our new three minutes on shopping at Trader Joe’s.
‘Odd but still fun’ — a new world of virtual comedy
Meanwhile, performers are experimenting with virtual comedy shows, utilizing livestreams and different video-conferencing platforms. I’ve tried it, and if I had to pick just four words to describe it, I’d say “odd but still fun.” If I had to describe it another way, I’d say it’s like a team meeting where you can freely say the F-word.
Not having the currency of real-time laughter from a regular in-person audience feels somewhat strange and unnatural, though, given how important it is to comedy’s success as a performance art.
Reinemer, a longtime Bellingham resident who’s lived in Los Angeles and toured one-man sketch and improvisation-based comedy shows across the United States and Canada, has performed virtually as part of several fringe festivals since COVID began.
Those performances — which included an improvised puppet show and a 55-minute-long, repeating rendition of the song “Closing Time” — involved Reinemer performing on Zoom to audiences of up to 75 people, all of whom had their mics muted. He cruised through the shows, getting audience suggestions for puppet scenes through a typed chat while reminding himself to keep a normal performance pace despite not seeing or hearing his audience.
“Not having laughs was very bizarre,” he told me. “I had to remind myself to slow down, because I was kind of racing through things, where I think if the audience had been laughing, I would have … given time for it.”
Regarding stand-up, I was initially skeptical about virtual comedy shows, mostly because I hadn’t been asked to take part in one. But then in late May, my fragile ego was stroked by an invitation to perform in a “best of the festival” showcase related to a festival I’d attended last fall in Louisville, Kentucky. Actually, it was a “second-best” of the festival showcase, but let’s not ruin my illusions here.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, other than being asked to do seven minutes of jokes while everybody watching judged the interior of my bedroom. When I clicked on the provided link to the show, I found myself greeted by a host and eight other comics. There were originally nine comics scheduled, but one dropped out due to kidney stones, despite our attempts to convince him to perform while in excruciating pain. The next morning, he sent us all an image of the stones he’d passed.
Doing open mic among comedy-minded friends
Anyway, using the StreamYard platform, five comics at a time were featured in the livestream broadcast of the show: four watching and laughing, and one performing. The rest of us sat in a virtual “green room” until the host to digitally moved us into the show. While audience members could watch the livestream through Facebook and reply with emojis and chat comments, their laughter went unheard by us.
Having only other comics to laugh at your jokes is not ideal, because comedians are usually either critical of other comedians’ jokes, or totally focused on their own material before they perform. Likewise, having only four audience members in a traditional show would be awful, reminding you of how empty the room was.
But when a Zoom chat has four people in it, you don’t spend much time thinking about the video slots not being used. And furthermore, the intimacy of a few smiling faces and clearly discernable laughter (the watching comedians’ laughs are audible) allows it to still be fun and laid-back. You can also use both your hands, because you’re not holding a microphone in one of them.
To me, virtual stand-up is more like a fun open mic among comedy-minded friends. Just like in traditional shows, you can tell when a joke hits and when a laugh is legitimate. And even if nobody is watching your livestream when it’s actually live, it remains online for people to watch later.
Working at virtual comedy is real work
I do comedy only as a hobby that occasionally pays (doing it as more than that requires a lot of sacrifice, hard work, persistence and a bit of luck), but even more professional performers have been making virtual comedy work for them.
Monica Nevi is (or was, before the time of the plague) a full-time comedian from Renton who’s performed several times at the Upfront’s popular monthly Gateway Show (where comedians do a sober set, then get really high on THC and try performing again). Trust me; it’s a great time.
She jumped on the virtual bandwagon back in March, within a week of having an entire month of tour dates cancelled. Initially, tips rolled in liberally.
“People didn’t realize yet that none of us would have money, and they shouldn’t just donate it all to me,” she said.
Since then it’s been a struggle financially, but Nevi is still having fun. She’s tried most platforms: Zoom, Twitch, Facebook Live, YouTube and StreamYard, among others. In her more than 50 virtual shows, she’s done livestream stand-up in her living room, hosted trivia nights and also taken part in a nationwide roast battle with fellow Seattle comedian Andrew Rivers.
And of course, some shows have featured technical mishaps worthy of their own comedy. Crotch shots have occurred, as have performers not knowing their mic was unmuted. The latter has allowed the audience to hear them doing dishes, arguing or having their dogs bark during someone else’s set.
Virtual shows can still attract hecklers, as Reinemer found out during his puppet show for the Orlando Fringe Festival. As he began his performance, one audience member decided to be a troll in the meeting chat.
“Someone came in and started typing really offensive stuff,” he said. “And I couldn’t see it because I was getting ready to do my show, and I wasn’t looking at the comments. So I kept going and they kicked him out, but it was just weird to see that ‘Oh, that’s a problem that online performances will face.'”
Meanwhile comedy clubs, though shuttered from entertaining, are going to unique lengths to remain financially afloat. The Tacoma Comedy Club is now a burger restaurant, and Spokane Comedy Club is now selling milkshakes. Some comedy management agencies have flirted with hiring comedians for shows in people’s backyards.
As the pandemic continues, virtual shows will also continue. You may not be in the same room with your audience, you might find yourself in different time zones.
In addition, when weather and restrictions permit, outdoor comedy shows with masks and distanced performers and audiences are taking place. I’ve done several of those, and they’re immensely fun. And despite what you’d think, having a mask on doesn’t prevent me from conveying my jokes effectively.
Although I believe that laughter really is the best medicine, until a COVID-19 vaccine is found, the best way to distribute that medicine is through screens and masks. So, that’s what we’ll do. Even if you can’t see a smile, you can still hear a laugh.
[Ed.: Check out a Friday, Oct. 2, stand-up program at the acid ball at Waypoint Park, Bellingham, where Matt and others perform.]
Matt Benoit is Bellingham-born and raised. He’s written for the Bellingham Herald, Tri-City Herald, Pacific Northwest Inlander, Discover Magazine.com, and WhatcomTalk.com, among others. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and media production from Washington State University (… and does stand-up comedy as a hobby — Ed.).