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From March 2020, the pandemic shifted live comedy from the clubs and onto Microsoft Teams or Google Hangouts in one fell swoop. As unpredictable and unknown as it was, and despite the tragic circumstances of the pandemic, its impacts have totally transformed how comedy is discovered and delivered, through an exciting two years of exploring new ways of doing things.
As you might remember yourself, people got quizzed out very quickly, and we were all looking for ways to make things feel exciting and engaging again. This was a challenge for those working in the comedy industry – how do you recreate a comedy club feel on a live video? How do you chat with that front row? How do you hear laughter, and not just be looking at a blank screen as if you were doing a webinar at some corporate town hall event?
There have been many changes and setbacks, but there’s also a lot we’ve learned that we can use for future success. The key change was the undoing of the traditional. Technology has significantly altered how the live comedy industry operates, from production, to hiring and experiencing live comedy events. It’s still joyful as ever.
EVERYONE’S A COMEDIAN
There’s absolutely no doubt that social media and self-publishing content has hugely impacted the comedy industry, from video to podcasts, or other forms, when it comes to discoverability. We’re always looking at socials to see what’s happening, and where to spot the next hot talent.
Before, it was all about a primetime appearance of a comedian on a BBC show, such as Have I Got News For You or Live at the Apollo, well-known shows viewed by many. It’s becoming less about TV appearances and more about whether that person has pivoted to online and putting little sketches or one-liners out on Tiktok, for example.
Levels of fame, notoriety and industry buzz about certain artists no longer particularly come through routes that were seen to be more traditional. For example, appearing on BBC, C4, ITV, Dave, and so on, were the usual routes to comedy fame. Now, the internet is brimming with talent. So we’ll search for people there, and watch their YouTube specials or clips. Do they have a bit of notoriety about them? That’s not to dismiss TV altogether, it’s to illustrate an emerging trend that we don’t know the power of just yet.
Vittorio Angelone (1) is a stand up who essentially built up a fan base and following using live club shows and social media. He’s now recently been signed to an agent. He wasn’t known on the circuit particularly well 1-2 years ago. He has since gone to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and sold out every single show, and also received a prestigious Best Newcomer nomination. And in his own words, it’s no PR, nor major industry backing, it’s just his talent, word of mouth and working through what he promotes through his podcast, socials and fan base. Vittorio is a really great example of someone in the next generation of talent coming through. More talent like this would be really exciting.
Live comedy is heavenly and beautiful. And we all live for being in rooms full of laughing people. My next point is the different forms of media that we need to constantly engage with. It’s about reading the press weekly to see who’s got the big reviews in Edinburgh, who’s got five stars and who’s going to win those big Awards. But it’s also about who’s being talked about on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube and if somebody’s a lesser-known comedian, but has just launched a podcast, then how’s that doing in terms of listenership and who are their guests?
Joanne McNally (2), an incredible Irish comedian that everyone’s talking about at the moment, is a great example of someone who grew a fan base through a podcast alongside her live stand up. I’ve been to her live show at a sold out London Palladium. The atmosphere was electric. She hosts a hilarious podcast with Vogue Williams called My Therapist Ghosted Me, which has hugely expanded her reach.
DON’T BE LET DOWN BY THE TECH
Another lesson we’ve had to learn was to get the tech right online. You might soundcheck with the comedian at five in the afternoon, and they sound great, and then live on a stage in front of 600 people from a major client, it’s all changed. They’ve moved to another room and messed it up for you, or they’ve started to speak more quietly. So the team behind the scenes need to be perfectionists, making sure every tech detail is observed.
I remember a very early Zoom show where we hadn’t yet worked out how audience reactions work online. We had everyone on mute, and it was a quick lesson that it would have been better to have unmute some of the audience to avoid the embarrassing moment where you see silent smiling faces but otherwise stony silence.
We also came across a new form of heckling that we hadn’t even considered before, which was in the chatboxes of our live online events. People were making comments on the side during performances. We had to put controls on, as it became distracting to the performer and the audience, in the same way that a heckler in a comedy club would.
So these digital events came with their own challenges that we didn’t see coming. And not every comedian embraced Zoom gigs either. It’s understandable, not everyone enjoys sitting alone, in a lockdown trying to tell jokes. And for some it was about learning quite quickly by trial and error around which comedians will make a team of sportswear manufacturers from Glasgow laugh on a Thursday night where they’d rather be down the pub. Who could hold the engagement of an online audience?
In our client feedback, event guests said they felt as though they had been to a real live comedy club. Many even said ‘the best Zoom call we’ve ever been to’ which was music to our ears. While it’s a cliché, what’s better than laughter when you’re having a tough, unusual year?
We’re moving in this very digital direction of this hybrid entertainment industry, but nothing speaks louder than being able to fill a room with people. There’s still a very human element to it, where it’s still about the performer and their star quality or a producer’s ability to go out and hunt for talent in small clubs. There’s still incredible, new and exciting talent out there, we just have more varied ways of not only finding them, but also showing them off.
(1) Vittorio Angelone, @ vittorioangelone, www.tiktok.com/@vittorioangelone
(2) ‘My Therapist Ghosted Me’, Vogue Williams & Joanne McNally, Global, open.spotify.com/show/3BxNO3Nxr3aWSaEAX2DjOm