It’s not all Zoom and gloom, but it can feel that way as comics adjust to the harsh realities of virtual crowds
“I’d kill for a room with 40 people in it.”
Phil Griffiths longs for the crowds, for the chance to work the room and get that up-close response. As a Half Moon Bay-based comedian with almost a decade of experience, Grffiths’ Comedy Sharks show at Hop Dogma Brewing Co. on the Coastside is one of the longest running standup series on the Peninsula. Like many of us, he wanted to believe quarantine wouldn’t last longer than a month, but as reality set in, Griffths is now—like most every other comedian—stuck longing for the ability to log off of Zoom and just perform for a live audience.
“You can have 100 people on the Zoom show but only 10 to 15 people unmuted — that feeling doesn’t carry through the room,” he said. “They could all be laughing, but you only hear 10 people snickering. Am I killing? Am I bombing? Are the other 90 not laughing at all?”
Stand-up comedians are in the nightlife business, which means an industry that COVID-19 has effectively shut down. And as local venues that cater to comedy — theaters, cafes, breweries, bars — can’t host events right now, Silicon Valley’s once-blossoming standup scene has been looking for new ways to line up laughs.
Working the room on Zoom
Palo Alto comic Cathy Zhao started doing stand-up comedy three years ago via a Stanford workshop. As a Chinese immigrant, Zhao first took a public stage at Red Rock Coffee in Mountain View, nervous because she had to memorize her lines to battle against a language barrier. Starting out in Stanford and on the Peninsula, Zhao laughed, “It doesn’t sound like a place for stand-up comedy.”
Zhao made quick strides slinging jokes behind the mic, placing third in a qualifying round at the Rooster T. Feather’s Comedy Club 18th annual New Talent Comedy Competition in Sunnyvale in February. COVID-19 cut in and cancelled the competition, shorting her the opportunity to vie for the overall crown, just as her momentum was building.
“I hope this quarantine ends as soon as possible so I can see the real audience and perform more,” she said. “At this moment, every week I go to Zoom open mics.”
When it comes to the current state of comedy, the topic inevitably turns to Zoom.
Over on the coast, Griffiths hesitated to move his Comedy Sharks showcase to Zoom at first, but he changed course to advertise and support Hop Dogma Brewing as they adjusted their business to pick-up and delivery only. He wanted to be sure comedy shows on Zoom were viable, but once they spread like wildfire, he took a picture of Hop Dogma’s stage area backdrop to make it the Zoom background for his online shows. He has even encouraged digital audience members to order Hop Dogma beers ahead of time to have them for the show.
Performing on the Zoom shows, Griffith estimates, only scratches 20% of the itch of a real live show. It’s almost like learning a different art since comedy is about the personal energy in the room, and Zoom is, in fact, not a room. Some comics who are great on stage are drowning on Zoom, and some comics who aren’t confident on stage are heavy-hitters on Zoom — the technology isn’t yet swift enough to capture nuances that comprise a full-fledged comedy show.
Zhao certainly isn’t thrilled with the virtual setting. “It sucks. There’s no audience…you cannot have quick feedback…which jokes they’d love or not,” she explains. On the upside? “You can do it online, like three different shows in one night without driving to any places.”
While Griffiths and Zhao both do Zoom shows despite not getting the same satisfaction, other comedians have indeed taken a pass.
Sedric Drake, a Menlo Park native, started stand-up comedy on a dare from his now-bride-to-be almost five years ago. More recently, he’s been producing comedy shows at the Dragon Theatre in Redwood City, and even cancelled one in the spring out of concerns for public safety amidst the coronavirus. After the pandemic started, he took a shot at Zoom, and wasn’t impressed. “I’ve only done one, and it was terrible.”
For Drake, comedy remains an in-person art form. “The people in the crowd motivate me. They help me improvise, they juice me and charge me up,” he said. “When I can’t do that, and people are just looking at me through a screen, it’s unnatural.”
Yet for however awkward the virtual setting can be, there is an argument to be made for the upside of Zoom, as well. Griffiths, for example, argues that the pay is better. Audiences are being generous since there’s no ticket price, they don’t have to drive or park or abide by a two-drink minimum purchase. So comics might be getting 50 bucks per show instead of a $15 haul at an actual show.
Viewers from as far as the Philippines and England have tuned into Comedy Sharks. Plus, it’s not just local talent — comics from the Peninsula are suddenly finding themselves on shows with talent from L.A. or New York.
Furthermore, sharing contact info is a snap since everyone is already on their computer or cell phone — a non-starter at comedy clubs — so they can follow comics to stay up to date in an instant, allowing comics to potentially build their fan base at a rapid clip. Even with comedy’s notorious competitive streak among the entertainers, the moment feels like an equalizer.
“Is it derailing me from getting a set on Conan? Sure, probably,” said Griffiths about what it means to lose the physical stage time. But, he admits, “everyone’s on the same level, everyone’s got the same issues, unless you’re a comic in Florida where they don’t give a shit. Everyone’s dealing with the same limitations, so it’s not like I’m sitting back and everyone’s running ahead of me.”
Know laughing matter
Comedy is an each one, reach one art form, and even though the traditional intimacy of the comedy club experience has vanished during the era of COVID, virtual stand-up shows are still drawing humor-loving crowds online.
“In doing these Zoom shows, I see people and talk to people that are sheltering in place by themselves,” said Griffiths. “After the show, you kinda get to hang out and talk to people, [they] thank you, ‘this is the only interaction I have, outside of the clerk at the store. This is the only interaction I really have with people,’ so I think it’s important.”
Hop Dogma Brewing is building an outdoor patio, which means Comedy Sharks may be able to resume outside in better circumstances. The show could attract around 80 people indoors on a great night. Taking social distancing into account, that may look like 20 to 30 in the future. Griffiths isn’t in a rush to stage a live show until the pandemic is done, even if he’s open to the possibility of starting before with safety measures.
Then there’s the livelihood of public interaction. How will meeting fans look in the future? Can merchandise be sold? Will payment options have to be limited to avoid exposure? No more hugs or pictures with fans? Those are comedy staples, but any comic will tell you, even well-meaning fans can overstep boundaries, and with a politicized virus in play, comics who may live in multigenerational homes or are autoimmune compromised or simply aren’t willing to risk their health may not be able to engage in the way they did before.
“Whether you have to have a mask or not — maybe that helps or alleviates it — I am scared of where it’s going to go,” said Griffiths. “If you were to ask me a couple of weeks ago, maybe there’s a chance by the end of the year we’re performing, but it kinda feels like that may not be the case anymore in that full scale again. I just don’t know.”
Open mics at coffee shops, bar shows, breweries or dinner shows and theatre shows all comprise the stand-up comedy scene on the Peninsula. A safe assumption is we’ll be looking at a greater array of online shows, while small live shows may become the norm out of necessity once live comedy does return. All the comics said the same thing: mask up, and because laughter is essential, the show will go on.
“On one level, this is so serious and scary, I think humor is one of the best ways to deal with that,” said Griffiths. “And on the commentary stand point, comedy’s always been on the forefront of political, civil rights stuff. It’s important for it to exist and be a thing in society. I think no matter what it’s going to find a way.”
For Zhao, connecting with fans is the only reason she continued to do stand-up comedy.
“When I started speaking in English in California, like my mom told me, ‘Speak your own fucking English, let others pick it up,’” said Zhao. “An audience member later he told me that really helped him so much because he was very anxious after he first came here as a grad student speaking English, but after my show, he said, ‘I’ll just speak my fucking English.’ That’s something I feel really, really motivated me to keep going up.”
Finally, Drake sees demand for the Peninsula’s comedy scene — pitching the idea of a drive-in movie style comedy shows during quarantine — and believes comics are willing to supply the laughs once we can all gather together in public in a safe manner.
“People have to put their egos aside and realize we’re doing this for Peninsula comedy,” he said. “It’s gonna take a group of people coming together who say…let’s try to make something happen here. That’s the only way I think it can happen.”
Follow Cathy Zhao on Instagram
Follow Sedric Drake on Instagram
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