July 15, 2024

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How Comedians Are Adapting to Entertain Fans While Self-Isolating

On March 11, comedian Jim Gaffigan was in Bogotá, Colombia, in the midst of his worldwide Pale Tourist tour when he received a call from his manager that Argentina was closing its borders in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and his upcoming show there was canceled. He had a choice: fly to São Paulo,
Brazil, for his next appearance or go straight back to the United States in case borders started closing. He opted to go home to New York City, mainly because leaving his wife alone with their five kids “would be cruel,” he jokes. He performed his show that night and flew out the next day; hours later borders around the world began closing while edicts were issued for schools and businesses to shut down. 

The same day Gaffigan decided to cancel, Mike Birbiglia was driving from Brooklyn to Buffalo for a show, already wary of traveling on an airplane. (A self-professed hypochondriac, Birbiglia has been working on a pandemic script for the past two years, and is well-versed in such scenarios.) He stopped off in Ithaca for a meal and sat at a communal table, where a stranger told him that he had believed coronavirus was a hoax until he heard a scientist on Joe Rogan’s podcast talking about it. Birbiglia canceled his show. “I drove four hours, had pizza, turned around and drove four hours home and haven’t left my house since,” he reveals. “I had already taken it seriously, but I realized that people who thought this was overblown were starting to realize how serious it was. When those two schools of thought collided, I knew I couldn’t do shows anymore.”

While the entertainment business has shut down across the board, many artists are finding new ways to reach their audiences. Musicians from John Legend to Neil Young have hosted livestreamed concerts. Talk-show hosts such as Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah are broadcasting shows from their homes. Comics are banding together to present Laugh-Aid, a four-hour streaming event April 4 that will feature names like Ray Romano and Bill Burr raising money for Comedy Gives Back’s COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund. 

For individual stand-ups, who often spend most of the year on the road performing for live audiences, it’s been a time to become adaptable. Some, like Jeff Dunham, have huge followings on social media and were early adopters of technology to interact with fans. Reggie Watts even created his own application, WattsApp, to bring his work directly to people. Others, like Cameron Esposito, who was set to begin a tour for her book “Save Yourself” when shutdowns began, have had to learn new skills. Esposito has taken her book tour online, hosting a series of panels called “Queer Memoir: In Conversation,” on Zoom, the video conferencing platform that has blown up during the time of quarantine. “I’d never used it before — I have no co-workers to have meetings with,” she says with a laugh. “I also did a TikTok. I literally had to talk to a teen for help. I had no idea what to do!”

In addition to being a busy stand-up, Gaffigan is an author and actor — he stars with Viola Davis in the film “Troop Zero,” which just hit Amazon Prime. He and his wife, Jeannie, are parents to five children between the ages of 7 and 15, and while they have appeared together in commercials, Gaffigan has turned down the chance to do a reality show with the family. On March 13, as things were closing down all over the world, he came up with the idea of airing their family dinners live on YouTube. “It became apparent some creative outlet was needed, and it had to be something that fit into our crazy lifestyle,” Gaffigan says. “It’s like running a small school here; we have five different kids at five different stages of their lives.”

Gaffigan took his iPhone and began filming “Dinner With the Gaffigans,” a livestream the family has continued to do every night at 6 p.m. ET. Gaffigan says it serves many purposes. “Selfishly, it’s providing a sense of normalcy for us in an abnormal time. It’s something for my kids to look forward to and something for my wife and I to keep scheduled when days are getting so blurry,” he notes. “And other people seem to enjoy it. There are people feeling separated from their family and friends, feeling isolated, so maybe it helps to eat dinner with us.” The first episode has more than 95,000 viewers.

“It’s something for my kids to look forward to and something for my wife and I to keep scheduled when days are getting so blurry. And other people seem to enjoy it.
Jim Gaffigan on his livestreaming youtube show, “Dinner with the Gaffigans”

On March 15, Gaffigan launched “Jim Eats the World,” also on YouTube, where he tries different foods from around the globe. That show had been in the works pre-pandemic and is expertly produced and edited. “Dinner With the Gaffigans” is kept simple and silly, opening with a homemade theme song, usually shot entirely by Gaffigan as he holds the phone. Family members gather around the same dinner table Gaffigan had as a child, and topics range from their favorite songs to dream dinner guests. “We’re not changing the world or worrying about high quality,” he says. “This is comfort food.” Gaffigan says that once they’re no longer isolated, the show will end. “We’ll stop when the quarantine is over or we kill each other.”

Birbiglia also had to put a tour on hold; he was in the midst of a 15-city circuit to celebrate his upcoming book “The New One: Painfully True Stories From a Reluctant Dad,” which also features poems by J. Hope Stein. Best known for his work as a filmmaker (he wrote and directed the acclaimed indies “Sleepwalk With Me” and “Don’t Think Twice”) and his solo shows (“The New One” and “Thank God for Jokes” are both on Netflix), Birbiglia says he was never inclined toward things like livestreams or podcasts. 

But when shutdowns began, he was speaking to comics like John Mulaney and Roy Wood Jr. about how they could help their communities, such as the staff at comedy clubs and theaters who had no revenue. On March 19, Birbiglia launched the website Tip Your Waitstaff, where people can contribute to Go Fund Me campaigns for club employees. Within three days, they raised more than $20,000. Birbiglia is talking to media companies about matching donations. 

In conjunction with the website, Birbiglia has begun doing “Tip Your Waitstaff” Instagram Live chats with fellow comedians, in which he and his guest workshop and riff on ideas for jokes they’re still formulating. “Essentially what we’re showing is the inside of an artist’s sketch pad,” Birbiglia says. It’s a peek into the process as guests from Mulaney to Nikki Glaser riff on ideas while the audience watches live (but silently). As recent guest Maria Bamford jokes, “I don’t mind the one-on-one performing and — if you’ve followed my career at all — I’m very comfortable with no laughs.”

Jim Gaffigan invites viewers to have “Dinner With the Gaffigans”
Courtesy of Jim Gaffigan

The fundraiser is such a great idea, one wonders if it will continue after the pandemic is over. “I don’t know,” Birbiglia allows. “It’s definitely one of the highlights of my day right now, doing something interactive. The other day, Mulaney and I had 10,000 people commenting in real time. That’s bigger than Radio City Music Hall.”

He adds that knowing they’ll have to be on camera has been motivating for many people. “If there’s one thing that I’m contributing to the world with ‘Tip Your Waitstaff,’ it’s forcing comedians to put their pants on for at least one hour a day.”

Esposito’s book was published March 24, and having to cancel her tour forced her online too. As the host of the podcast “Queery,” she has access to many queer authors. Her Zoom panels “Queer Memoirs: In Conversation” feature guests like acclaimed writer Roxane Gay. Each conversation can host up to 500 people, and most events have sold out. Esposito plans to continue the panels at least through April 1, when her book tour finishes. 

Esposito also uses Instagram Live to connect with fans, but says being able to see others and take questions on Zoom feels more personal. “That’s the point of a book tour, to connect with people,” she notes. “Zoom specifically feels like it’s made for audience interaction.” 

That sense of community is vital to Esposito, who has a large queer following. “We already know the feeling of being forgotten and shunned and being pushed out and at risk. And these times make me want to be with my community as much as possible,” she says. “For any marginalized community, this is a time where that marginalization is adding to the stress.”

She explains that she’s still figuring out next steps and how long this will continue. “Things are changing every day; this is what a book tour looks like now,” she says. “But what does stand-up look like from here on out? I’ll have to figure that out. Because I like to work.” In the meantime, she says keeping connected is preventing her from feeling helpless. “The amount of powerlessness we feel right now is overwhelming. But I have an enormous privilege here in that there is something I get to do. I feel like I have a task: Make them laugh.”

“If there’s one thing that I’m contributing to the world with ‘tip your waitstaff,’ it’s forcing comedians to put their pants on for at least one hour a day.”
Mike Birbiglia

Dunham says he had a similar reaction when he went into lockdown. The hugely popular stand-up and ventriloquist says he’s been constantly on the road for 30 years. “The only time in the last few years I’ve gone a month without doing a show was my honeymoon seven years ago,” he notes. So when he first went into quarantine, he felt he had nothing to do. 

“Then I realized that I’ve got some sort of responsibility. I have an audience; I have an opportunity to find some light in this darkness and show it to people even though we’re going through this,” he says. “So now I’m working harder than I was a month ago. Now every morning, I think I have to get some content out there. I think as entertainers, it’s something we should be doing. I can imagine this is very isolating for people.”

Though Dunham has done videos and live Q&As before on social media, he launched a YouTube series called “LIVE! (and Self-Isolated)” in which he takes his 2.43 million YouTube subscribers behind the scenes and into his shop, following the process as he creates a new dummy. Because the work takes hundreds of hours, from sculpting to painting to finishing touches, Dunham imagines he has plenty of content for the weeks to come. 

He’s uploading other videos, too, such as one where he teaches his 4-year-old twins to use a bidet, but the “LIVE!” series is a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes and done simply. “It’s just me walking around my garage with a stupid iPhone,” Dunham says. “I think you have to have some kind of creativity or you’re going to die on the vine.”

Some even get creative by devising their own platform. Comic and musician Watts had been thinking of making an app for years, but about seven months ago he went to work on WattsApp, which launched March 25. “I was craving it because I didn’t want to be constrained by the terrible aesthetics of Instagram,” he explains. “I appreciate it’s where everybody is and I’m grateful for it, but it kind of bums me out that’s the only option we have. So I wanted to be able to control the aesthetics and experience.”

Reggie Watts speaks to audiences via his quasi multimedia channel WattsApp, which launched March 25 and offers games, audio and livestreaming.
Courtesy of Reggie Watts

He produces the content himself with a team of editors, and says the app “functions like a multimedia channel, with games, audio and livestreaming.” While under quarantine, he says he’s likely to stream some performances to fans. “I’m usually creative, but now learning in different ways to be creative,” he notes. “Being isolated, it definitely ups your game a little bit.”

Sam Morril and Taylor Tomlinson are rising comics who both recently released specials: Morril’s “I Got This” is on Comedy Central; Tomlinson’s “Quarter-Life Crisis” is on Netflix. The pair have been dating for around six months and found themselves quarantined together at Tomlinson’s home in Los Angeles. They consider themselves stand-ups first and have generally shied away from making web content. 

But on the first day of the quarantine, Tomlinson jokingly suggested they do a web series about being stuck together as a fairly new couple. “Within 10 minutes, Sam said, ‘We’re going to do it — here’s how and here’s an idea for the first episode,’” Tomlinson recalls. “I’m lucky to be quarantined with someone who’s funny and has a good work ethic. So many people wouldn’t have the drive to make it happen.”

Episodes for the series, “New Couple Gets Quarantined” are short, funny snippets the two shoot on Tomlinson’s iPhone that find the pair in some very relatable situations. In the first episode, Morril says the upside of the quarantine is they’ll be able to have lots of sex; six hours later, Tomlinson proclaims she has a urinary tract infection and sex is off the menu.

“There are little things you fight about as a couple that are easier when you’re not in a global crisis,” Morril notes, citing an episode where he gets upset because Tomlinson sneezed on him. “When you’re trapped with someone, everything is heightened.”

In addition to keeping the pair busy, the show keeps his skills sharp, Morril says. “We started when we realized we have no gigs and no creative outlet,” he admits. “It’s a way for us to keep working out. You read about basketball players gaining weight now. In comedy, you want to stay in shape, so to speak.” Tomlinson agrees: “Sam and I are pretty pure stand-ups, and this is not how our brains normally work. But right now, that portion of our brains is kind of shut down, and we’re trying to light up other parts of our brains and say, ‘Let’s see if we can act!’”

The two have been watching so many films together that they’ve started recording a podcast, called “This Is Important to Me,” where they show each other movies that are personally meaningful and that the other has never seen. 

Still, neither can wait to get back to performing live. Asked if the sketches are helping them get some fraction of the audience response they’re used to in live shows, Tomlinson offers a joke that seems to speak for almost all stand-ups in isolation: “Absolutely, we need constant validation,” she says. “We of course prefer cheering and applause, but we’ll take Internet comments for now.” 

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