Standup to coronavirus: Can the live comedy industry laugh this one off?

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Stand up is a fundamentally symbiotic artform that lives and dies not just under the spotlight, but in the space between stage and stalls, in that spark between artist and audience. While singers can stay shielded in a pandemic by recording in a sound-proofed room, the vacuum created by Covid-19 is a comic’s worst nightmare. It’s a bit like watching Friends without the laughter track: suddenly the silence is deafening.

The cancellation of shows, tours and festivals has been catastrophic for standup acts, with many non-refundable accommodation and travel expenses being lost on top of fees. According to a Live Comedy Association survey back in July, just under half of UK comedy clubs said they would face permanent closure without further funding. But this is about more than financial challenges. Whilst dance troupes and theatre companies have been raiding the archives or even streaming new remotely produced content online, live comedy performances don’t translate so easily onto this platform. Though Edinburgh Fringe is offering a digital line up this year, for those who feed off the energy of the room, losing the crowd is akin to sucking out the atmosphere. At this point, even hecklers would be a welcome interruption – if only to drown out the echo.

Even the idea of socially distanced gigs has caused scepticism, which is unsurprising given that laughter is by nature a social response. Comics are hardly going to be thrilled by the prospect of performing to half-full venues to viewers who are scared of laughing too heartily lest they expel deadly particles onto the person in front. Face coverings, while undoubtedly safer, could be even more problematic given that they mask any signs of enjoyment, stopping the spread of smiles as well as sneezes. However, the London comedy circuit is nothing if not resiliant, and Greenwich Festival have announced a lineup for September promising outdoor, socially distanced sets. This late-summer revival could be the moment that sofa-bound comedians finally… well… stand up.

While sets structured around live reactions might be struggling, some have already sought support on the sturdier ground of scripted TV comedy. BBC Two’s Comedians: Home Alone, for example, showcased a series of 15-minute sketches which had been inventively crafted during lockdown. And here’s where we begin to see the potential for the new wave of live comedy. The material to come out of quarantine has been innovative and resourceful: it’s not easy to make light of a deadly virus or a wave of Black Lives Matter protests, but while there is potential to offend, our tragic circumstances have also given us an unprecedented common ground. Observational comedians have been gifted with a gold mine – albeit one that could get old quite quickly after one too many jokes about toilet roll shortages.

Though stand up acts are tentatively back on the bill, it’s not going to be an easy recovery. For the more adventurous comic, though, the uncertainty of the climate could be an excuse for more experimental, alternative sets. Let’s hope that the industry does rise to the challenge, as laughter really is the best medicine in times like these – barring an actual vaccine, that is.

Rosamund Kelby

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