Fall Arts 2020

Stand Upload

Bay Area comedians try to deliver laughs via laptop for an audience sheltering in place

Stand Upload | Sculpting an Identity | More Than a Book Club

FIND YOUR AUDIENCE: Bay Area comedian Aivy Cordova's career was taking off when the Covid pandemic hit, but she was able to transition to Zoom stand-up shows.

When longtime San Jose comedian Frankie Marcos did his first Covid-era stand-up performance on Zoom—after resisting it for weeks—he confidently ended with his "closer"—his most dependable joke, which had always worked on stage. It was a kinetic physical-comedy gag that depended on the energy he had created with his audience.

It bombed.

"The energy just didn't transfer through the laptop to the other side," he says. "So I tried it again in my next show, and it didn't work again. I was like, 'I will stop doing that at Zoom shows.'"

Like nearly all performing artists, stand-up comics are laboring to figure out how to connect with audiences during the pandemic, when the tried-and-true dynamic of live performance is denied them. It is a brave new world where the iconic brick wall of the comedy club has been replaced by the online Zoom room, forcing the working class of comedians to make an uncomfortable choice. Some are convinced that online stand-up loses something essential about comedy, and are choosing not to engage with what is mostly the only tool comics have left. Others are adapting to a new form of comedy, with varying degrees of eagerness.

Having come up in the South Bay comedy scene, Marcos felt he was poised for some career breakthroughs when the Covid-19 shutdown came in mid-March. He had performed everywhere from laundromats to casinos, from country clubs to rundown dive bars "that looked like herpes." But he was beginning to make traction and, in fact, had just been offered his first headlining gig.

Then everything on the comedy circuit came to a sudden and complete stop. The idea of performing on Zoom did not appeal to him at first. But soon he realized that it was his only option if he hoped to maintain the connection he had spent years cultivating with his audience.

"It was like a chef who is not able to eat his own food anymore, and now all he has is Pop Tarts. Are you going to starve or are you going to eat? I ate the Pop Tarts."

"A lot of comedians just don't want to do the Zoom thing," says the comic known as DNA, who opened his own comedy club in Santa Cruz a year before the pandemic shut it down. "That's not why they got into comedy in the first place. The reality of a life in comedy was all about going out, driving, arriving, greeting people, eating, drinking, performing—the cathartic nature of an entire room of people laughing together. It's that magical thing. It's molecular."

But in an online setting, says DNA, "now you're in the kitchen at home and suddenly, 'Oh, I have a Zoom thing in 10 minutes.' You sit down. It's not even 'stand-up' anymore. And you're talking to a screen."

When the shutdown order came in March, Hayward-born comedian Aivy Cordova was thriving as a working comic. Despite having a day job in tech and a 12-year-old son, she was doing shows throughout the Bay Area four or five nights a week, even flying to Los Angeles twice a month to perform. When Covid hit, she had already booked engagements through July.

"I didn't know what to do," she says. "I figured that I could just be a regular mom, hanging out at home, watching TV a lot. It just felt really unfulfilling."

Cordova took to Zoom rather naturally, having experience with that and similar platforms through her work. She also felt the diminishment of trying to make people laugh through a wi-fi connection. But she recognized it as the only game in town if she were serious about advancing her career.

"I chose to use it as a networking tool to get my name and my reputation that I was still willing to work out there," she says. "I think once all this is over, people are more likely to want to work with someone who didn't just sit on their ass during Covid and become an alcoholic, y'know?"

There are some advantages to performing online. A comedian doesn't have to leave home, spend money on gas and parking, or waste time in traffic. It opens up opportunities to find potential audiences beyond a comic's home region. And it can actually be quite lucrative. Zoom shows make it easy to donate directly to a comedian through platforms like Venmo. Marcos says that psychologically, it's a lot more comfortable for people to spend money via Venmo on their phones than to actually reach for their wallets.

"I've had a couple people send me $100," he says. "Some might send you just $5 or $10. But if you have a hundred people who have RSVPed, you've made a lot of money. In the beginning, I made $1,000 for one show."

But adjusting to this new environment is tough for many comics. The primary awkwardness comes from the choice to engage with audiences. "Crowd work"—the common practice of talking to individual audience members during a stand-up performance—is all but impossible on Zoom. And then there's the question of how to deal with the very real gift that audiences give performers: laughter.

If a comic chooses to be able to hear the audience laughing, the show can easily be derailed by background noises or distractions. Cordova remembers a time in another comic's show when an audience member took his live, unmuted phone with him to the bathroom, subjecting the entire audience to the unmistakable sound of real-time urination.

At the same time, if the comic chooses to mute everything to eliminate those distractions, then she's performing in a surreal vacuum, an experience that can be off-putting. Some comedians even have tech-savvy friends who help out as audience monitors, picking and choosing which audience members to mute or un-mute.

"You have to let people know, 'OK, I want you guys to un-mute yourself if you're in a quiet space where you can laugh and there won't be any background noise,'" Marcos says. "Some will be great at that. Others will start talking or heckling, or there will be a baby in the background, or a lawnmower or a jackhammer. And then you have to figure out, out of these 30 people, which jackass do I have to mute."

One day, the Covid curtain will lift, life will re-establish a new sense of normal, and people will again go to comedy clubs to see comedians live and in-person. Does that mean this weird Zoom hybrid will then vanish?

Many comics feel that the Zoom comedy show will continue in some form, and find a permanent niche in the comedy world.

"I think I would do both," says Aivy Cordova. "I think one of the cool things about Zoom shows is that we can do them anywhere at almost any time. It's to my benefit to keep an open mind and still do the occasional Zoom show. But if I were offered two shows on the same day and one of them was a live (in-person) gig, I would absolutely take the live gig. Not a question."