LC#25: The New New Normal
On live intimacy in a post-pandemic world.
This is going to be one of those editions of the newsletter that reads a bit more like a personal diary rather than an elaborated essay. I’ve written before about how much the pandemic made me miss comedy clubs and how important these are to establish a comedy culture. Well, for the first time since the pandemic started, I’ve been to a live comedy gig again. This edition is about what it feels like to be back to the old normal, knowing full well it is not (quite yet) really normal. There’s a link on the way, too.
If you read this newsletter you’ve read my thoughts on Joe Rogan, which I published before the surfacing of a video compilation that showed him using the N-word a bunch of times over the years (he eventually apologized). The video added to the controversies surrounding the comedian and focusing in particular on Spotify’s exclusive endorsement of his show, with famous musicians getting off the platform to demonstrate their disapproval.
Since the relationship between Spotify and Rogan is extremely interesting, here’s a link to Baratunde Thurston’s thoughts on the matter. Thurston dissects the issue focusing not only on the content of Rogan’s podcast, but most of all on the business model that prompted Spotify to contract him exclusively while famously underpaying musicians. It is a very lucid analysis of how the economic value of digital content intersects wider societal processes and cultural discourses, so it is worth logging in to read it.
I am sure you’re tired of reading or talking about the pandemic, not least because of the new Ukraine situation and how much this new layer of anxiety is going to add up to our already fraught “new normal”. Still, in the spirit of never talking about the right things at the right time, I thought I’d share my thoughts about going back to seeing live comedy after a couple years of avoiding it like the literal plague.
Before moving to London, one of the things I did when I visited was going to the Angel Comedy night at the Bill Murray. It’s a super-tiny little venue with a small bar and a little back garden, with just a couple tables and a very tight room with fold-out chairs for the acts. I am not sure how many people can fit into that room, but every time I’ve been it felt packed. Even if you are not in the front (which would put you basically on stage) the atmosphere is still pretty intimate, with laughter bouncing nicely on the walls and ceiling and crowd work happening very naturally. It is an ideal space for comedy, and thus definitely not a place you’d go to if you are at all worried about catching Covid. In fact, even after moving to London, it took me more than six months (with me finally catching the virus around Christmas time) to finally decide I was ready to go back to a situation like that.
As everything pandemic-related in the UK, it is both exhilarating and vaguely scary to venture into a truly post-emergency scenario, where masks have started to look like a sinister reminder of a “new normal” that already feels a bit old — and which has arguably been replaced by an even “newer” normal, molded in part by the shared catharsis of the latest Omicron wave (which caught pretty much everyone) and in part by government policies that are more and more visibly folding back onto Boris’ initial “herd immunity” objective. While sitting at the bar and queuing to walk into the venue felt like a trip back to 2019, noticing some people in the audience were wearing masks was pretty weird. We know wearing a mask does not protect the wearer, especially in the middle of a tightly packed crowd with drinks and the expectation of collective laughter; the masked were thus doing what we’ve come to know as “the civilized thing” and perhaps even sending a message (“we could all be protecting each other and still enjoy a night out”). I admit the sight made me feel a bit guilty, especially since I am normally all for wearing masks indoors, where some people might be more vulnerable than others. Another part of me, however, was disturbed by the reminder. For one, masks at a comedy show look out of place: without access to your facial expressions, you wind up looking surprised or even embarrassed — not a great look for a comedy show. That triggered another sense of responsibility in me, towards a different type of collectivity: we are here to support comedy, we are here to laugh together. I am not saying I resent people for wearing masks at a comedy show (in fact, part of me wishes we all did), but my ambivalence about them is quite telling of how we perceive ourselves as part of multiple groups at once, or at different times.
Beyond my personal hypocrisies, however, it is clear from a basic Google Image search that “live comedy” is not something you can take for granted anymore. The idea of the struggling comedian working multiple jobs and being depressed might be more than a romantic image to fuel self-deprecating narratives, but during lockdown more than ever it became an economic factor affecting an entire industry. Appeals to save comedy and support your favorite acts by attending live gigs on depressing platforms like Zoom might have started to look weird, but about a year ago they were pretty serious (in fact, that is one of the reasons I was happy to pay for a show that I have attended for free more than once). But what is it like now?
The complex dynamics of newly reopened comedy clubs are different in every country, but we can agree they are something unprecedented. New York-based comic Sam Morrill has made a feature-length documentary about the topic, investigating the impressions of the local scene (arguably the centre of the world for stand-up fans) through a range of interviews with veterans (like Dave Attell, Mike Kelly, Colin Quinn, Todd Barry), more recently established names (including Mark Normand, Joe List, Taylor Tomlinson, Ryan Hamilton, Sam Jay) and a host of others. Titled Full Capacity and fully available on YouTube, the movie captures regular scene interactions along with a range of Covid-related ones: interviewees express relief about the end of rooftop shows (the only ones allowed during lockdown) and discuss the way they have been dealing with reflective plastic dividers, 33% capacity rooms, droplet-expirating fans who get too close, and so on. One of the biggest leitmotivs throughout the movie is the urgency of stand-up to balance the strain on mental health posed by the pandemic, another is the difficulty of returning on stage after a forced, prolonged hiatus. Not only have comics struggled to get financial and emotional support during lockdown (like most people, to be fair), they also feel they need to recuperate the stage confidence and momentum they had when they were allowed to perform every night. In many ways, then, the pandemic has amplified some of the conflictual dynamics happening between audience and performers (now both rusty) that are so typical of stand-up comedy. This applies to some formats even more than others.
Going back to my own return to a comedy club as an audience member, I was unsurprisingly pretty thrilled by the experience. So much so, in fact, that I went back to see a “work in progress” show by one of the comedians on the bill (Jack Barry, whom I had seen before when he opened for Marc Maron in Manchester).
In case you have never been to a WIP show, the premise is that you pay a smaller ticket fee, but the show you are seeing is not quite finished yet. That means the expectations between the performer and the audience are a bit different: on one hand the comedian is more vulnerable (de facto they expect at least part of the act to bomb), on the other this vulnerability amplifies the sense of intimacy with the audience, who feel privileged (as well as a bit responsible) for being called to “approve” the jokes before the show is officially presented onto the bigger stage.
Considering the post-pandemic context described in the Full Capacity documentary, it’s easy to imagine attending a WIP feels a bit more fraught in a post-pandemic situation. For starters, the new material conceived in those conditions is bound to be informed by the lockdown experience (Barry has a great bit about helping the NHS via drug-dealing, and another part of the show discussing mental health), but most importantly the aforementioned rusty comedian/rusty audiences dynamic is clearly on display here. If self-deprecating meta-commentary on a comedian’s own performance is a stylistic trademark of many stand-ups (I wrote about it here) and it is commonly used strategically as a way to win over a crowd, the WIP format amplifies the proverbial insecurity of the comedian and projects the making or unmaking of their public persona partly onto the audience. As a result, when Barry made a comment on a joke that did not work as well as others, I did feel a bit like the stakes might have been slightly higher than before.
That being said, the show was funny and I am looking forward to the Fringe version. I don’t know how long this “new new normal” will last, with us being able to enjoy live comedy quasi-normally and comedians getting back in their routines. One thing is for sure, though: I definitely missed it.