“There were definitely a lot of gigs that I was very excited for, that I was preparing a lot for, that I was getting compensated for,” Patel says, “that unfortunately got canceled.”
As coronavirus concerns keep the lights dimmed at comedy venues, comics and clubs are trying to bring the laughs online. This weekend, audiences can catch a pair of virtual shows produced by the “DC Improv: Of the Asian Variety Show,” hosted by Patel on May 22, and “Comedy Kumite Online II,” a stand-up competition set for May 23.
For DC Improv owner Allyson Jaffe and her husband, director of creative marketing Chris White, the suspension of live comedy meant mass layoffs and putting their own salaries on hold. But over the past month and a half, the Improv has brought levity to people’s lives by regularly hosting stand-up and sketch shows on Zoom for $5 a ticket.
“I would scuttle all of this in a heartbeat if we could go back to doing normal shows,” says White, who has produced the virtual shows and performed in some, as well. “But people are looking for connections and ways to interact with other people, and it’s very, very hard in this environment. So if we can take a group of 400 people, 500 people, 100 people, and make them feel like they’re more connected to something outside of their homes, that actually does feel very good.”
Viewers this weekend can start with the “Asian Variety” showcase, which will include a blend of stand-up, sketch comedy and audience interaction as Patel is joined by fellow comedians Brittany Carney, Wilfred Padua and Francesca Fiorentini for a celebration of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.
“Comedy Kumite Online,” on the other hand, is a reinvention of the club’s long-running stand-up showcase, in which eight comics face off in a bracketed, tournament-style competition. (May 23 will feature local performers Natalie McGill, Winston Hodges, Elizabeth Norman, Tim Miller, Petey Steele, Jared Stern, Blaire Postman and Adrian Rodney.) While the live format uses audience approval, measured by the sound of the crowd’s ovation, to pick the winner of each matchup — in which two comedians perform five-minute sets — the online version turns to Zoom’s audience polling feature.
Further integrating the crowd is an ongoing experiment for the Improv’s online shows. To most comics, laughter and audience interaction are foundational aspects of the stand-up process; the crowd’s response to a joke can inform the rhythm of the set or the material the performer chooses to explore. Over Zoom, however, even a handful of unmuted audience members could drown out the performer with overzealous laughter and ambient noise.
“When you’re doing a live show, the comedian has a microphone and no one else does, so it’s very easy to talk over the laughter,” White says. “But in a Zoom setting, there’s too many variables to make it seem like a smooth show.”
So the Improv has turned to a “studio audience” of roughly a half-dozen people — typically fellow comedians or audience volunteers — who turn on their cameras but keep their microphones muted. The result is an on-screen grid of faces reacting to the comedy, which gives the comic real-time feedback without disrupting the production’s audio.
“It’s almost like you have to relearn how to tell jokes,” says Patel, who performed in the first “Comedy Kumite Online” earlier this month. “So it actually helped just having six to eight people being the ‘studio audience.’ You can see that the audience members are laughing, and it helped me keep my timing.”
On the technical side, White acknowledges the drawbacks of producing live comedy on a platform “designed for boring work meetings.” As the Improv improvises, for lack of a better word, in a time of social distancing, he hopes audiences take the circumstances and modest ticket price into account when evaluating their socially distanced comedy experience.
“As much as I want to say every show could be absolutely perfect, if I have eight comedians on the show, I’m at the mercy of eight different Internet connections,” White says. “Some of it is realizing what you can’t control and sort of making peace with that. And we’re hoping because we’re charging five bucks and not $50 that the people will realize, ‘Hey, they’re doing a great job with the resources they have available.’ ”
"Of the Asian Variety Show"
Dates: Friday at 8 p.m.
"Comedy Kumite Online II"
Dates: Saturday at 8 p.m.