I’m a stand-up comedian. But ever since covid struck, I’ve done a lot of sitting down. In an instant, my schedule shifted from dozens of live performances in a year to almost none. Although some venues have reopened, many of my gigs have been moved to Zoom. Then, last month, my brother-in-law came to visit, bringing his VR headset and introducing me to open mics in the metaverse.
Stand-up comedy in virtual reality seemed like it would be no more satisfying than stand-up comedy on Zoom: technical glitches, inaudible laughter — in some ways, the antithesis of good comedy, which thrives on juiced-up audience members sandwiched between strangers in a stuffy black-walled theater.
But I was desperate. The loss of the old stand-up world was more than a blow to my income. It represented a massive psychological shift, the loss of a social and emotional outlet that, for more than 20 years, had been a bedrock of my mental stasis. My first lame attempt to watch a VR open mic was equal parts intimidating and confusing. I donned Oculus Quest 2 goggles, held two plastic controllers that allowed my avatar’s hand motions to mimic my own, and inhabited my brother-in-law’s avatar, a horned cartoon fox who wore antlers bedecked with strands of Christmas lights.
In real life, I stood alone in a quiet living room, but what I saw through the goggles was a bustling three-dimensional cartoon bar. A super tall death-like figure stood on a low stage, quietly freestyle-rapping, while various forest critters and wiggly polygons — attendees whose avatars had not yet rendered in detail — darted between lounge chairs.
I removed the goggles, thinking, yup, this is how I know I’m middle-aged.
I didn’t try again until a few weeks later, when I learned about “Failed to Render,” a much more orderly stand-up comedy series hosted on AltspaceVR.
Founded in April 2020 — which simultaneously makes it very new and yet very old — Austin-based comic Kyle Render’s show has free nightly performances, apparently reaching more than 200,000 households and counting. Comics are prescreened and booked, rowdy audience members are muted, sets are recorded and shared, and there’s even a VIP balcony. Render’s show succeeds, it seems, because it’s not treated like a VR hangout space that happens to have stand-up comedy, but more like a brick-and-mortar stand-up show that happens to have VR.
Again, I put on the borrowed goggles and entered the metaverse. This time, I was inside an animated lounge with a bar, a stage with a curtain and mic stand, and even a clever way to navigate through a back hallway to get to the “green room,” where comics can gossip without the audience hearing.
I met Render immediately, which is to say, my cartoon glided down the hall until it was near Render’s cartoon. I have no idea what Kyle looks like in real life. Here, though, he looked stylized and comfortable, with a dark beard, upswept highlighted hair, and a white blazer with green lapels over a purple shirt. Or, at least, that’s what his avatar looked like. We were all a bunch of floaty, blocky, un-textured, rudimentary three-dimensional caricatures, almost like characters from an old Nintendo Wii game.
After showing me around, Render cautioned that I might want to take a few minutes to personalize my avatar, since apparently my character’s nondescript brown hair, featureless face and simple blue collared shirt made me look like a noob. I sheepishly confessed that I’d already spent half an hour customizing my avatar. I silently navigated to a menu and added a weird jacket.
Waiting backstage for my turn, I rehearsed my set in my head. Any bit that needed facial expressions was out — I no longer had them (though some expensive VR rigs can track and replicate eye movements). So, for example, I couldn’t tell my joke about Capri Sun Sport, which requires imitating a hardcore athlete carefully inserting a straw and drinking from a sippy pouch — the punchline simply doesn’t work without functional lips.
Render introduced me, and I took the stage, looking out on the crowd of about 50 avatars. I started one of my standard introductory bits about being raised in Delaware. The joke usually includes crowd work, a variation on “Where’s everyone from?” But in VR, if the audience was yelling in response, I couldn’t hear it. It was hard to hear laughter from the stage. Audio in this particular metaverse is based on proximity, so you can hear other people loudest if your avatar is next to theirs.
At least the crowd was respectful. For random people joining from all over the world, in a virtual environment with few consequences for running rampant, sprinting directly through other people, or generally losing your mind, the show was unfailingly civil and orderly. The audience, for the most part, hovered in the club and seemed to be genuinely interested in watching the show. I’ve certainly had worse experiences at comedy shows in real life.
I kept waiting for the rush of excitement I usually feel when performing, the thrill that made me want to pick up a microphone 20 years ago, to take overnight buses in the early days just for stage time. But it didn’t come. I simply couldn’t trick my brain into thinking I was anywhere other than a basement.
By the end of my set, I felt less like I was performing a comedy show and more like I was writing and directing a three-dimensional cartoon character in real time. I have no illusions that VR comedy will ever replace in-person comedy; neither does Render, who produces live shows and hybrid live/VR shows as well. The stakes are higher when you’re in the room together and anything could happen; the audience and the comic feel a sense of community, an element of danger, and an experience that no one outside the room has shared. At a VR show, the audience is not in the same room and never will be.
For me as a performer, VR still didn’t scratch the same psychological itch as a packed club, brick wall, blinding spotlights and a two-drink minimum. That’s the world I miss, and no simulacrum can make me forget what’s lost.
And that, according to “Big Al” Gonzales, a nationally touring comedian who consults for “Failed to Render,” is exactly the wrong takeaway. VR was never intended to replace live comedy, he says, only to supplement it — just as TV and movies did not replace live theater, as some feared they would. The setup is different enough that any comedian who — like I did — simply tries to shoehorn live jokes onto the VR platform is setting themselves up to fail.
“In the beginning, it was frustrating because we wanted to do comedy the exact way we did on stage,” Gonzales admits. But he adapted, changing his timing, tightening wording, and using more of the dynamics of his voice, which he says eventually made him a better live comic as well. “You adjust for the medium.”
I don’t want to disparage VR, especially given that I’m far enough in years beyond its typical demographic that I wrote my first jokes in WordPerfect 5.1. It’s a terrific new niche that’s ripe for comedians to innovate, and “Failed to Render” is a well-run example of that.
And, though I may not have noticed in the moment, audience members certainly seemed to enjoy themselves — maybe not with the sound of laughter, but with yellow cartoon applause emoji, the VR equivalent of approval, billowing enthusiastically out of their cartoon heads.
Adam Ruben is a Washington writer, comedian and molecular biologist.