Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a bar … except not really because everything’s been closed since COVID-19.
The coronavirus pandemic has affected everything from amusement parks to restaurants, and comedy is no exception. Open-mics shows have gone dark, hunkering down until the coronavirus storm has passed.
But groups like Stand Up Comedy Sundays (SUCS) at Fergie’s Pub have transitioned online.
Comedian David Feinberg of Spring Garden, one of the SUCS organizers, described the move to Zoom as “labor intensive,” but successful. The rebranded SUCS to Be Quarantined has continued to draw an audience during uncertain times.
At the start of the quarantine, Feinberg noted comics in the livestream sticking with tried-and-true material. But over time people became more innovative in adapting their material to the web.
“We’re getting a lot more material about cooking for the first time and that kind of stuff,” Feinberg said. “Punchline comedians are doing weirder, more experimental (stuff), really trying stuff out. And a lot of people are doing the same thing.”
Comedian Betty Smithsonian of Cobbs Creek has also noticed a shift, especially in people’s setups.
“A lot of comics are being forced to change their language around because no one believes that you got pulled over on your way to your own house to have this Zoom comedy show, you know?” Smithsonian said. “I’ve done one load of laundry in a month. That’s something I can talk about as a result of this.”
Pros of performing online include greater audience reach and accessibility to the local comic scene from former residents, according to Feinberg. Some stand-ups feel more comfortable performing in front of crowds now, with the added degree of separation a computer screen provides.
On the other hand, the lack of immediate audience feedback can hinder an act.
“It will never be the rush of being on a stage. It will never be that virtually,” Smithsonian said. “It’s like nonalcoholic beer. And I’m sober. So take from that whatever you think that metaphor is.”
Local comedians like Joshua Machiz of West Philadelphia have tried to make the most of digital comedy. Machiz has used his newly found free time from canceled gigs to craft about 10 minutes’ worth of material based around the quarantine.
“This has been the most creative time of my life,” Machiz said. “From a personal standpoint, I like my comedy better now. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I’ve really been enjoying where it’s been making my brain go to, the isolation and whatnot.”
“Obviously, there’s nothing funny about people getting sick and dying. There’s obviously humor, though, in just the difference in how we live our lives now. It’s totally flipped,” he continued. “Comedy that resonates with most people is the stuff they can relate to, shared experiences. There’s definitely a lot of fodder there.”
But when it comes to making jokes about the quarantine, pandemic or current events in general, Feinberg is hesitant, citing a limited shelf life.
“If you’re going to write a joke about it, number one, why? Because it’ll be gone, hopefully, in a few months. If you want to write material, you want to write it so that you can do it for the next long while,” Feinberg said. “If you really want a bit that you’re really going to treasure for a long, long time, you want to write about something that doesn’t have a time stamp to it. That’s my philosophy.”
Smithsonian also dislikes many COVID-19-related bits. But her gripe is against the unoriginality of some low-hanging-fruit jokes.
“I’ve been surprised by some of the creativity in the community and then also disappointed by some. Like, I don’t want to hear your social distancing joke — I’m bored already,” Smithsonian said. “The joke that we heard, people are like, ‘Oh, socially distancing? I’ve been doing that since I was 14.’ And I’m like, ‘You know what, dude? Ten million other people came up with that joke five minutes ago.’ As soon as my dad tells me the joke, it’s dead. It’s done.”
Outside of traditional stand-up on livestreams, comics have veered toward other digital projects.
Machiz is developing a web series, published on JoshMachiz.com, about a cruise ship comedian titled “Josh Matchstick.”
Comedian Jillian Markowitz of South Philadelphia challenged herself to post a home costume online daily and has made more than 100 posts under the Instagram handle @quarantween_costumes.
And Smithsonian started a livestream series with her friends called “Sh__y Jews” about “talking sh__t and us talking about indigestion and going to the bathroom.”