Stand-up with no laughs: Comedians find new ways to entertain quarantined audiences

Missing the audible, reflexive laughter that makes their performances buzz, comedians are having to find new ways to make audiences laugh in quarantine.
Illustration of woman standing on cellphone giving a comedy performance.
With traditional, stand-up comedy coming almost to a halt in quarantine, comedians have had to get creative to keep audiences laughing.Glenn Harvey / for NBC News

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By Kalhan Rosenblatt

Mary Beth Barone is used to performing stand-up comedy for hundreds of people at sold-out shows in New York City.

But these days, she’s performing live from her parent’s bathtub.

“It’s a new world we’re living in … the need to perform is kind of insatiable when you’re a stand up, so at least this is quelling that even if it’s, like, only for an hour and a half,” Barone said.

Barone, 28, is one of scores of comedians who are adapting their performances from the stage to livestreams while the nation continues to quarantine amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Entertainment has gone digital as the United States practices social distancing to stop the spread of the virus. Concerts are held on Instagram Live, movies have been released and made available for download ahead of schedule, and a litany of television shows are ready to stream.

Comedy, however, has had a tougher time transitioning.

Missing the audible, reflexive laughter that makes their performances buzz, comedians are having to find new ways to make audiences laugh. Comedy variety shows such as “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” and “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” and late night talk shows such as “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” all of which have been traditionally performed in front of live audiences, have aired “at-home” versions without the laughter of a crowd to punctuate jokes.

While those shows continue to produce episodes that are altered, but formulaically traditional, stand-up comedy has almost come to a halt.

“I have an idea in my mind that like stand-up won’t really be a thing for probably a year,” Barone said. “At least not how it was.”

Comedians have found creative ways to practice the art form despite the missing laughter. Many have leaned in to Instagram Live shows, teaming up with other stand-ups to utilize a more conversational format than a traditional set-up/punchline show.

Some have created new shows, like Barone’s “Coming Clean,” the show she hosts from her parents’ bathtub in Connecticut. Others, however, have taken shows they typically perform on stage to the internet.

Catherine Cohen, 28, was among the first to take her weekly show “Cabernet Cabaret,” which she traditionally hosts at New York City’s Club Cumming, to Instagram.

Testing the waters and wanting to keep the show light and casual, she asked friends from Los Angeles and New York to participate in the first Instagram Live incarnation of “Cabernet Cabaret” during the first week of the quarantine.

For Cohen, who has become prolific for her musical comedy with pianist Henry Koperski, the medium is a space to test out new material.

“It’s easier for me to do songs and poems than stand-up just because stand-up so relies on the immediate reaction of a laugh,” she said. “I’m just trying to find other ways to work on my act without an audience there.”

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Cohen is able to use the show to work out her new material, but she’s also able to share the stream with other comedians, some of whom said she’s given them a way to continue doing comedy in a space where they feel they otherwise wouldn’t be able to thrive.

George Civeris, 28, doesn’t do a lot of digital comedy — the viral videos often posted by comedians to Twitter and Instagram, which earn scores of views and likes and have become a wildly popular format in recent years.

So when Cohen asked him to participate in “Cabernet Cabaret,” he knew it would challenge him to try something out of his comfort zone.

“For me, it was like a very new experience … I was like, ‘OK, well, I can’t do stand-up, because it would make no sense.’ So I very last minute came up with a half-baked character,” Civeris said of his experience on Cohen’s show.

Civeris said other comedians have engaged in banter or come up with narrative-based comedy, adding that the show has allowed traditional stand-ups, who are missing the immediate laughter of an audience, to find new ways to perform.

Although many comedians said they’re unable to perform stand up without the live audience, others said they’re not only continuing to do stand-up, but also feel the medium has taught them how to be alone.

“Alone is not a scary thing for me. I’m very creative alone and I make myself laugh. Even before this, when I was on the road a lot alone just for stand-up and stuff, I had to really learn to be my best friend,” comedian Melissa Villaseñor, of “Saturday Night Live,” said.

Since the start of the quarantine, Villaseñor has done a plethora of livestreams on YouTube, Instagram and Twitch, which includes a “bird watching” show and an “Owen Wilson” meditation.

While she’s experimenting with different shows and formats, Villaseñor said she’s still doing stand-up without being able to hear her viewers’ laughter and keeping that muscle memory alive.

“It felt weird but then I saw all these comments, that were live comments of my fans, and just seeing them laugh typing it, it just felt really beautiful to connect like that and make people laugh,” she said. “There was no crowd, but being home and thinking and trying to create new bits … felt really good.”

But in the comedy scene, it’s not just the laughter that’s missing.

Venues are unable to host shows, dealing a potentially fatal financial blow, wait staff have been laid off, and tech crews have taken substantial pay cuts as the scene goes on an indefinite hiatus in the wake of the growing COVID-19 crisis, members of the New York comedy community told NBC News.

Ben Lillie and Kate Downey own Caveat on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Once the city began limiting large crowds, Caveat pivoted to livestreaming its shows in order to keep its programming alive and to continue to earn a small income, Lillie said.

However, the venue is not above water when it comes to turning a profit on livestreams, he added.

“This is something we’re all worried about. If the shutdown is a couple months, we’re probably all going to be fine. If it stretches on, yeah, I don’t know what the live performance scene is going to look like,” he said.

Because of this, some big-name comedians have created initiatives to help keep those in the most dire straits afloat.

At the start of the coronavirus quarantine, comedian Mike Birbiglia started Tip Your Waitstaff, a show in which he and other big-name comedians go live on Instagram as a way to raise money for the staff of comedy clubs that have closed in the wake of COVID-19.

“What occurred to me when we were rescheduling shows is that the people who really get hurt in all of this rescheduling and shutting down is people who work on tips,” he said.

Initially, Birbiglia, who had to cancel several of his own shows, planned to write a check to the staff of the venues where he had been scheduled to play. He then decided he could raise more awareness and funds with Tip Your Waitstaff.

“Audiences aren’t really privy to this behind-the-scenes of the incarnation of where jokes come from … you don’t see the actual creation of jokes in real time between comedian friends,” he said. “I said, ‘What if we do that? We raise awareness, we raise money.’”

During the Instagram Live show, which has had guests such as John Mulaney, Roy Wood Jr. and Maria Bamford, viewers watch the comedians riff on jokes they’re currently working on and build them out into fully realized bits.

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“I think we all get this is a crisis and we don’t know exactly what to do, but this is one thing we can do,” Birbiglia said.

It’s not just comedians in Birbiglia’s echelon who are trying to help those most affected by the comedy scene’s shutdown.

Cohen has encouraged those tuning in to “Cabernet Cabaret” to donate to various charities, including the Food Bank for New York City.

While many acknowledge their contributions pale in comparison to those in the medical and service industries, those who spoke with NBC News said they hoped in a time where so much is unknown, they’re still making people laugh — even if they can’t hear it.

“I wouldn’t compare what we do to doctors and the people who are keeping the country running but if I have an opportunity to take someone’s mind off of what’s going on for 47 seconds, then I think that’s worth my time,” Barone said.