This is the longest period I have gone without gigging since I started as a comic. It looks as if we’re moving towards indoor performances again, but nobody knows what they will look like, and there is the horrific prospect of everyone wearing face masks, which will make it very difficult for a comedian to know how well the gig is going. Hearing muffled laughter from a sea of faces that may or may not be smiling is something comedians will have to get used to. Yes, I know this isn’t the biggest hardship of the pandemic; do not @ me.
There have been various new ways of doing live comedy during lockdown, with promoters getting impressively innovative. To start with, there was the advent of online gigs, mainly performed via Zoom. This is disconcerting for a number of reasons. First, you’re usually sitting down because standing in front of your laptop feels super weird. Second, there is something acutely embarrassing about doing standup in your own living room. I did it a couple of times and spent the whole gig worrying that I would be delivering some impassioned bit about home schooling and one of my kids would pop his head round the door and demand a right of reply.
A lot of the Zoom gigs had no audience feedback, so it was just me shouting into my laptop and then seeing if anybody typed “ha ha ha” into the chat box, while feeling it was more likely I’d get an, “Is anyone else finding this a bit weird?”
I did run-throughs of material for my BBC2 TV show The Ranganation via Zoom gigs hosted by the promoters Always Be Comedy. They had set up a front row within the chat box, so that you did hear laughs and feedback, which felt like an amazing breakthrough – although I did once have the embarrassing experience of thinking my connection had gone down and asking if everyone could hear me, to which they replied yes. That bit had just died on its arse.
The next sort of gig, which I confess to not having done, is the car park gig, where people drive up and watch you on stage. This feels like a truly innovative way of dealing with the situation, although you have to adjust to the fact that, instead of laughter, the cars beep appreciation. As a performer, I’m told you have to retrain yourself to enjoy the sound that is most likely going to give you traffic PTSD flashbacks.
Most recently, the relaxation of lockdown means we have started to see gigs popping up in pub beer gardens. I did my first last week, and it felt glorious. The atmosphere is hugely dependent on the geography of the beer garden, but I did one in Winchester that felt like a proper gig. For the first minute or so, I tried to remember how to deliver coherent sentences – but there was a sanitised microphone, people were laughing, the comics were enjoying themselves and we even ignored the fact that I dropped the c-bomb, forgetting we were outside, and shocking some passersby.
Obviously there are issues, mainly because it is difficult to have a financially viable gig when you can play to only 30 people at a time; plus, in Brtain, you have only 10 weather-viable performance days a year. Nevertheless, it feels great to be live again and I welcome the next indoor innovation – one in which every gig will feel like performing to a surgical team.