'It’s something you can’t download': Can live comedy make a comeback?

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Three weeks ago, on a cold Thursday night in July, in the backstage rooms of a Redfern comedy club, comedians Alex Jae and Rosie Piper readied themselves to tell jokes to a live audience once again. Metres away, in the COVID-safe setting of Giant Dwarf, socially distanced punters waited.

"It was incredibly exciting and strange," Jae says. "Seeing other comedians, watching their set from the green room, having that community feeling back."

Alex Jae and Rosie Piper are two stand-up comedians returning to live performance.

Alex Jae and Rosie Piper are two stand-up comedians returning to live performance.Credit:Wolter Peeters

Piper: "It was like the first day back at school."

Jae: "We've had months of no validation, so now we want all of it."

Piper: "Comedians. We're very needy."

In separate sets, the comics told jokes to 30 people at Giant Dwarf, a venue designed for five times that number. "Giant Dwarf is a biggish room but can’t be completely full," Piper says. "So it feels like they didn’t sell enough tickets, even though it’s technically sold out. That’s quite weird."

Apart from discerning what’s funny material during a pandemic, returning to the mic means adapting to socially distanced laughter from a limited number of audience members. "You have to train yourself to think, ‘This is as good a reaction as I'm going to get in a full room,’ " Piper says. "Comedy works best when everybody's crammed into a small space or sitting close to each other. That’s not to say it was bad, I’m grateful to be performing again, but it would be really good to get that feeling again."

Resuscitating live, on-stage comedy, one of the arts and entertainment industries thrown into turmoil by coronavirus crowd restrictions, has been touch and go in Sydney and Melbourne. Re-opened comedy nights stalled in Melbourne but a number of Sydney comedy venues are open, albeit with COVID-safe rules.

The bustling, shoulder-to-shoulder, spittle-in-the spotlight nature of live comedy is gone. But it remains possible for audiences to laugh at comedians in the same room at Giant Dwarf, Happy Endings Comedy Club, Eveleigh Comedy, the Vanguard, Sneaky Possum Comedy Club, the Argyle, and Magic Mic Comedy. Shrunken venue capacities mean only 10 to 30 tickets are available for each gig, depending on room size, and most gigs sell out straight away.

While grateful to be working live again, one of the biggest setbacks for Piper and Jae was the cancellation of the 2020 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, one of the world’s biggest annual comedy events and a huge stepping stone for careers in Australian comedy.

"Like a lot of comics we know in Sydney, Rosie and I were going to do our first solo shows, our debut, at Melbourne Comedy Festival this year," Jae says. "Then it was gone. We don’t know if the festival will come back next year either. Nobody knows."

Ray Martin gave his comedy chops a run in the ABC's lockdown-themed satire At Home Alone Together.

Ray Martin gave his comedy chops a run in the ABC's lockdown-themed satire At Home Alone Together. Credit:

Jae and Piper also don’t know if their hour-long festival shows will work in a post-COVID-19 world. "My show was all about what it's like being trans," Piper says. "But I feel like when it finally happens, people will be, ‘Bit selfish.’ "

Jae adds, laughing: "Oh, please, mine was just about anxiety. Everyone has it now, I'm not special any more."

With annual festivals gone this year, including MICF, the Sydney Comedy Festival, the Perth Comedy Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and future festivals and large venues reopening in doubt, the industry is still reeling. Last month, research conducted by the UK’s Live Comedy Association found almost eight out of 10 British live comedy venues will have to close by year’s end. The survey also showed almost half of those working in the industry, including comedians, are close to quitting.

Australian live comedy is similarly hit, with venues, stand-up nights, national and international tours are abandoned or rescheduled. Some comedians adapted material from their cancelled festival shows for TV, including the Australian Lockdown Comedy Festival, series on Stan MC’d by Dave Hughes, Cal Wilson, Wil Anderson and Nazeem Hussain, and featuring more than 25 comedians performing, and recording themselves, from home.

At Home Alone Together, a nine-part ABC TV lifestyle show "for a world in which nobody has a life" was a pioneering COVID-19-inspired TV production, proving host Ray Martin’s deadpan abilities, and the talent and adaptability of producers, writers and performers such as Nick Hayden, Dan Ilic, Chris Taylor, Becky Lucas, Laura Hughes and Anne Edmonds.

Amazon Prime streamed 10 live specials from comics such as Edmonds, Celia Pacquola, Dilruk Jayasinha and Zoe Coombs Marr, and comedy agencies such as A-List Entertainment and Token began offering archived and live-streamed comedy, such as Easey Comedy, a weekly on-line stand-up show MC’d by Adam Hills.

Kevin Whyte - the managing director of Token Group, which represents many of Australia’s best-known comedians and includes Guesswork Television, the production company behind shows ranging from Easey Comedy to Hannah Gadsby:Nanette, Rosehaven, Hard Quiz, The Weekly with Charlie Pickering, Get Krack!n, the Australian Lockdown Comedy Festival, and the stand-up specials for Amazon Prime - is adamant live comedy will survive.

"Nothing's as good as a full room full of people, right?" he says. "You do worry that people think that the industry is fine because we're finding these ways to still keep on going. But I'm really proud of how we’ve managed to find new tricks and I reckon we'll keep some of them. Streaming live stand-up shows, for instance, has meant a lot of people who couldn’t go out join the audience. It’s something you can’t download and have to experience live."

Token Group's Kevin Whyte is proud of how comedians have adapted to the COVID conditions.

Token Group's Kevin Whyte is proud of how comedians have adapted to the COVID conditions. Credit:Simon Schluter

Whyte says Easey Comedy and various Token Zoom comedy specials have also allowed comedians and audiences to engage again, reviving a sense of community. "Seeing all the faces, the people watching in their living rooms, dancing along to the house music before and after, has been very emotional for comedians and also the managers and producers at the more cynical end of the business."

"It’s been lovely. We’ve had people from all over the world. But, the last thing I want anyone to think is that any of this is anywhere near as good as the experience of being in a theatre, crammed in with 1000 other people laughing your head off."

Comedian Frank Woodley, who performed the live Zoom show Singin’ Some Songs in May with longtime collaborator Colin Lane, was struck by the size and nature of online audiences. "We ended up with thousands of people joining that show and it really did feel like a particular type of intimacy," he says. "Nothing like when you have people in the room with you but, in some ways, more intimate because we were going into, and seeing into, their homes.

He and Lane also adapted their comedy to a new medium. "Being live gave it an immediacy and a particular roughness that was surprisingly enjoyable. We were on two separate screens and that presented some fantastic and bizarre challenges. At one point, we were creating coming back from the Antarctic. I was saying, ‘Ooh, this blizzard is getting bad,’ and a whole bucket of rice bubbles gets thrown over Col and some maybe got caught under his eyelid.

"I think the audience would have been able to see both of our reactions being genuine, his genuine discomfort, but also the pleasure of knowing that would have pleased the audience."

Lano and Woodley swapped live stand-up for a live Zoom show called Singin’ Some Songs.

Lano and Woodley swapped live stand-up for a live Zoom show called Singin’ Some Songs.

Predicting the future of live comedy seems impossible but there is optimism about its health. Woodley believes a new era of comics will emerge, whether onscreen or on stage, creating work that adapts to the new normal. "We don't even know who they are at the moment," he says. "Some of them might be people we know who really seized that opportunity or a whole wave of new artists, new comedians, who, because they’re obsessed and passionate about producing enough content, will eventually find some momentum or find an audience."

Piper believes the two comedy rooms she co-runs, Comedy at Papa Gedes and Powerbomb Comedy, will return, while she and Jae continue their respective podcasts, We'll Just Tell Your Mother We Ate it All and The Ladies Guide To Dude Cinema.

Whyte, who expects audiences to flock back when festivals re-open, wants to build security and safety measures that foster audience confidence and "don’t steal the joy out of it". "Right now a whole lot of creative, interesting people have had time to re-evaluate, and somewhere out there, right now, my new absolute, favourite show has been written," he says. "We just need to get that show in front of a live audience."

THE LAUGHS KEEP COMING

IN THE FLESH

Eveleigh Comedy Coming weekly shows include Bonnie Tangey, Lizzy Hoo, Becky Lucas, Luke Heggie and Sian Smyth. Sundays, 6.30pm, $5, The Eveleigh Hotel, 158 Abercrombie St, Redfern, trybooking.com

Giant Dwarf Weekly stand-up at Giant Comedy (Thursdays, 6.30pm and 8.30pm), Totally F*ct trivia night hosted by Giant Dwarf co-founder Julian Morrow (August 4, 6.30pm) and Two Queers Walk Into a Bar, featuring acts from the Sydney LGBTQIA+ comedy scene. 280 Cleveland Street, Redfern, giantdwarf.com.au

Sneaky Possum Comedy Weekly stand-up from Sydney comedians with tickets including dinner and a drink. Mondays, 5.30pm, Sneaky Possum, 86 Abercrombie St, Chippendale, $45

Kitty Flanagan: It’s Whiteboard O’Clock Flanagan returns to road-test her new show for a live audience. August 4 & 11, 6pm, $34.37/$66.20 (dinner & show), The Vanguard, 42 King Street, Newtown, thevanguard.com.au

The Running Joke Live comedy in a basement bar hosted by resident compere Daniel Muggleton. Thursdays, 8pm, $22.19, underneath the Magician’s Cabaret Theatre Restaurant, 91 Riley Street, Darlinghurst, eventbrite.com

Happy Endings Comedy Club Live weekly stand-up at the club's traditional red-curtained home in King Cross and velvet-lined, underground bar Pamela’s. Wednesdays, 7.30pm, $15, The Prince Of York, 18 York Street, Sydney; Fridays, 8.30pm; Saturdays, 6.30pm & 8.30pm, $30, 154 Broughman Street (cnr William Street), Kings Cross

Magic Mic Comedy Weekly stand-up nights. Wednesdays, 7pm, $15/$20, 33-35 Darlinghurst Rd, Potts Point, eventbrite.com.au

Yeah the Girls A brand new, all-women comedy night featuring Michelle Azevedo, Stephanie Broadbridge, Sophie Eugenie and Vic Zerbst. Fortnightly Thursdays, from August 13, 7.30pm, The Chippo Hotel, 87 Abercrombie Street, Chippendale

LIVE AND ONLINE

Humour Us: Lizzy Hoo and The Stevenson Experience Stand-up comedian Hoo and musical comedy double-act the Stevenson brothers in a live stream from the Sydney Opera House. August 2, 8pm, free, operahouse.com

Easey Comedy Hosted by Adam Hills, a weekly live comedy night streamed from a tiny red-curtained stage in Collingwood in Melbourne with Cal Wilson, Lloyd Langford, Zoe Coombs Marr, Greg Larsen, Rhys Nicholson and Danielle Walker on previous bills. Thursdays, 7pm, $15/$25/$35 comedy.com.au

Judith Lucy and Denise Scott – Disappointments ‘Zoom-cast’ Longtime collaborators Judith Lucy and Denise Scott live from the living-room every week discussing (possibly) drinking, chin hair and the abysmal state of things. Sundays until Sept 20, 5pm (doors open 4.30pm), $15/$20/$30, comedy.com.au

VCR Fest – La Nonna: The Little Bits We Love Part of Melbourne Fringe’s Virtual Common Rooms Festival, La Nonna is a "drag cabaret-cum-Italian cucina" paying homage to the power of food, song and an Italian grandmother’s love. August 2, 2pm, choose your price, melbournefringe.com.au

Identity Steft - Steph Tisdell MICF Best Newcomer nominee Tisdell’s newest show, filmed at the Sydney Comedy Store in early 2020, followed by a live Q&A. September 12, 8pm, $25/$35, alist.com.au