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Laughing Matter: Pandemic is teaching comics how to stand up even if they can't hear the laughs

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

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The novel coronavirus is nothing to joke about, of course.

But comedians are still trying to make people laugh, even if the venues they routinely play have been shuttered by the pandemic.

Like their music and acting brethren, comics have taken their acts to the Internet -- a particularly unique challenge without an audience. Musician song performances, for instance, are self-contained enough that they don't require a cheering throng to come across well.

Cracking a joke without an audience to laugh is a different story, however.

"I don't think you'll find a performer out here who'll tell you it's not a huge drag," says Birmingham-raised J Chris Newberg, a Brother Rice High School graduate who's now based in Los Angeles and performs a show each Friday night via Facebook Live for 300-1,000 viewers. "I just try to approach it knowing that whoever is there and actually watching the thing, they're enjoying it."

Mark Ridley, who owns and operates the Comedy Castle in Royal Oak -- which has been shuttered since mid-March -- adds that, "It kind of throws off your timing. You don't know where the laughs are, or how long they'll be. It's hard to gauge the success of the joke -- that's the biggest challenge.

"Most comedians live paycheck to paycheck, so they can't really stop. They need to keep their names out there -- and their chops up."

Around Michigan, comics are finding different ways to bring the funny online and even make a little money doing it.

Frankenmuth’s Melissa Hager launched the Comedy Series as a touring live series back in May of 2016, taking shows to bars and restaurants around Michigan. The pandemic brought that to a halt but she's turned it into a weekly online program, featuring three comics -- including national names such as Jackie Fabulous from "America's Got Talent," Jen Kober from HBO's "The Righteous Gemstones" and David Dryer -- plus herself as host, with a $9 per household ticket.

"I would say it pales in comparison to a live comedy show," Hager -- who cracks that she's spending days with "two young boys being home-schooled by an alcoholic" -- acknowledges. "But, y'know, you're at home, it's a cheap ticket, you get to have a laugh. And we get to hire bigger comedians than we could ever afford in-person."

Hager says that since its mid-March launch the Comedy Series online has built a dedicated and regular audience that numbers between 150-300 each week from nearly every U.S. state and countries such as Australia, the U.K. and Latvia. On Zoom panels, meanwhile, the crowd has become as much a part of the show as the performing comics.

One week a bunch of people decided to watch in costume -- there was a unicorn, a rabbit, a pirate," she recalls. "People post dance-off videos. It's like they've taken ownership. It's their thing they do. They come and have a good time, which is great to see." The Comedy Series' set up, meanwhile, also lets the acts get a sense of audience reaction for their jokes.

"We're lucky we have a lot of people who choose to keep their cameras on, so you can see them," says Hager, who plans to continue the online Comedy Series shows, perhaps monthly, even after live venues open again. "You can see the screen, you can see them laughing.

"And you can interact; We had a lady watching in bed, with a glass of wine, and she was falling asleep and spilling on her pillows and the comedian's calling her out -- 'Jen! Jen! Wake up!' It was pretty funny."

Mike Ridley, Mark's brother, has had success with his own weekly Facebook performances on Saturday from his home in Indian River, attracting 500 or more viewers per show. "It's a different kind of gig, and not always in a bad way," Ridley notes. "When you're at a restaurant or a bar you're competing with the food and the drinks and the ambience. With this, you're it. People are tuning in to hear you -- it's the connection people are establishing that's probably the driving force behind a lot of it.

"I'm enjoying it tremendously."

Comics are also grappling with subject matter in the current situation -- specifically how much to joke about a lethal pandemic that's affecting everybody and has taken the lives of more than 200,000 around the world. "I don’t want to necessarily write about quarantine or what the lockdown has been like; I figure a lot of comics are going to have something like that when they come back," says Pat Sievert of Lansing, who's co-hosting a weekly "Mac's Monday Comedy Night" on Instagram, taking the place of a regular live show at the venue.

"I think everybody's figuring out how to do it now. We haven't been experiencing a lot of stuff outside (the pandemic) because there isn't a lot of stuff going on, so you have to work hard to find things to (joke) about that feel relevant."

Newberg -- a veteran of "America's Got Talent," "Last Comic Standing" and other shows -- says the learning curve for online comedy has been accelerated by the pandemic. But, as on stage, he's been learning new tricks for a new era of his trade.

"The feedback is that the people are constantly there, which tells you something," says Newberg, who's busy "punching up" scripts for a variety of projects when not performing. "The main thing I've learned is that in all entertainment it's about likability. If you're putting sincerity into whatever product you're delivering online, whether you're telling jokes or baking bread, if you're committed to showing how much fun you're having and how much you appreciate the opportunity to do it, it connects."

Laughing Matters

Looking for some laughs online? Check out these programs...

• The Comedy Series, 9 p.m. Fridays. $9. thecomedyseries.net.

• J. Chris Newberg, 9:30 p.m. Fridays on Facebook Live.

• Mike Ridley, 8 p.m. Saturdays on Facebook Live.

• "Mac's Monday Comedy Night," 9 p.m. Mondays @macsmondaycomedy on Instagram.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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