Stand-Up Comedy in the Age of COVID-19: How the Pandemic Has Changed the Industry

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the stand-up comedy industry. With so many live performances being cancelled and local comedy clubs shuttering their doors, it's been a difficult time for comedians and fans alike. However, the stand-up comedy community has shown resilience in this challenging time. Stand-up comics are finding new ways to share their humor with the world fostering an evolution in how comedy fans can experience this niched art from within the entertainment industry. 

To be fair, stand-up comedy has always been an everchanging industry from the fledgling vaudeville days to the when comedy started to get its legs in the 1970s during the pre-internet era to the present day where social media has connected people far and wide, creating audiences where there never was before. Change and evolution aren’t uncommon to stand-up comedy, however, globally impactful events tend to present new challenges that can spawn new ideas and opportunities.

Stand-Up Comedy: Before COVID-19

Before the pandemic, stand-up comedy was a thriving industry. With live comedy shows abound, audiences could enjoy their favorite stand-up comedians in person in virtually any city across North America. Some of the most popular venues for these shows were spread far and wide, with a higher concentration in major cities like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Las Vegas. People would come from all over to see their favorite stand-up comics perform and get a taste of what the city had to offer.

Many of the most well-known actors got their start in stand-up comedy. Famous names like Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle began their careers as relatively unknown comics touring the continent mastering their craft at various comedy clubs.

It was a different time back then. Without social media accounts or the internet, comedians had to rely on their live performances to make a name for themselves. There were no podcasts or TV specials that could help them build an audience. They had to do it at the local level without the assistance of far-reaching technology, and it was often a struggle getting their name out there. They’d have to network with local comedy club managers, compete for a few short minutes of stage time to test new material, then travel to a new town and do it all over again. Oftentimes, gigs were unpaid as the stage time was the only compensation. Social media wasn’t there to do the heavy lifting.

But that's what made it fun! Stand-up comics would lay it all out on the line for laughs, hoping to be brought back again later and maybe get a few bucks in compensation as well. At the time, most comedians probably wouldn’t call it fun, however, many might look back on those years fondly as their past self embraced the grind. There was an element of risk and uncertainty in every show, making for a much richer audience experience. As a result, stand-up comedy was never dull! Instead, it kept audiences on the edge of their seats and made them feel like they were part of something special. This intimacy and closeness don’t exist when you watch comedy on TV.

The Age of Social Media

With a slew of social media platforms options like Facebook/Meta, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram as well as streaming platforms like Netflix or Amazon Prime, stand-up comedians could reach audiences across the globe and extend their influence and their humor further than ever before. Their demographics also expanded as their performances touched the lives of older and younger generations alike, piquing new interest in the comedic arts.

With the benefit of far-reaching technology came drawbacks as well. While comedians now could make people laugh while the comic was asleep halfway across the globe, it lowered the barrier to entry for new comedians creating an increase in competition. If certain stand-up comics weren’t up-to-speed on their social media prowess, they got left behind, even if their talents and abilities were strong.

For those that understood the power of social media and the reach of the internet, the opportunity to capitalize on that reach increased as the top earners in the industry were able to earn from the wider audience using social media to market comedy specials, world tours as well as TV shows and movies.

Despite all this, even the highest-paid comedians understand that there’s nothing like a live show. Kevin Hart, a highly-successful stand-up comic, says that nothing beats touring on the road. The magic of a live comedy show simply can’t be replicated.

Stand-Up Comedy: During COVID-19

In March 2020, when the pandemic hit, most live performances and tours came to a screeching halt and were cancelled or postponed indefinitely due to concerns about COVID-19. 

With these cancelled shows, many comics had explored new ways to earn a living. Some found work doing virtual comedy shows, while others looked into other industries that might need help during this time. A few even started writing books or working on new material for the future, when things may return to normal...or a new normal, whatever that may look like.

North America wasn't the only place where stand-up comedy suffered. For example, a London-based comedian, Kate Smurthwaite, sought to become a math tutor online because it was available and she had the skillset.

Other comedians recall where they were and how they felt when they knew things were about to change. For instance, on February 29th, stand-up comedian Carmen Lynch performed at the Comedy Attic in Indiana. That same night, the first coronavirus-related death was reported in Washington. At that moment, Lynch knew that she wasn't going to be doing any stand-up for a long time.

With the pandemic in full swing, things had changed dramatically for the stand-up comedy industry. Comedy clubs were closing down across the continent and as a result, most comedians feared that audiences may eventually lose interest in the genre and wouldn't have an industry in which to return.

Has Traditional Stand-Up Comedy Vanished?

Theatres, comedy clubs, and restaurants that regularly hosted stand-up performances were forced to close their doors. This led to even more cancellations of numerous comedy tours and appearances, leaving many comedians in limbo, unsure of how to plan their next moves or where their next paycheck would be coming from.

Comedians like Lynch were used to travelling most of the time but soon had to learn to be stuck at home instead. Other comedians like Pete Davidson, who has been doing stand-up since his mid-teens, recalls just how empty the weeks were with the pandemic in full swing. "You could usually do five to nine spots a week." The pandemic forced Davidson to take an extended break from performing, and like most, he was blindsided by the sudden change. 

The effect wasn't just limited to comedians. Comedy clubs that regularly booked comedians were struggling to stay afloat and all the staff that relied on work at the club to pay their bills were left out in the cold, too. This led to vicious layoffs of security, wait, and kitchen staff. Some clubs even closed down permanently, leaving former employees, managers and local comedy fans wondering what effect this will have on the industry as a whole. This was also damaging to many aspects of this industry as a whole.

As days dragged into weeks and weeks into months, with no end in sight, stand-up comedians realized that lockdowns, mask mandates, and social distancing practices were likely to continue. Yet, creative minds always prevail.

How The Art of Comedy Has Survived COVID-19

Despite all of this, different formats of comedic entertainment have emerged during the pandemic. For example, one quick and easy way to get in front of an audience was to do comedy shows from home. This became the new standard for many comedians, who would stream their show live on social media, Zoom, or upload pre-recorded shows to streaming services like Twitch and YouTube.

Other times, you would see comedians attempting to post small skits to TikTok, Facebook or Instagram with mixed success. For some, these platforms helped to accelerate their careers, allowing them to do something more like comedian Jason Banks. Banks is known for his escapades with his fictional character Derek who he impersonates on the platform. 

Social media platforms made a quick and easy way for comedians to get back in front of an audience while the pandemic raged on. This has also opened up the opportunity to reach a larger audience that normally wouldn’t have been able to visit your local comedy club, with some comedians reporting that their streaming numbers increasing.

COVID-19 Is Forcing Comedians Out of Their Comfort Zones

While we know that there’s simply no replacement for a live stand-up comedy show and the unique intimacy it brings. The concept of the virtual comedy show was a step in the right direction and the creative spark that some comics needed. 

However, audience reactions are necessary to steer a show in the right direction. With a live show, the comedian receives direct feedback from their audience in the form of laughter, applause or groans and gauging the room's temperature can allow the comedian to make adjustments to their set as it progresses offering up a truly dynamic and one-of-a-kind experience for those in the crowd. It’s part of the magic recipe.

With virtual shows, that feedback is non-existent or at least difficult to obtain. It may not seem important, but that feedback is key to how the comedian delivers their set, which has an impact on the overall show. With that in mind, stand-up comics have been hesitant to be a part of virtual shows as they are often concerned with their image, brand and quality of the show. 

There have been work-arounds where audience members of Zoom shows are encouraged to keep their camera and microphones on at home allowing the comedians to see and hear the laughing faces providing that oh-so-important feedback. It’s not just stand-up comics who are stepping out of their comfort zones, it’s the audience too! This presents other challenges though. Platform moderators are needed as people talking in their home or dogs barking can distract the comic or audience members, so having a moderator control or mute these instances is key.

Outdoor formats were also available because they fulfilled the need for social distancing. While many comedians agree that this was better than the online format, being on stage again felt like it was the first time. Many stand-up comics admitted they were rusty and still didn't feel right. Yet, it was a step in the right direction.

Traditional Stand-Up Comedy Keeps Evolving

With the thought of the pandemic further easing, comedians seem to be more eager to see a return to normalcy as they gear up for an increase in live shows and tours. Navigating the difficulty that has been social distancing, ever-changing mandates and vaccine requirements has pushed comedy club managers, agents, stand-up comics and audiences alike well out of ther comfort zone. 

However, this doesn't change the fact that the pandemic has permanently altered the stand-up comedy landscape as we know it. While we can’t predict the future, it’s been interesting to witness the changes that have taken place and continue to take place in the comedy industry. Will we see a return to the previous life in comedy? Will it be completely changed or will we see a new hybrid of in-person and technology based delivery?

Let us know your thoughts on where we’re headed or how your comedy experiences have been affected.

About Us: WatchComedy.Live

At WatchComedy.Live, our aim is to make selling tickets to your stand-up comedy show a breeze. Even though the stand-up comedy scene has changed dramatically in recent years, comedy clubs and promoters are looking to stay ahead of the curve and maximize their resources while minimizing their costs.

Our online ticketing platform allows you to sell tickets to your comedy shows directly from your free custom website and provides the tools necessary for clubs to manage their own shows and market their events more effectively. We understand that change can be difficult, but when change is this easy and this beneficial to your business, it’s a no-brainer. 

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