Tech

When COVID-19 is a joke: Stand-up comedy versus livestreamings limits

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“Was that a stinky DD coming from a big giraffe? Its definitely not coming from our 14 different pooper dooper locations!”

Moments after stand-up comedian Meg Stalter drops this punchline, as part of a routine mocking the Disney Work Orientation process, her crowd of 11,400 viewers is silent. But shes not bombing. Stalter is streaming her comedy set via Instagram Live, and as soon as the joke drops, her audience members begin furiously tapping their phone screens, thus sending a wave of pink, yellow, and blue diaphanous hearts up from the right-hand side of her own livestreaming interface.

“Im about to puke this is so funny,” one fan types. Its not the immediate feedback of a laughing crowd, but for Stalter, shell take it.

Comedys current migration patterns

This is live comedy in the COVID-19 era: raucous laughter replaced by hearts, as audiences thousands of miles away tune in. Comedy has migrated to social media, including Instagram Live, Periscope, and Twitch, as well as networking platforms like Zoom. But these millions-strong platforms have something in common: they were never built with the particular nuances of live comedy in mind, and comedians are doing their best to adapt. “I really miss all the energy of performing live, like the laughter,” Stalter admits.

The relief of live, participatory comedy is perfectly suited for something like a pandemic, ripe with awkward interactions and collisions of social norms. Yet its one of the few types of performance that require audience reaction to know if the art is working. Most social networks limit their audiences to time-delayed emojis and text messages, while Zooms default audio mixing means any miced audience members can disrupt a performer pretty severely.

Stand-up performed to deafening silence is unsettling. When performing live, “theres an immediate reaction: either its funny or its not, but [online] you dont know,” comedian Noah Findling says.

Facebook Live and Instagram Live are trying to make their platforms more interactive, with features that allow performers to bring an audience member into their videos and incorporate live polls, says Addie Coronado, a communications manager at Facebook. Zoom, however, isnt adding new features that specifically target live performers requests, according to a representative. And stand-up comedians in need of a paying gig—and eager to capitalize on entertainment-hungry fans sitting at home—are mostly forced to work within these popular platforms constraints instead of expecting fans to jump through hoops like installing or testing brand-new apps.

“A two-way conversation”

That hasnt stopped enterprising tech-comedy fans from experimenting.

Two months ago, a new platform called Rally debuted with its own ideas on simulating the comedy club experience online, complete with live audience laughter. Rally was launched by three Toronto-based designers with live-performance experience: Ali Jiwani, Amy Liu, and Anson Kao. The idea came about when Jiwani, a comedian, and Liu, a musician, struggled to make money from performing after the COVID-19 crisis hit in March.

“How do we make it easier for everyone whos just like us to still perform and get their talent out when people arent [physically] coming together?” Jiwani says. They also were frustrated with the lack of interactivity on many platforms, which particularly affected live comedy, which is a “two-way conversation,” Liu says. “You cant just be taking to a screen to a group of muted individuals,” she says.

A mock-up of Rallys interface, as provided by its creators.
Enlarge / A mock-up of Rallys interface, as provided by its creators.Rally

Within the Rally app, around 15 minutes before the show starts, participants are invited to pick a “seat” in a 2D interface filled with tables and chairs. Viewers can opt into a pre-show video chat with their table neighbors if they want, which is subtly encouraged by the audio of other viewers piped through everyones feeds.

Once the show begins, it largely resembles a Zoom video conference, with one major difference: the comedian is center stage, and the audience appears as icons whose voices are audible but at a much lower volume than the comedian. This addresses the default Zoom issue of when a laughing audience member ruins a comedians joke by having their face take over the screen. Rallys current interface also includes moderator tools: if an audience member becomes unruly, a moderator can boot them into a five-minute time-out. If they heckle again, they can be permanently kicked out.

Status update, via crowd banter

Rallys team says its trying to correct another one of the larger issues with live online performances: latency, or the time delay between a joke and the audience laughter. But Rally alleges that its latency is less than a second—thats roughly the same as Zoom, which can feel like an eternity when a performer relies on the rhythm of punchlines and laughter.

I watched one of the first Rally comedy shows last month, which featured performers in Toronto, San Francisco, and London. The lag wasnt too bad. I heard the toned-down laughter of other audience members, which didnt overwhelm the performers voices. It wasnt perfect—one performers feed froze and had to be booted mid-act—but there was something great about hearing a comedian ask the audience, “How many of you are single?” and hearing multiple audience members reply, “I am!” in a way that didnt wrest mic control away from the comedian “on stage.”

A few audience members hung around afterwards to chat with comedians just as they would at a real-life comedy show. It seemed more similar to a comedy club than an Instagram Live show. I felt like I was part of an audience of real people, not of disembodied Instagram handles endlessly tossing up emojis.

Rallys founders claim theyve gotten interest from the agents of popular, touring comedians, but the companys incredibly limited online presence as of press time has us wondering if this experimental platform is built to scale up in a way that performers and audiences alike can easily access. (Cursory searches for “Rally comedy” on search engines and social media tends to bring up stories about political rallies, not a burgeoning live-performance interface.)

The 800 million-pound gorilla

One issue Rally will struggle to surmount is that comedians are flocking to where their audience already is. Facebooks last major public statement about daily active usersRead More – Source

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