Every Saturday night since late March, Welsh stand-up comedian Kiri Pritchard-McLean cracks jokes to thousands of viewers from the secluded confines of a farm in Wales. If laughter echoes after the punchline – from bedrooms or family rooms or kitchen tables across the UK and beyond – the comedian can’t hear it. In the space of silence that follows, without the crucial reassurance of scattered chuckles or howling guffaws, the stand-up comedian has a flash of a waking nightmare.
Only three months ago, the notion of attending a comedy club for an evening of live stand-up from home would not make sense. But now, with Zoom as the most frequented pub across the globe and laughter an ever-coveted salve for the weight of a worldwide health crisis, comedians are delivering jokes down the barrel of their laptop cameras.
Pritchard-McLean has been gigging several times a week since 2010, and like so many live performers who are powered by a symbiotic relationship with their audience, grew accustomed to the energetic nuances of a dimly lit, ale-scented room. Comedians are wired to gauge the infinitesimal changes in the crackling of laughter and shifting of bodies, to follow the dips and curves of their audience’s delight.
“I really miss performing”, she tells me. “That’s something I hadn’t realised prior to this: that my self-esteem is intrinsically linked to my job, and I’m a bit, sort of, lost when I’m not able to do it.”
But now, with Zoom as the most frequented pub across the globe and laughter an ever-coveted salve for the weight of a worldwide health crisis, comedians are delivering jokes down the barrel of their laptop cameras
For performers such as Pritchard-McLean, the pandemic-catalysed adjustment to performing stand-up sans-audience has prompted something akin to an identity crisis.
When lockdown started, Pritchard-McLean was four dates into a forty-plus date tour of her stand-up show Empathy Pains, which was set to include a run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and extend into autumn. Then came lockdown, and ever since, the comedian has been working remotely from her home, recording episodes of her podcast All Killa No Filla with fellow comedian Rachel Fairburn, and hosting the new livestream weekly comedy club The Covid Arms via Zoom.
The virtual stand-up show began at the onset of quarantine in late March, and has featured a variety of renowned comedians like Frankie Boyle, Aisling Bea, and Dan Nightingale. During the past several months, the show has built up a community of regular viewers, many of whom are essential workers, as well as those who have been shielding long-term health complications.
“It’s important to be light and funny and escapist on that”, says Pritchard-McLean.
“It is my job to turn up and be, hopefully, a conduit for them to be able to forget for a few hours. And it’s something I massively look forward to as well.”
Through ticket sales, the show has collected over one hundred thousand pounds for The Trussell Trust, an organisation which raises money for food banks across the UK. A large amount of funds raised also went towards paying the comedians for their contribution to the project, which was an important stipulation to Pritchard-McLean.
“I didn’t want to be another person asking comedians to work for free, because that was a weird thing that came out of COVID-19 shutting everything down, is comedians being the first people asked to do something for no money, even though they were the people with their livelihoods taken away”, she says.
Pritchard-McLean tells me the income from her show Empathy Pains was meant to comprise half her year’s earnings, at least. But she is quick to point out that many in the comedy circuit find themselves in far worse positions, especially those without television, podcast, film or writing gigs to compensate for live performances.
These performers are left scrambling, now that their job – which was not exactly renowned for its income security anyway – has vanished. Pritchard-McLean insists that there exists a tremendous and largely unaddressed class issue in comedy, one which is perpetuated by the lack of discussion about comedians’ salaries.
“I know it’s rank to talk about money,” she says, “but part of this industry being really middle classist is that no one talks about it.”
To mitigate the perpetuation of “middle classist” distaste for discussing the matter, Pritchard-McLean makes a point of explaining her current financial situation, namely that, “I earn in two weeks now what I would earn in a couple of days before this”.
Additionally, she points out that even for comedians getting commissioned to do scripted and writing work, most channels are not paying upfront for the work to get done. It is only after navigating a labyrinthine process of drafts, redrafts, production notes and editorial channels that a comedian might get paid for their efforts, if at all, meaning that a great deal of work actually goes entirely unpaid.
“One of the insidiously dark things that we don’t really talk about in stand-up is how people don’t really pay you on time,” Pritchard-McLean tells me. “So weirdly, I’m kind of living off the money of all the people who haven’t bothered to pay me on time.”
Pritchard-McLean insists that there exists a tremendous and largely unaddressed class issue in comedy, one which is perpetuated by the lack of discussion about comedians’ salaries
The pandemic has put a dampener on many comedians’ ability to produce new material, revealing the latent class divisions of the industry, as well as the severe lack of financial security afforded creatives. Especially during an unparalleled time of uncertainty and fear, coming up with funny, topical content has proven unanimously difficult.
Like Pritchard-McLean, Dublin-based stand-up comedian Felix O’Connor has felt the strain of trying to write new, timely routines in the midst of such anxiety. While there is certainly a place for spinning dark moments from one’s personal experience into comedic material, both comedians were quick to note that struggling with various financial uncertainties, mental health issues or struggles related to working from home have made creativity a distant dream.
“There’s a lot of fear around, and being able to turn fear into comedy, it’s an art that I think a lot of people have, but having the will to do that when you are scared and have been scared for a long time, and don’t know how long any of this is going to last, it can be really tough”, says O’Connor.
O’Connor is a relative newcomer to the stand-up scene. Graduating from Trinity in 2019, O’Connor’s long-term involvement with the LGBTQ+ society on campus exposed him to stand-up through society collaborations with comedians raising money for LGBTQ+ causes. His “home” gig prior to the lockdown was a weekly open-mic night called Jester at Sin é, along with several other regular performances at improv comedy nights and stand-up clubs.
As a trans man, O’Connor’s stand-up focuses primarily on sex and gender-related topics in an effort to bring more visibility to the trans-masculine experience. Along with fellow trans comedian Allie O’Rourke, last year O’Connor started a monthly comedy night called Token Straight after noticing a gap in the Dublin comedy scene where trans and queer comedians could otherwise be showcased.
Like Pritchard-McLean, Dublin-based stand-up comedian Felix O’Connor has felt the strain of trying to write new, timely routines in the midst of such anxiety
He says they were able to run five shows of Token Straight before quarantine began, including one in collaboration with Comedy Soc in Trinity. He and O’Rourke were in the midst of planning a nationwide tour when the pandemic descended upon Ireland, and were set to take the show to Wexford the very weekend after announcements of lockdown were released.
They made the leap to online gigs as promptly as possible, but O’Connor has found the virtual alternatives to be disappointing for the same reasons as Pritchard-McLean.
“When it comes to the performer, you can lose a lot of morale because people aren’t laughing. Especially if you’ve been doing it for a little while and you’re used to pausing after the punchline for a laugh,” he says.
“If you’re a live performer, your instincts are kind of attuned to that, wait, and then start again. And even if you’re performing live and you don’t get that response, you’re able to kind of riff off of that, in a live context you can turn that around and make it work.”
Despite missing the palpable energy and nuance which is fostered with an audience in live performances, social media outlets like Twitter and Instagram have allowed for a new form of audience participation. For a far-reaching show like The Covid Arms, the ability for viewers to discuss and comment during the livestream has made possible the digital building of a community, which Pritchard-McLean says has, at least in part, made up for the performance’s remote nature. It has also presented a number of advantages which might even outlive pandemic restrictions.
“So many people who have been engaged on social media have loved the idea of this comedy club being digital because it means if they have mobility issues or social anxiety or anything like that, they can still enjoy live comedy, whereas they haven’t been able to prior to this, so I definitely think I’ll have a digital tour date”, Pritchard-McLean says.
Pritchard-McLean is not the only one who foresees a future for virtual stand-up in the post-pandemic era. Like so many others who speculate about what will be different in the months and years to come, Rosie Jones, British comedian, writer and actor, feels optimistic that the accessibility of virtual performances will compel people to continue watching them long after coronavirus-related restrictions have lifted.
“There’s an ease and an intimacy in an online gig which is fascinating”, Jones says in an email to me. “I think people will still like seeing live comedy from their living rooms.”
Jones has appeared on television as well as on the live stand-up circuit, and has written for the second series of Netflix’s popular Sex Education among other sitcoms currently in development. Alongside Pritchard-McLean, Jones has also performed for The Covid Arms.
The question of accessibility, of allowing more space in comedy for a wider, more diverse audience, has not been lost on any of the comedians to whom I spoke. Jones, like O’Connor, centres her comedy on the lived experience of someone typically thrust to the margins of the white, cis, male-dominated field.
She has always been forthright about having cerebral palsy, brilliantly constructing jokes to play off of her speech patterns and directly addressing topics of disability and sexuality. Pritchard-McLean similarly confronts the narrow-margined nature of the comedy industry, and notes that female comedians, alongside LGBTQ+ comedians, disabled comedians and comedians of ethnic minorities are often seen as making some kind of political statement simply by existing in that space.
The name of Pritchard-McLean’s most recent show, Empathy Pains, seems especially relevant now, as empathy presents itself as an increasingly vital aptitude for the healing process of our fragile world.
She has always been forthright about having cerebral palsy, brilliantly constructing jokes to play off of her speech patterns and directly addressing topics of disability and sexuality
Her routines frequently focus on the sexism she has encountered as a woman in stand-up, and in Empathy Pains she directs her attention to the crisis of modern masculinity, discussing those “furious sort of middle aged guys”, the “alt-right”, “pervs”, and the interactions she has had with this breed of men on the internet.
She examines the cause of their misogyny and laments that men have been just as harmed by toxic masculinity as women, an homage to the sort of empathetic, equality-forward feminism which too often becomes polarised and misinterpreted. And although Pritchard-McLean is aware that the show will likely need to be reworked should it be picked up again after the final tendrils of quarantine have been swept away, that defining concept – empathy – remains timeless.
“The most efficient way you can teach empathy is to just show it,” she tells me, citing examples she includes in her show. “What responsibility do I have to take from that? What’s my role in that instruction?”
Her role, evidently, is to deliver the truth, and to do so in as funny and amusing a package as possible. She brings up the old Oscar Wilde adage – “If you’re going to tell people the truth, you had better make them laugh, or they will kill you” – to clarify what she means when she talks about presenting new and perhaps uncomfortable concepts to her audiences. It is easier for people to digest such ideas when they are intimated through lighthearted banter and funny quips, allowing people to laugh at their own discomfort.
“I’m not saying everything has to be a lecture – it should be funny before it’s anything else”, Pritchard-McLean says. “Which is why I say I’m not an activist, I’m a comedian, but I think comedy has such profound potential.”
Jones has had similar thoughts about the nature of comedy in a time like this, when lives are at risk, and essential workers have been compelled to put themselves in the line of fire for the sake of the wider community. When there is real danger around, when the air feels stuffy with uncertainty and viral germ particles, what becomes truly essential to us?
I’m not saying everything has to be a lecture – it should be funny before it’s anything else
During those harrowing early days of quarantine, waking up every morning to the surreal sense of having been plucked from one world and dropped haphazardly into a new one, I craved the straightforward, irreverent hilarity of stand-up. It wasn’t essential in the same manner as toilet paper or loaves of bread, to be sure, and I wondered if it might be wrong to seek a laugh in such solemn moments, to divert myself from the scorching discomfort and fear invoked by lockdown and plunge head-first into the cool, hospitable arms of humour. But this is what comedy has always been there for, to balance the scales of darkness and light. To make our lives better.
When Jones starts to feel useless, to doubt the impact of her role as a comedian in a world seemingly overcome with anguish, she pauses. It is like the hush between punchline and laughter, tenuous and energised, before everything erupts into joyous sound.
“I try to remind myself that comedy is hugely important in raising morale, and making people a little happier. I might not be saving lives, but as long as I’m improving the lives of the people who are saving the lives, I’m doing something.”