Cultures Theatre

Mute Point: live comedy during and after the pandemic

They say hindsight is 20-20, and in hindsight, 2020 was a rogue year to launch my comedy career.

Ever since I was first introduced to Sue Perkins on The Great British Bake Off circa 2010, I could see for the first time the career for me. Puns and cake?! It seemed too good to be true. At that time, the only comedian I was aware of, outside of dear Mel and Sue of course, was Michael McIntyre, and I couldn’t see myself in his shoes. But I loved jokes, I loved making people laugh, and I loved the fabled thrill of it from the get go. ‘I’ll be a journalist, or some sort of writer, or go into radio,’ I said to myself (and to any family members who asked), which seemed to tick the boxes: I’d get to be funny, but hide from the instant involuntary laughter feedback that is so make-or-break in standup. Then, when I joined the Oxford University Ceilidh Band in 2017 and started calling ceilidhs, the instant involuntary laughter feedback loop was closed, and my fate was sealed. You could say, I’d found my calling.

If you’re not familiar with ceilidhs, they’re basically big Scottish/Irish folk dance events, and as a caller, my job is to give everyone instructions and make sure nobody trips over. When we were sound-checking before a gig, I’d improvise some jokes into the mic, knowing every slight giggle from the band was a gentle push towards the inevitable, the thing I’d been avoiding: the attempt at standup. And so I decided I would finally do it, but not without the occasional reflex ‘swing your partner by the hand’ thrown in.

But fate had other plans, and as I was organising my set list for an eighth week ceilidh, the university made the decision to send us home, and the UK became Plague Island. A week later I joined the Oxford Comedy Workshop, a group set up by two other comics to provide a space for testing material and watching comedy together over Zoom, as well as a way of indulging my not-so-secret obsession with medieval nuns (a niche weirdly well-represented in the Workshop, and not in the form of your typical nun joke). Together we discussed the mechanics of a standup routine, the inner workings of a joke, the ups and downs of Zoom gigs, and Mechthild of Magdeburg (one of those nuns I told you about). So after a few months of this over the summer, we put on our first Zoom open mic in Michaelmas last year. I was up last, in front of a sober audience scattered across the country. A baptism of fire.

We weren’t the only ones finding virtual ways to get our regular laughter validation fix: Catherine Bohart launched Gigless, a weekly Zoom call with some really freaking great acts, which has morphed into a self-proclaimed ‘cult’ largely populated with lesbians and chaos. I fit right in. Unmute your microphones and you even get live laughter. Acts have included Deborah Frances-White, Nish Kumar, and Olga Koch, with donations being split among the acts, many of whom have been out of work now — in a sector hung out to dry by the government — for over a year. Zoom gigs aren’t ideal, but as with many things done virtually, they’re better than nothing.

It’s not all shits and giggles with a Zoom gig. I found this out the hard way while doing an open mic night with some whacky tech issues, meaning my audience had to mute the aforementioned giggles, and my signature hand sanitiser opener felt like it died so hard dodos would think it had been dealt a rough deal. The proactivity needed for gauging reactions at a Zoom gig feels pretty immense, and it’s easy to think your material is rubbish and you’ll never amount to anything. Add to that the impostor syndrome of not knowing if you can even call yourself a standup if you’ve only ever done Zoom gigs from the comfort of your desk chair.

That said, I’m hopeful that standup will bounce back once Plague Island resumes its scheduled programming. You don’t really need group rehearsals. You tend to just have one person on stage. With the right tech, it’s just fine outside. Dramatic sets and lighting? You could take or leave them. As for material, I’m well aware of how fast some of my better bits are going to age in a post-pandemic scene; jokes about dating over Zoom and squirting hand gel in your own face probably belong to a context quickly forgotten, or at least abandoned, once we all have an armful of vaccine. But even if live comedy may need a rewrite, I hope it won’t be a write-off.

Alex Burgar is a fourth year reading German and Russian. When not at Oxford, she enjoys spending time with her two donkeys!