How (not) to do livestreamed comedy amid a pandemic

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Laugh Aid, which streamed April 4, had the potential to be a cultural phenomenon. With a star-studded lineup of more than 80 A-list comedians and an impressive list of sponsors — ranging from Comedy Central to Amazon — the eight-hour, Zoom-powered livestream had the makings of a wildly popular comedy event. It was, at least, mildly successful as a philanthropic venture, raising more than $300,000 for up-and-coming comics struggling to book shows amid social distancing practices due to COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus.

But despite its comedic potential and reasonably impressive donation haul, Laugh Aid’s actual entertainment value left much to be desired. A number of casually dressed comics joined the event seemingly unprepared; others were noticeably uncomfortable with the platform, and some simply spent their entire set asking for donations without a single prepared joke. From forgettable to boring to downright awkward, very few comics seemed to hit their marks in the constrained, virtual sets. 

Underlying the content issue was something palpably uncomfortable about the event’s form. Between the newfound familiarity of the Zoom interface and the endless ranks of household-name comedians, Laugh Aid’s showcase of its celebrity lineup was an unusual one. Within the first hour alone, the stream showcased a shaky-cam view of “Family Feud” host Steve Harvey’s garage, a spontaneous but dry cooking lesson from “Last Comic Standing” champion Iliza Shlesinger and a poorly paced, semistaged argument between “Community” stars Joel McHale and Ken Jeong. Although acts seemed to improve as the stream went on, Laugh Aid never managed to shake an uncanny sense of voyeurism. Perhaps Laugh Aid’s chronic mediocrity stemmed, at least in part, from the discomfort that arose from seeing stars cast out of their professional, performative light and the strange subversion of their celebrity status that resulted. 

Central to making sense of this is the “parasocial relationship,” in which one party is incentivized to emotionally invest in the other, even if they’ve never personally interacted. It’s the reason why a show’s fans might grow attached to the involved stars’ private lives, and why many feel personally betrayed when a celebrity whom they admire acts in a way they don’t approve of. These relationships are not necessarily malicious — indeed, this empathy is one of the central reasons why Laugh Aid and similar celebrity-driven philanthropy campaigns work. But parasocial relationships require some deliberate distance between the celebrity and the fan. It’s this distance that allows a celebrity to maintain their brand while simultaneously leading an actual life, to differentiate the personal from the professional, allowing them to cultivate a very particular public image. 

Comedians are particularly good demonstrations of this. Although they almost always share elements of their personal lives as a vessel for laughs, they do so within the controlled space of a performance. Even the most intimate information that a comedian discloses in this space becomes a part of their professional identity, to the end of eliciting a reaction from the audience. This isn’t to say that doing so is somehow ingenuine or manipulative, but all of Laugh Aid’s shortcomings demonstrate a breakdown of this distance between the personal and the professional. 

When Adam Conover, famous for eloquently and humorously debunking popular misconceptions, awkwardly laughed off Roy Wood Jr’s candid misunderstandings about the coronavirus, the Adam who “Ruins Everything” was noticeably separated from the Adam who is “currently self-quarantining.” When Howie Mandel accidentally muted himself on the Zoom call while introducing his acquaintances, we were reminded of the time when we did the same thing. And when Bert Kreischer excitedly talked about the time he missed a chance to meet Adam Sandler (with a present Sandler clearly not remembering the incident), we were reminded that these comedians are also comedy fans not immune to feeling hurt when realizing that their relationship with a personal hero is also parasocial. These moments were all leaks in the otherwise sealed construction of the performance, when elements of the personal unexpectedly bled into the professional.

None of this conversation is intended to detract from Laugh Aid’s philanthropic goals, or to suggest that economy-halting self-isolation is fundamentally incompatible with broadcast comedy. Rather, it’s a demonstration of just how key the parasocial relationship is to a successful comedic performance. As a notable point of comparison, the April 11 episode of “Saturday Night Live” turned all of what Laugh Aid struggled with into points of relatable, solidarity-building comedy. While Laugh Aid’s mundane living-room locations distracted from the construction of its performance, Pete Davidson from “SNL” actively poked fun at the idea of self-quarantining while living in his mom’s basement. Where awkward Zoom-based technical errors detracted from Laugh Aid’s form, “SNL” consciously derives humor from the awkwardness of Zoom-based meetings. 

The difference in approach between Laugh Aid and “SNL” is subtle but distinctive: Instead of being ignored, these unavoidable leaks in the performance are acknowledged and consciously made the central focus of the joke. “SNL” thus avoids the discomfort created from personal lives bleeding into the professional by deliberately erasing the distinction. “Saturday Night Live” proves there’s plenty of material to be found in quarantine’s limitations — plenty of fuel for building parasocial comedy in the shared experience of stay-at-home orders. Comedians just have to know where, and how, to find it. 

Contact Olive Grimes at [email protected].