Speechless LIVE’s virtual comedy show Thursday began with an appropriately awkward sentiment from host Scott Lifton: “I’m not sure if we should tap into escapism or the pain we’re all currently going through. … This is comedy!”
The performance, in which a lineup of comedians gave fake PowerPoint presentations featuring audience-generated titles and random slides, was defined by the tension between lighthearted laughs and current realities. The easy aura of the theater lobby was swapped out for an introductory slide instructing the audience to set their screens to “side-by-side” mode and a warning against “bombing” the Zoom room’s chat feature. When Lifton asked for a suggestion on “a product that doesn’t yet exist but should,” one audience member wryly offered: “A COVID vaccine!”
The specter of contemporary events colored each comedian’s segment, inevitably shaping the subject matter of the improvised slide presentations (even as Lifton wisely bypassed the audience’s gloomier suggestions). Bob Brindley gave a quarterly report for “Sweatpanties,” a loungewear company thriving thanks to everyone’s new “work from home” attire; Allison Goldberg’s TED Talk illuminated listeners on why all men are 65% cereal (a number that has likely increased since quarantine started); Calum Grant pitched “Champagne Acres,” a timeshare in an abandoned mall food court where you can hide from the outside world; and Brian Huskey’s mock school orientation for a class on mattress weaving cleverly lampooned the current reality for many university students across the United States.
Much of the night’s humor came from each comedian’s respective gaffes as they maneuvered around the constraints of the Speechless format — performers had to match the style of the given genre, provide context for the presentation’s title, speak at a normal pace for the whole segment and, most amusingly, justify the nonsensical slides that made up their PowerPoint (which could include acronyms, pie charts, graphs and deranged stock photos). Thankfully, this monologue-centered format lent itself well to Zoom, and the night proceeded without threat of technical difficulty.
Presenters tackled the format’s challenges with varying skills and comic personas. Brindley and Goldberg occasionally stumbled with the hurdles of their respective sets, breaking character to waffle over how to justify an errant slide or acronym. Their recoveries, though, were solid: Brindley tackled a graph simply labeled “Frequency” by calling a celebratory night of drinking a “frequency hunt,” and Goldberg’s cheeky assertions — “The thing about men is, they aren’t given enough attention” — throughout her TED Talk often provided more comedic payoff than her interactions with the presentation itself.
The two latter performers, Grant and Huskey, worked within the Speechless structure with more ease. Grant was hilariously upbeat as a fast-talking salesman, cramming in an impressive amount of punchlines that tackled both sleazy businessmen and current events. He also perhaps did the best job at providing faux context for each new slide, quickly and specifically framing each new image in an entertaining yet logical way.
Huskey’s take on Zoom school allowed him to riff on some now-familiar topics, including the cost of tuition and the technological ineptitude of many college professors. The history of this fictional university was a highlight — “As you all may know,” he joked, “the school actually originated as a cult who worshipped a dog demon” — as was Huskey’s frequent pantomiming of speaking to someone off camera. This showing earned Huskey the audience’s vote for favorite performer and the night’s grand prize, “the golden COVID mask of justice.”
Cheerier portions of the event almost resembled normalcy, but it didn’t seem that escapism was entirely the goal. A percentage of the proceeds from the performance went to the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, and Lifton urged audience members to vote in the upcoming presidential election as the show closed. The current state of comedy is tricky, but Speechless LIVE navigated it as well as can be expected, touching on contemporary topics without ever being malicious.
It was an uneasy compromise in the end, but a welcome one. As Lifton put it while the virtual attendees popped, one by one, out of the Zoom call: “Please have fun, and have hope!”