Comedians Michael McCreary and Matt O’Brien have spent the past few years honing their craft in clubs and auditoriums across Toronto and Los Angeles, respectively.
But they’ve spent most of this year telling jokes to their laptops.
“Everything just literally fell apart,” says O’Brien, 35, referring to the overnight closure of comedy clubs, bars, and film studios in Los Angeles, where he was living with his wife when the COVID-19 pandemic began. “And it was replaced by Zoom comedy shows. So I started doing comedy on Zoom, which is a nightmare!”
A 2006 graduate of Durham College’s journalism program, O’Brien has been performing standup comedy for more than a decade now. He’s recorded specials with Comedy Central and Just For Laughs, as well as acted on the American late-night talk show “Conan”.
So, the sudden absence of laughter on Zoom was an immense challenge.
Back in Toronto, McCreary faced the same situation.
“I was willing to take up the challenge because this is my work,” he explains. “Unfortunately, even if the rules have changed on you about how you’re going to communicate information, you kind of go, ‘I’m not in a position to complain. I just have to adapt and adapt fast!”
The 24-year-old comedian from Orangeville has done just that. After having 20 gigs cancelled by the start of April, he’s gone on to perform 20 gigs online. Though most of them have been live on Zoom, McCreary was able to innovate for one gig by recording his set and sending it to the organizers so that they could play the video online.
As the months progressed, so did the innovations in performing. O’Brien had left Los Angeles and was back in Ottawa when the city entered Stage 3 of Ontario’s COVID-19 regional re-opening plan in mid-July. He was asked to perform at a drive-in comedy show organized by The Drive-In Experience Ottawa and Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Club.
“Instead of a movie playing, there was a stage. And over 100 cars with maybe two to four people in them,” O’Brien says, recollecting the surreal experience.
“We were projected on these big screens on each side of the stage and then instead of laughs, it was people honking in their cars! Yeah, so it was just crazy. It was a lot of fun. But I remember coming offstage and thinking ‘I don’t want to get used to this.’”
But returning to the comedy clubs itself is no longer a guarantee of a return to normalcy. O’Brien later performed at the Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Club in Ottawa and found one of their COVID-19 safety measures presented a unique problem.
The stage had been surrounded with plexiglass to separate the acts from the audience.
“I was behind the plexiglass and I couldn’t see the audience at all,” O’Brien says, laughing as he remembered the experience. “All I could see was my reflection!”
While it’s certainly a funny anecdote, the economic repercussion of this pandemic on those working in the comedy industry is no laughing matter. The Canadian Association of Stand-up Comedians organized a fundraiser on March 26, to help standup, sketch, and improv performers as well as professionals who work off-stage. The GoFundMe campaign has since closed after raising more than $33,000.
Even if people are not in a position to donate towards such fundraisers, O’Brien has a simple suggestion for those looking to help.
“If you’re watching a comedy show on Zoom, please laugh loudly. Because we need it!”