The average comedian is sitting on hundreds of good to great audio-only set recordings and probably two videos they only somewhat like. With voice memo apps, it’s very easy for comedians to record nearly every stand-up set they have so they can (in theory) listen to it later and take notes.
During a global pandemic, the resourceful comedians are pivoting to digital spaces, not only performing live via Zoom or Animal Crossing, but finding ways to turn these files on their phones into content. With a basic Photoshop-esque app and social media, even a video editing novice can turn a voice memo into an animated clip for TikTok, Instagram or YouTube. Many comedians have enough of these files to string together a whole mixtape.
While self-publishing content is a great way to break down barriers, it would be even better if the industry would adapt along with us. As businesses start looking into new work-from-home and casual dress policies for the future, let’s change up another aspect of how the entertainment industry operates: let’s start accepting audio-only submissions.
For many opportunities—festivals, management, TV bookings—you have to submit a video submission, which is the bane of every comedian’s existence. The Murphy’s Law for comedy is anything that can go wrong during a taping will go wrong. A drunk starts heckling, the camera cuts out too soon, the mic cord falls out mid-joke, and you’re out of focus which really sucks because you just got your hair done that day. It is the most annoying, never ending pursuit for something that resembles perfection. It’s a little evil that can hold people back, and one that could be eliminated if the industry was more flexible with how we audition comedians.
Stand-up seems to have considerably less audition options than other entertainment mediums. In-person auditions are ideal for actors but self-taping has been around for years. And while being a great live performer makes you more marketable as a musician, it’s still the audio that matters first and foremost. Auditions are never going to be a perfect representation of a person’s skill set so let’s not be so married to one method for comedy.
It’s obvious why video is preferred. Stand-up consists of two parts, the material and the performance. While everyone’s style differs, from stoic and still to loud and mobile, the two compliment each other. For that reason, there’s also no substitute for seeing someone live, so tapes are already at a disadvantage. Further eliminating the visuals shouldn’t sink what is already a less than ideal scenario. Afterall, what metric are we judging these tapes on? You should be listening to their material and determining if it’s funny for yourself. A good joke can stand on its own even without an audience. Even more animated comedians who lean on physicality to sell a bit should still be able to sell themselves in an audio file, as we’ve heard time and time again on their albums. And that’s what’s really baffling about the situation: many of the types of content platforms are looking to book comedians for are audio-only. Whether it’s radio, podcasts, or albums, how can we say audio-only files are insufficient when it’s also the goal?
The practicality of videotaping also plays a big role in the success rate of getting a tape. Comedians are performers; you shouldn’t expect them to also be expert videographers and editors, as these are skills that require their own training and equipment. Sure, you can pay for someone to tape and edit your set for you, but after your fifth heckler or broken mic, the DIY approach seems more reasonable (especially if you’re hopping from multiple shows in one night trying to capture magic).
The lack of resources also relates to your performance environment as the vast majority of venues are just not set up for videotaping to begin with. We know the volume and magnitude of mics and cameras that are needed to properly produce a show or stand-up special, and it’s usually not stuff venues just have on deck. While some clubs have their own camera set-ups, the audio is usually only coming straight from the mic via the soundboard and nothing else. The crowd is not mic’d as well which can make even a killer set sound mediocre at best. But even that is a treat compared to many of these clubs, bars, cafes, and apartment rooftops that do not have any room for a camera as they were not designed with such a thing in mind. I defy you to find me a comedian who doesn’t have a tape where they are, for some length of time, completely obscured by a passing audience member. And yet, despite this, we are still judged on the visual quality of our sets, by the lighting, the resolution, and the framing when all we should be judged on is the quality of our jokes.
So just… let us have this. Be cool and take audio submissions. If the point of all this is to find new amazing comedic talent to piggyback off of, then this is a win-win scenario for everyone. Quite frankly, the talent scouting in this industry is disappointingly lackluster. There’s very little actual hunting and more of a “You better be at this one show in Brooklyn one Tuesday night in May that I’ll be 30 minutes late too” in order to be seen. If actual baseball scouts sought out talent like this, MLB would consist of the Dodgers, the Red Sox, and 28 Miami Marlins.
Audio is more convenient for both parties. It’s easier for the comedian who can slip their phone or a portable recorder onto a stool or into their pocket instead of lugging a camera to every gig. It’s easier on the recipient as audio files take up less storage space and makes for a much more convenient reviewing process. It doesn’t have to be the new standard, but it should at least be considered as an option.
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.