The one silver lining of a purely digital comedy world is the breakdown of the geographical limitations between comedians and fans. It’s not easy for an aspiring comedian to jet off to New York or Los Angeles in hopes of getting stage time at Whiplash or the Store, let alone permanently relocate, but it’s almost necessary to push your career forward.
To put it into terms most comedians don’t understand (i.e., sports), NYC and L.A. are comedy’s version of a Division 1 NCAA football team, and the surrounding cities are D2 (Denver), D3 (Orlando), or JUCO (anything with “-ville” in its name). In order to make it as a pro, many eventually transfer to these bigger schools in order to catch the eyes of scouts and the media. It’s currently a bad time to relocate, but nobody needs to leave their homes to do a Zoom or Twitch show… so why are we seeing the same line-ups as the before times? When you are not limited to your city limits to book a show, it’s time to branch out and make your line-ups less routine.
If you’re going to do comedy during a lockdown, you have to get creative, and creativity means more than downloading software. Zoom and Twitch streams can never hold a candle to live, in-person comedy, but they can provide a worthwhile purpose beyond fighting boredom. Like the “#WGAStaffingBoost” movement on Twitter that set out to help unrepped writers get jobs, independent digital shows can help push often overlooked comics into the spotlight.
No matter your profession, getting hired (or booked) is much more about who you know than how talented you are. It is a garbage reality, but reality still. Comedians travel way more than industry. They meet more comedians in more cities and towns than anyone booking a major festival or TV show. If you ever lived and performed in one of the D2 or D3 scenes, you know just how exclusive and small the talent pool that gets shown off to these infrequent industry visits are. It’s often the same three comedians paraded out once a year, and that trio usually consists of 1) their contact’s favorite drinking buddy, 2) a guy who actually moved away four years ago, and 3) a guy who hasn’t been on stage in a year but will come out of hibernation for a Bud Light and a vaunted handshake. We can do better than that.
If you don’t know how to expand your comedian rolodex, just ask. Ask your friends to recommend people. Are you finding a pattern in their recos? Branch out! Be specific. Ask a close friend who they like, ask a fan who they like, ask a comic you only know via Twitter who they like. Ask for more than just a handful, ask for a specific number. Ask for comics who’ve been in the game for over eight years, ask about comics who are under two years in. Ask for women, LGBTQ, disabled, black, Asian, Latinx, and indingenous comedians. With nobody needing a couch to crash on or a convoluted plane itinerary on Skiplagged to perform, there’s no need to recycle old line-ups as much as we’re used to.
Look beyond people’s credits for your shows. It’s freaking Zoom, people! Credits don’t equal talent. We all know fame and popularity sells, but it’s Zoom. If nobody is watching Quibi you think the masses are flocking to awkwardly silent, frequently buffering live streams supported by Spectrum and a 2005 MacBook Pro? If a casual comedy watcher wants to see Sarah Silverman or Patton Oswalt perform, why wouldn’t they just go watch one of their many professionally produced specials on Netflix or HBO? Your Zoom fans are the nerdiest of comedy nerds. You don’t need to book like a telethon to reel them in.
Show the industry folks what they’ve been missing out on. Redefine their terms. Let’s make “up-and-coming” mean comedian deserving of a big break instead of “Silverlake resident who’s done Conan but not Colbert.” Make “unrepped” mean comedian without an agent or manager instead of “from Chicago.”
If you can’t tell by all the banana bread and crochet jigsaw puzzles on Instagram, comedians are pretty damn available right now. While nobody should feel pressured to digitally hustle themselves into a burnout mess, I know there’s more than the usual suspects ready to go live. They’re just waiting for you to ask.
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.