"With this period of indefinite uncertainty, it’s an avenue for people to stay creative." | The team behind Virtually Funny talk taking comedy online

Tell us about your show, Virtually Funny.

Leaf Plant: Virtually Funny is an attempt to replicate stand-up comedy open mics. We have a bunch of comics in a webinar that we stream to a social platform for audiences to watch. I have certainly welcomed the project to keep my mind occupied in the current climate, and I hope this helps other comics have an outlet, or to encourage more of these events; and hopefully give people a giggle! This passion project has quickly grown into a team made up of comedians – Jimmy Ennis, Jack Blakeman, Rebekka Turner and Ben Carter. We have also been inundated with support from other comics, which is encouraging. 

Jimmy Ennis: As the government advised (initially, before they closed them) for people to stop going to pubs and theatres we saw many gigs being cancelled. Including one we run ourselves called Comedy Cult. Social media was awash with cancelled gigs and comedians with no output for their art so when Leaf suggested a virtual on-line gig it wasn’t hard to get on board or to find acts that wanted to get involved.  With this period of indefinite uncertainty, it’s an avenue for people to stay creative, as well as giving the audiences who are self-isolating too, an opportunity to do something different that TV, Netflix or continual conversation with the people that they have been caged up with all week. 

How did you decide which platforms to use to take live comedy online?

Leaf Plant: I’m not a very technical person; however, from working as a Business Analyst for many years I am aware of software solution design and working in an agile way to get projects moving. From experience of using webinars on projects where all interactions were remote, I thought this could work for hosting live stand-up.

Jimmy Ennis: I have a similar background to Leaf, my current day job is hosting webinars in the financial industry so I’m used to a lot of the platforms available. The difficulty is, how do we then stream that into the homes of others? This is something we’re still working on as with the technical issues of the first one show, but we’re getting there.

What’s your trick to giving your show the right atmosphere without an audience to bounce off?

Leaf Plant: We are very much in the early stages of Virtually Funny. What I love about the project so far is we are just going for it; experimenting and allowing the glitches (although sometimes funny) to challenge us to be constantly working at improving the project. We are also trying to manage people’s expectations – reiterating that this really is an experiment and with time it will get smoother. We were receiving comments as we were live and as we get more versed in the format I think interacting with comments will become more natural. Luckily, feedback from friends who had watched said the bits that went wrong were funny (me not aware that the jingle wasn’t playing and people interrupting each other). 

Jimmy Ennis: The instant comments you’re able to receive on Facebook in some way attempt to replicate the live audience feel, although at this moment the act performing at the time cannot see them until after their set… one way of dealing with virtual heckling, I suppose. ☺

Rebekka Turner: I’d say that I really enjoyed the community spirit of these comedians undertaking the project and the instant comments added a good tempo to the show. In terms of glitches we are also getting used to the software (Jitsi) and so there were funny moments of acts forgetting to mute or unmute themselves! 

What were the biggest challenges you faced putting together an entirely digital stand-up comedy show?

Leaf Plant: Widespread technical issues; servers down. Time constraints – I must confess I thought I had scheduled in the event a week later and rather than re-schedule I thought, f**k it, let’s just see what happens. Virtual conferences with a lot of participants are chaotic and it is hard to control noise interference. Having discussions with the Virtually Funny team we explored streaming a webinar onto YouTube or a similar platform for viewers. Unfortunately, due to increase in bandwidth demand YouTube was unavailable and so our first show included all of the acts under a video webinar and was streamed to the public via Facebook live, which wasn’t entirely stable. 

Jimmy Ennis: Yeah, the sudden lull in streaming capabilities due to an overwhelming increase in usage impacts but as Leaf said, the audience seemed to enjoy this.

What are your hopes for the show as it develops?

Leaf Plant: I’d love it to grow into a community. At the moment we are in the midst of a global crisis and so if we can cheer up a few people and give some comedians a way of continuing open-mic sessions then I’m happy. As a team, we are thinking up ways of improving the format and are open to ideas. It’s a very different way of performing for stand-ups, and like anything needs a bit of practice, but I certainly felt more relaxed as the show went on.  

Jimmy Ennis: Well the isolation period looks like it’s going to be here for sometime with even talk of an eventual lock down. I think naturally the acts will start to think of different ways in which they can perform to overcome the lack of instant response an audience will give. I tried my hand at a more musical direction and since other people have suggested ideas they have had for musical or character styled comedy.

Rebekka Turner: The idea of just a laptop or a phone screen to record on adds an interesting angle and constraint for acts to play with and I think as the show develops and comedians learn how to navigate the medium – I can’t wait to see what people will work on. For example I have seen improv groups do shows online recently. 

Do you think new shows based online will have an impact on the way people do comedy when we can return to live shows?

Leaf Plant: Yes – I don’t think it can be ignored. Promoting technical solutions to allow acts who are housebound (disabilities, parents, carers, etc.) to perform is a must if, as a community, we are to deliver on inclusivity. That doesn’t need to be a drastic measure to implement – people will always want to go out and watch live stand-up (until we are hooked up to VR) and so having a hybrid approach – i.e. using projectors of some acts within a show – would be an easy way of doing it.  It’s not really that innovative – there’s been a major surge in stand-up shows being broadcast on Netflix and other entertainment services. There is a demand for the stand-up format to be broadcast. 

Rebekka Turner: Also from seeing how many views the first Virtually Funny got after the live stream was finished was amazing and so much bigger of an audience than if it was in a room at the back of a pub. It would be good to see if in the future how live shows from open mic to paid would be streamed to viewers at home. I know that at least one paid online show has been advertised. 

Do you think it’s possible you’ll continue with Virtually Funny when the pandemic is over?

Leaf Plant: I hope so. Again, I think a combined approach is needed to promote a more inclusive and diverse range of stand-up. Also, this allows for more flexibility for people who want to get involved to get creative with how they want to present their work. 

Jimmy Ennis: One of the acts did mention that due to a disability they don’t have the same opportunity to gig as much as others.  With the growth of digital media and platforms such as Tik Tok, YouTube and Facebook/Instagram live/story options there’s no reason why a digital platform cannot run alongside a physical platform and as Leaf said combine the both with projectors.

Do you have any recommendations for entertainment while people are stuck at home?

Leaf Plant: Tune into Virtually Funny! Lots of people are reaching out to audiences via social media so explore that. If you’re a nerd like me, there are a lot of free online-courses (TedX, Open University). Also, I am making my cats a little coffee shop out of boxes, so there’s an idea. 

Rebekka Turner: Well this is quite odd but I enjoy this YouTube channel called ‘All the Stations’ and they go round visiting all the stations in the UK-more fun than it sounds. Also Leaf posted a YouTube video of (Thunder)CATS – The Musical.

You can find out more about Virtually Funny and how you can tune into their shows by following them on Facebook.

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