David Foster Wallace, in his near-mythical sports piece, Roger Federer as a Religious Experience, writes “TV tennis is to live tennis pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love”. He argues that the striking physicality of top tennis is lost in broadcast. This reasoning can be stretched to other live performances — most of them now halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is tough to make a case that stand-up comedians evoke as much thrill as Federer usually does on a tennis court. But even stand-up comedy… no, especially stand-up comedy, needs a live audience. For, they, more than Federer, have to play to the gallery. The spectators’ reaction is crucial for the comedian.
Yet, now the comedy community seems to have entirely moved online. Sonali, along with Kaneez Surka, Sorabh Pant, and Sumaira Shaikh are part of OML’s The Circuit, a multi-genre comedy festival.
Despite missing the stage, they are getting used to the new routine of performing for an on-screen audience. “It was scary in the beginning, because I didn’t know where to pause or how to keep going without the audience’s response,” says Sumaira Shaikh.
But quickly, comedians and organisers of digital comedy shows have started maximising Zoom and other video-conferencing platforms to emulate the enjoyment of live shows. They use software vision mixers, like Open Broadcaster Software, to enhance streaming.
“It isn’t that bad,” says Sorabh Pant. “You can now even hear the audience laugh when the jokes are funny. There are options for the audience to chat online. So, that way, even if their mics are muted, we get to know their reaction.”
“Even after things get back to normal, I can perform from India to a small audience from another part of the world,” says Sonali. This lockdown, she believes, has opened up new avenues.
“You find a lot more collaborations among comedians because there is no travel included now. It is easier to plan and execute gigs with multiple comedians,” says Sumaira. Kaneez reckons, “It is easier to find a rhythm when you are performing [online] with others.” The presence of other comedians in a way compensates for the lack of a live audience.
Sorabh concurs: “For example, we did a hangout for a newspaper that lasted for one and a half hours. And, the journalist asked us just three questions. In general, comedians love hanging out with each other.”
A fixed frame on screen, however, severely restricts the physicality of these performers. Which is why Kaneez employs a trick that Abish Mathews shared with her. “When you are seated, talking to a camera, it becomes too one-dimensional. Abish suggested standing up. It enhances the physicality.”
But, as Sumaira says, “The downside of online is that it’s still a replica of a live show.” Federer on TV might be good but Wallace would say it will never match the “religious experience” of watching him live.