“There’s a joke in The Simpsons for every situation – even coronavirus,” Melbourne stand-up comedian Yianni Agisilaou proclaims, standing in the makeshift theatre he has created in his Footscray townhouse.
A red curtain covers the windows, and two cameras are feeding the performance out to dozens of paying viewers in Australia, the UK and Europe, which he can see on a monitor.
“Doctor Hibbert would be like, ‘The only cure is social distancing – Anything else I give you would only be a placebo’,” Agisilaou said.
“And we’d be like, ‘Where do we get these ‘placebos’? Maybe there are some in this shop.'”
There’s dead silence after the punchline, but Agisilaou isn’t worried.
This is a live show on Zoom, and it comes with the territory.
Stand-up comedy scene needs a ‘lifeline’
Agisilaou is a 20-year veteran of the global stand-up comedy circuit and was meant to be performing this year at big events like the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
But they have all been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, leaving him and other live performers struggling to make ends meet.
A Grattan Institute report found the arts and recreation sector is among the worst affected by the coronavirus shutdown.
“It’s really kind of set a lot of us adrift,” he told the ABC.
Fellow comic and DJ Andrew McClelland is in the same predicament.
McClelland said the Melbourne festival was going to be the “biggest chunk of money” he would see all year.
“It was kind of everything,” McClelland said.
“I’d been working on a show for two-and-half years. I had a pianist.”
While bigger global names might be able do a Netflix special to keep them going, producer Carrie Hardie said the physical-distancing rules introduced to mitigate the pandemic had been “devastating” for Australia’s writers, technical staff, venue operators and waitstaff.
“The arts and entertainment industry brings in $111 billion in Australia’s GDP,” Hardie said.
“To put on a live show, you invest a lot of money – three, six, nine, 12 months in advance.
“It’s going to wipe a lot of people out of the game, I think.”
But she said live shows broadcast using the Zoom videoconferencing app could be a lifeline.
Hardie has three comedians signed, including Agisilaou and McClelland, to perform via the internet and hopes to bring more on soon.
Viewers have to buy tickets, but the price is flexible for now.
“We’ve decided to put it as a pay-as-you-can model, because we are very aware a lot of people are suffering financially,” she said.
“At the same time, what we do is valuable. It is how we earn our living.”
Ticketed live-streamed shows will also be performed by some of the comic recipients of the City of Melbourne’s COVID-19 arts grants, announced on Friday.
‘Very needy’ performers adapt to silence
Back on stage, Agisilaou lands a joke he’s been building most of the hour-long set around, and there’s more silence.
Instead of laughs, on the monitor dozens of pairs of hands go up and shake wildly.
Videoconference etiquette suggests anyone not talking should be put on mute and according to Agisilaou it is the same for online stand-up.
“Online if you have 100 people it is a cacophony,” he said.
“We tried. It was very hard.”
The team’s solution to the awkward silence was to ask people to show their amusement using their hands.
“I direct people to laugh the way deaf people clap because I can see them visually, so I can get a vibe if people are enjoying it or not,” Agisilaou said.
It is not the only change.
Heckling, when done correctly, can be part of what makes live stand-up enjoyable, and each show is different.
To keep that tradition alive, viewers are encouraged to heckle using typed messages, which are moderated by the producer and read out.
“So, I don’t know if I’m getting a curated feed of the heckles,” Agisilaou laughed.
He added it was odd to see people in their homes.
“You are in their living room, people sitting there with a glass of wine,” he said.
“[With] some people you look and they are in bed, and you’ve got people in bed watching you live.”
But the live element is there, and McClelland said that was crucial.
“I’m a live performer. I’m very vain, very needy. I need to hear them. I want to see them laugh.”
Here to stay, and in need of a chuckle
None of the comedians performing this way expect to get rich.
But McClelland, who has been a regular in Edinburgh, New Zealand and local television since the early 2000s, thinks it could be part of the future.
The part-time DJ has not only performed on Zoom, he has also used the app to host dance parties with entrance fees.
“It is the ultimate nightclub in some ways,” he said.
“You can bring your own booze. There is no toilet line. There is no line-up to get in. You can bring your kids. The toilets are as clean as you make them.
“I’m going to keep doing it even once we are allowed out.”
Hardie also has plans to expand into other forms of performance.
“I’ve got someone who would be beautiful to do some live poetry reading shows,” she said.
And even if they aren’t making a cash profit, Agisilaou thinks there is net gain to having a laugh at the world we live in, as we are living in it.
He said comedy was one of the oldest art forms and people would always need to see the world they live in mocked and made light of to cope with it.
“In times like this, there is a marked increase in people’s gratitude when we’ve done stuff,” he said.
“There is a need for it.”