It's not the same. It will never be the same. That said, there are possibilities.
I miss making people laugh, as I'm sure you do. I miss when something twinkling and different comes into someone's eye, or someone looks like they're farting silently, and you know you did that to them. I miss finding the funny and just nailing it to the wall, one more joke on the Great Wall of Human Idiocy, on which gloriously stupid jokes throughout time flutter deafeningly, like the wings of 20 million shitting seagulls.
I worry about people more talented than I, or less relatively-balanced than I, for whom making people laugh was medicine, and not getting it drags them down. I worry about my comedy artist sisters, brothers and in-betweeners losing their juice—their little dry comedy veins just twigs in a strong breeze, fluttering, feeling full of air and not much else.
I mean, that's how I feel too, sometimes. But I no longer feel like "if I can't do it just the way I want, then it's not worth doing at all." I feel like investing in my online teaching and performing will make me better at both. And this feels like growing up, artistically, if that makes sense. Like the art baby inside me—that has achieved a lot by crying and screaming until it got its way—is a preschooler now, and has some sense that a little compromise now and then could be all right.
Here's a thing I've learned: most of the opinions I held about comedic performance before the pandemic are simply facts now. And there's a ton of science to back me up. Coming forthwith.
Here are some of the data I've collected after a few months of playgroups, classes, and "shows." PREPARE FOR SCIENCE.
PLAY COMES THROOOOOOO, MAMA!
Let's define play as "something you do for fun."
Let's define fun as "an activity that causes amusement or pleasure."
Let's define amusement and pleasure as... oh fuck you get it.
We adults don't always know what fun is, even "cool" adults forget sometimes, or trick themselves into thinking they're having fun when they're actually not. Makes sense: a big part of growing up is learning that not everything that's worth doing is fun. Easy for us to get confused from time to time.
But in the virtual performance world, performers gotta be having some real, deep fun if they wanna reach the children. That fun has even farther to travel now to reach said children, and it has all these computers and personal spaces and thought-germs stuck in the middle. So that's even more obstacles than usual. If you are not a pig in shit, you're gonna lose 'em all.
So you better be a pig in shit when you're performing. You have to be. I mean, in my opinion you had to be a pig in shit before the pandemic, but now, it's not opinion anymore—it's just factually the absolute fact. You must be wallowing in your happiest place, in the warmest most-sun-kissed corner of your soul's pig-barn, at every performative moment. In order to reach any children, anywhere. There's a ton of science behind me on this. Doesn't this all sound like science?
HOW TO BE A PIG IN SHIT ON ZOOM!
Yes, I'm saying Zoom not digital online video platform. Know why? Because Zoom is the best. It is still annoying in certain ways, there are things it can't do, it wants my secrets for marketing purposes, whatever, it's still the best one out there right now. I've tried them all and you know what science says. Fact.
Okay, so in terms of being a pig on shit on Zoom, here's how I'm doing it: real carefully.
As in, I'm only doing the things I definitely 1000% wanna be doing on Zoom. I'm not taking any chances. I am taking super good care of my Inner Art Toddler and trying to give it alllll the cookies and none of the garbage-cookies.
That's taught me a lot about what kind of stuff I enjoy doing. Who would've guessed? A lot of sex-and- violence jokes and melodrama and dancing! Shocks!
Also, I'm doing a lot of 1-on-1. Solo and small group classes are great on Zoom, interactive experiences feel real on Zoom. My first run of Butt Kapinski 1-on-1 "shows" was super fun.
The word show is of course ridiculous and obsolete, unless we define show as "an entertaining experience that an audience member has purchased a ticket for." Even audience member is a problematic term now, when what I really mean is "paying collaborator." But whatever, Merriam-Webster. The point is, let's define My Zoom Shows as "heartfelt attempts to give one paying collaborator at a time a surprising, visually and auditorily-appetizing experience that makes them feel things (hopefully)."
For my "shows," I tried to think through my setup so that I was giving the "audience" some PRODUCTION VALUE GRRRRL. I had a "set" and I had "lights" and I had "sound." I've got a nice adjustable computer stand that I've had in my house for years and never needed until right now. I can angle it to put myself below the audience member, looking up at them, in keeping with my preferred angle when performing in real theaters. Ultimately, I've used a combination of technology available to me, and analog shit that feels DIY and down-home, which I frankly prefer. Mirrors, glasses, textures, wigs, puppets, liquids (towel on keys required). Good light.
Also fun for me is that I can now live out all my cinematic auteur fantasies without having to be in the movie industry. I love movies and sometimes wish, if I had another life.... but now presto! Mother Rona has given me the mandate to be the best clown auteur cinematographer I can possibly be, right away, no time for film school.
I did the shows in 4-chunk 25-minute sets, so 4 shows in two hours. It's more convenient in terms of costume, set up, etc. to do them chunked like that, but also I don't think I could have done more than 4 in a row because I got way too tired. It's a lot!
You wanna know what my "shows" were like without having bought a ticket? Have it your way, cheapskate. Often in my theater shows, I had an interaction that felt really special—I'd found an audience member who could really play with me, to the delight of the entire audience. It would only last a few minutes, of course, because I had a whole show to get through and an audience of people who also needed attention. So there was a bittersweetness when I really had such a moment with a total stranger. Our moment only lasted a few minutes, and then maybe I never saw them again.
So these Zoom shows were like I got to spend 25 minutes with an audience member like that. Someone who has signed up and prepared to play, and on whom I could lavish all my attention and really get deep with them.
It was dope!
It's not like doing a show. It's not like getting lots of laughs. There were a few people who laughed, and honestly, that felt amazing, and reminded me how good it feels and how I miss it and blah blah blah see above. But mostly, the participant was too focused on playing to laugh. They were making something with me, we were building it fast and furious, but still, it felt very intimate because we had to trust each other and work together. So it was thrilling, to have a relationship with an audience member like that— "the audience" fully participatory in MY fantasy. That's kinda the dream, bitches!
And then it's over, and that stranger and I will always have that tight 25.
Now that the first run of shows are done, I'd say what helped the most was having a character that I love, a good filter on my camera, and a desire to co-create with whoever was on the other side of the screen. Like I said, I'm pleased with it so far.
You don't get high, the way you do after a sold-out show, or hell, even half-sold-out. But high is temporary anyway, and low often follows. This is the most emotionally-sustainable performing I've done, perhaps.
Next, I'm working on a 5-day Butt Kapinski experience, still for one audience member at a time. I'm excited about it. In a mellow, but decidedly-jazzed way.
HOW TO BE A ZOOM PIG IN SHIT WITH OTHER PERFORMERS!
If you're a performer, perform. Yes even on Zoom. Do it. Figure it out. Get a buddy. You gotta stay in shape.
Don't watch other people doing it unless they beg you. It's 99.9% horrible. No, that's not fair. It's 99.9% mostly for the performers. But, hey, nothing wrong with that. See my point above. Performers gotta perform. Good on ya. Now let's just work at making it watchable.
To further illustrate my point, let's look at improv comedy (forgive me). If you have hung out with me in the last 20 years and asked me about my feelings about current improv comedy trends, (1) you wouldn't have done that; and (2) I would have told you that the big problem with improv comedians in the 21st century is often they're not working like theater artists, they're working like a tv writers' room. Everyone is standing around figuring out how to be clever as a team, and they absolutely succeed, in a way. King UCB's hammering of "find the game" to anyone who'd listen has taught modern improvisors that we shouldn't just be mucking around making a bunch of random choices. There are patterns to group cleverness. And good on us for learning that. But unfortunately, audience members still had to watch you when you were on stage—you know, back when stages. So you might've been "finding the game," but a lot of us were not working physically, spatially, rhythmically, or emotionally. And now that improv comedians are trying to work online, this is true times a million. Talking heads on Zoom is painful to watch, period. This is total science, at this point.
I'm going to make the argument that, so far, the only good improvised work I've seen on Zoom has felt more like funny experimental film, with creative use of the camera, angles, travelling, weird filters. Last week one of my students put his mouth on his computer's trackpad and gummed it for a moment, and that kinda blew my mind. Laptops and smaller devices are made for being moved around, for getting on top of, for spinning around. Yes I know it's precious electronicware. But also, nobody wants to watch you look like a normal person on Zoom. We need to see you act like an animal. See pig facts above.
And all the Viewpoints razz-a-ma-tazz? That works on Zoom. Working with music? That's nice. Narrate for someone else, or be the scenery they see when they walk. Close ups. Eat, put on lipstick. More closeups, way closer than you think. Embarrassing closeups. Fight scenes.
What to do about that pesky self-view? I mean, I guess you can turn it off, but working with it has definitely helped me develop my directorial eye. I've been dealing with myself on video for years now, so I'm less obsessed by it than I used to be. But you know, I like cultivating that cool, nonjudgemental, directorial view of my own work. I'm not asking myself, Do I look pretty enough? Do I look old/fat? I'm only asking, is this angle interesting? Or, oh, that's what I look like when I'm laughing! It's just nice information, and it's a process.
My big point here is, WERK THE MEDIUM. The medium is not your obstacle, it is your gift. USE THE MEDIUM.
Personally, I may be a pessimist who never thinks anything is going to go well, but I also believe in making the best of whatever shitty situation was inevitable anyway. This work can bolster our skill sets for when we do get back on stage, to play hard, to find joy, to work in 3 dimensions. This time off stage can be a time to develop new awarenesses and appreciations and everything. Or, at least it can be a pleasant diversion between jello layers.
HOW TO MAKE A LOT OF MONEY ON ZOOM!
Sex work sounds lucrative right now.
I'm also considering an advanced degree. In sex work.
No, seriously, here's what's up: a lot of nice people still have jobs out there and they still need our goofy art. If what we offer them is heartfelt and thought-through, they might just pay for it. It's not going to be the kind of money we made before, but it's something. I for one am still figuring out income stream, the appropriate amount of doom-scrolling, and the future. But that's a whole other blog post.