For local comedian Phil Griffiths, hosting a comedy show has taken on a new meaning in the era of pandemic. For the past six years, Griffiths has hosted Comedy Sharks, a free stand-up comedy show inside the taproom at the Hop Dogma Brewing Co.
With its doors closed to the public for the past several months and all in-person events canceled or postponed, Griffiths has moved the show online. On the Zoom video conferencing platform, Griffiths is the host; he can mute guests and hecklers with ease.
On Friday, Griffiths hosted the second online Comedy Sharks show. As many as 95 attendees watched a handful of comedians perform 10- to 15-minute sets.
For the online show, which runs every other Friday, attendees sign up at comedysharks.online in advance, then have to request to be unmuted by the host. The show does its best to recreate the barroom vibe. Griffiths even uses an image of the Hop Dogma stage as his background. Participants are encouraged to be respectful, and while those in a quiet background are encouraged to laugh, hecklers are shown the virtual door. Tips on Venmo and Paypal are split among the comics and Hop Dogma staff.
Overall, Griffiths is pleased at the number of viewers tuning in to watch. There’s something about a connection and interaction, the back-and-forth between comic and audience that is still translatable over Zoom. Like the live show, the comics are diverse and cover all sorts of topics. Content on Friday night ranged from the pros and cons of Zoom, the perks and pitfalls of working from home, protests over the coronavirus shelter orders and microwave lightbulbs.
“That part of it has been cool, knowing that people do want that interaction and to hear people talk is good,” Griffiths said. “There’s a ton of comedy Netflix specials, but they still want to see and hear people talk about their area and stuff they’re going through locally.”
By nature and tradition, a live audience is a driving force behind stand-up comedy. Could all live entertainment be replaced with a Zoom call?
While Griffiths and other comics believe it’s hard to replace the interaction and immediate feedback of raucous laughter from a live show, an online version presents an opportunity as a new medium. At a time when live comedy, and entertainment in general, has ground to a halt, these shows are a chance for comics to try new material for their set and experiment with different content. For example, Griffiths found odd photos from the comic’s social media when each one was introduced. Matt Lied changed his background multiple times for comedic effect.
Griffiths recognized not every comic is going to hop on board or be adept at it right away. It’s a mixture of methods, blending stand-up, crowd work and improvisation.
“It’s almost like an open mic because it feels a little more relaxed and you can really say it,” Griffiths said. “It’s not being put out there into the world or on your Netflix special. You can play around with stuff.”
“I was talking with other comics who hadn’t done a Zoom show yet, and they asked me what it was like,” he continued. “I told them it was pretty good, but it definitely feels like a different comedy muscle that you’re flexing.”
At a fundamental level, the shows serve several purposes. Comedy fans get a chance to see new material, comics get to perform, and Hop Dogma gets an uptick in business, something Griffiths believes is very important.
“If this show helps them survive in any way,” he said, “that’s all the better for them, and I’m happy to be a part of it. Those guys mean a lot to me.”