November 29, 2020

‘It feels good to bring the virus down a peg or two’: should comedians joke about Covid?

Some standups see it as their job to provide collective catharsis for the coronavirus, while others see pandemic gags as off-limits – even ones about Trump

“I’ve been getting a lot out of lockdown – boobs, for example.” It’s Monday night at the Amersham Arms in New Cross, and live comedy is happening to a socially distanced audience. Phil Nichol is joking about Covid-era weight gain. Yuriko Kotani cracks a gag about people who won’t wear masks. MC Sion James makes disinfecting the mic look like a hand job.

But apart from that, it’s remarkable how few gags there are about coronavirus. It could be the biggest global crisis since the second world war – but you’d never guess from tonight’s standup, where the subject is tiptoed around. Covid-19 is not, it transpires, another Brexit or Trump, those topical gifts that keep on giving to professional humourists. It’s a trickier customer. Do you poke fun at a pandemic that’s killing millions? Or joke about something else entirely, and look like you’re running scared of the one subject on everyone’s mind? And how do you do either when your livelihood is under threat, and the way you’ve always created comedy is becoming less and less sustainable?

It’s difficult, says standup Mark Watson, because “nobody wants to hear all about it, because we’re all permanently thinking about it anyway, and that feels stifling. But it would be very, very weird not to acknowledge it at all” – all the more so when many current gigs are taking place “in car parks or pub gardens or out the back of some aircraft hangar, which just intensifies the feeling that you need to address it”.

It’s a dilemma in which comedians, uniquely among performing artists, are caught. No one expects ballet dancers or tragedians to be topical. “But standup can’t be escapist in the way theatre can be,” says Watson. “You’re trying to take people out of the present moment, but also acknowledge the present moment, too.” For Watson – and, based on his unscientific survey, for many of his colleagues, too – the answer is to acknowledge the pandemic straight off the bat, “then leave it alone and talk about normal things”.

That’s easier said than done. Watson admits that the material he was writing pre-Covid “already feels old now, because it was drawn from a set of assumptions that no longer apply”. When comedian Phil Wang began gigging again as lockdown eased over the summer, he found that he “genuinely could not remember my material from pre-lockdown times”. Jokes from that uncontagious era might as well have been written in Old English. Even those from earlier in the pandemic “feel old hat now”, says Wang, “because the nature of the crisis keeps changing”.

So if you do want to joke about Covid, you have to do so on the hoof, endlessly generating up-to-speed material. In normal times, that might be easier – because comedians used to gig multiple nights a week, forever streamlining new jokes into shape. But now, there’s less stage time available. “The riffing conditions,” as Watson puts it, “are not ideal.” Then there’s the amount of time locked-down comics spend on social media. “Live comedy is always in a battle with Twitter,” says Wang, “to get to the joke first. And because we’re all on social media even more than before, everyone’s aware of the jokes and the memes even sooner. So you have to work harder to find a perspective that hasn’t been done yet.”

The comedians I speak to offer up several examples of what that can look like. Watson finds Covid comedy in “the extremity of people’s positions on both sides”: the aggressive anti-mask brigade, and “the massively pro-lockdown people who think we should all be living in holes for another year”. For comedian Ahir Shah: “Where it would be hard to find a comedic angle on what’s happening on the NHS frontline, in those deeply human elements of this shared experience – the prospect of our mortality, say, or the heightened awareness of our bodies – there’s definitely scope for stuff to be funny.”

Rookie comic Bella Hull delivers an alarming report from the open-mic nights where she plies her trade, of libertarian comics railing against face masks. “There are so many jokes that are wrong to make,” she says. “But if you’re an open-mic act who’s struggling to get back to gigging – well, that’s a lot of people who’ve been storing up a lot of angry venom about being locked down.”

Which leads to another issue: does a comedian’s own mental health – amid the wreckage of their industry – affect their ability to joke about Covid? Not for Shah. “All the stresses and anxieties that an audience is experiencing are the very stresses and anxieties we’re experiencing, because this is such a fundamentally universal thing. So let’s discuss it!” The challenge for Shah is to develop a radar – as the pandemic ebbs and flows from one phase to the next – for how audiences are feeling. “That’s a really crucial thing to be able to identify in terms of how much Covid comedy people can take.”

In the summer, says Wang, there was a palpable appetite for pandemic material – and he obliged with a whole set’s worth. “There was this great sense of relief to be addressing it.” His approach drew on his east Asian heritage. “Just before lockdown, I was walking down the street and someone looked me in the face and said: ‘Good corona?’ So I needed to get that off my chest. Even how the news used Chinese people early on as a sort of prop for coronavirus was both unpleasant and also very funny. And where those qualities meet, that’s my favourite stuff to talk about.”

And did the gig go well? “At the time,” Wang recalls, “no one had heard coronavirus joked about in a live setting. So it was cathartic for people. The pandemic is not just about illness and loss of life, it’s about living under restriction and with this constant lingering threat and uncertainty. Even hearing a comedian address those feelings makes people feel less alone.” That’s certainly my experience. I watched Aisling Bea at the Greenwich comedy festival the other week, broaching life under Covid with a blissfully funny routine comparing mask etiquette with pre-coital negotiation over condoms. The experience – of collective laughter at the conditions of our current lives – was surprisingly therapeutic.

“We’ve always said that terrible tyrants can be brought down by humour,” says Wang, “how their power and threat is diminished if you’re able to joke about them. It feels the same way about the pandemic. It’s like a gargantuan villain we’re all fighting, and it can feel good to bring it down a peg or two.”

But you have to take care how you set about it: any given audience might have lost friends and relatives to the virus. “I try not to have it in my head,” says Watson, “that the virus is slaughtering the relatives of the front row. I definitely wouldn’t open with that line!” But he does acknowledge the sensitivity. “There’s no doubt there’s more gravitas to it than almost every other world event. When I was starting doing comedy, 9/11 had happened recently, and you had to ask yourself whether you should talk about it. But it was unlikely your audience would have been affected by it personally. Whereas with this, it might well.”

For a recent case study in how to balance jokes with gravitas, witness US comedy’s response to Donald Trump’s Covid diagnosis. The country’s leading satirists stood accused of piety, with Stephen Colbert opining that “we all wish the president and the first lady a speedy and a full recovery”. Michael Che on Saturday Night Live addressed the issue – to joke or not to joke about the president’s sickness – head-on. “A lot of people on both sides are saying there’s nothing funny about Trump being hospitalised with coronavirus,” said Che, “even though he mocked the safety precautions for coronavirus. And those people are obviously wrong. There’s a lot funny about this – maybe not from a moral standpoint, but mathematically, if you were constructing the joke, it’s got all the ingredients you need.”

To Bella Hull, those opposing approaches show how hard it is to find common ground on coronavirus, a subject she chooses to avoid. “I’m afraid of it being insensitive. I’m afraid that it won’t ring true to enough people. I’m afraid it will age badly. I just think: leave it to the pros! There are loads of great jokes that will be written about coronavirus, but I’m too neurotic a person to write them.” Others will, albeit cautiously, fill the breach. “As it goes on,” says Wang, “more comedians have more and more material on it. There’s always a fear when you write topical jokes: how long is this going to be relevant? But it’s now obvious to everyone: it’s going to be relevant for a long time.”