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Self-isolating comedians are pivoting from stand-up to Instagram

On Wednesday night at 8 p.m. sharp, comedian Catherine Cohen started an Instagram Live video. She danced in a tulle robe, lined with brown fur, and ate pigs in a blanket off of a white plate as jazz trickled in the background.

“Hello and welcome to my Instagram account, where I post pictures of my life. Now I do it as a show,” she said as nearly 1,500 people tuned in. “I DJ my own show, that’s what I call a woman in tech.”

Since the coronavirus has swept the U.S., closing bars and clubs in major entertainment hubs like New York City and Los Angeles, comedians like Cohen have taken their once-weekly standup and sketch shows virtual.

And Instagram has become their platform of choice.

“Turning it on in your own home opposed to a literal stage takes so much energy and performance,” said television writer and comedian Genevieve Aniello. “I am grateful this is the outlet for creating right now, especially when there is a desperate need for it.”

There is no lack of content right now. Front-facing comedians — ones who use the front camera of their phones to make and edit content specifically for social media, like Eva Victor and Blair Socci — that once posted sporadically are now sharing posts more consistently. Even those comedians who are more comfortable in front of a live audience are hopping on Instagram Live and collaborating with others each day. But the transition hasn’t been easy for some, especially during a pandemic.

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New York City-based comedian Sydnee Washington thrives on stage. She has seen her colleagues try their hands at making front-facing, produced, and edited content during the quarantine. But she hasn’t wanted to make the jump herself just yet.

“Where I am in comedy, I want to take risks,” said Washington. “But not when everyone is watching.”

Last week, Washington joined Cohen for her live show on Instagram. The collaboration was a quick conversation, interspersed with commentary and quips on social isolation. For a stand-up comedian like Washington, the energy and laughter from an audience were clearly missing, but the experience was still satisfying.

“It was awesome to be on live and see the comments. It’s like the people were still there,” she said.

But how do you know if a joke lands without a live audience?

“You truly don’t,” she laughed. “We do look at the numbers and get caught up with numbers, but it should be about touching the people who love your comedy.”

For a front-facing-only comedian like Aniello, who’s never done an in-person live set, using Instagram as the space to create is like playing the long game, something stand-up comedians aren’t particularly used to. Instagram may feel low risk, sure, but sometimes it’s also low reward.

“You can’t really pivot in the moment on Instagram; you can put something out there that flops and it’s out there forever,” said Aniello. “That’s why you see more sketch and character work.”

But all forms of comedy require energy, something many people struggling with anxiety over the spread of the coronavirus just don’t have right now. That’s why Aniello has been more of an observer than a performer these last few weeks.

“It’s tough right now to be in a space to create comedy,” said Aniello. “Thank God people are pumping out content, because I am waiting for my mind to get there.”

And though Washington has been hopping on various colleagues’ Instagram Live shows for a couple of sets at a time while she self isolates, she’s been worried about not giving herself enough breaks.

“As someone who deals with depression, this is a trying time,” she said. “I have to be basically alone, and be worried about all the things I am consuming. But I also don’t want to burn out keeping up with all this content. I can’t be the light for people every single day.”

Comedians pivoting to social media for the first time will have a lot of time to experiment and Instagram sets are providing a lot of comfort. But hopefully, Washington says, these virtual shows won’t replace the real thing.

“People can’t forget to go back to venues,” said Washington. “I don’t want people to get too comfortable doing this, we still need real interaction, not everything can be virtual.”

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