So thanks to my wonderful local council Moreton Bay Regional Council’s Regional Arts Development Fund, I was given the opportunity to explore some of the concepts around live-streaming performance - specifically comedy, in my case.
Well like most comedians I was thrown in the deep end during lockdown to do comedy “gigs” over Zoom and suffice to say, I didn’t love it.
I DON’T think you can just deliver stand-up to camera exactly as if it’s a stand-in for an audience and expect it to be good enough. Yes, audiences supported these gigs during lockdown because a) they weren’t exactly spoiled for choice and b) there was a lot of good will and desire to support artists at the time.
But how long can that goodwill extend when comedy specials - professionally filmed and not looking like they’re just in somebody’s bedroom - are just a click away?
Okay, okay, I hear you say, but the pandemic is over! We can all get back to biz as usual - no need to do online gigs anymore!
Well, yes. BUT…we can’t forget that we’re all just an event away from having to pivot online again. AND the exciting part about what happened in lockdown is that people are now very comfortable (well, a lot more comfortable at least) at connecting with others via Zoom and its siblings. This means that people who otherwise have difficulty accessing live comedy - due to disability, income, location, whatever - now actually do have a shot at being able to be included. This is good news!
As such, even though things have returned to a new kind of normal, I truly believe that investing time and effort into understanding how to be not just okay at this live-streaming thing, but actually get really good at it, is just smart creative practice.
Okay, so how I embarked on this conceptual exploration:
I went on a bit of a rabbit hole exploration to try to learn from what others have been doing in the space. I chatted to other performers, and also tried to access - with varying success - recordings of what others have done.
I completed Changer Studios’ Youtube Accelerator course.
I undertook a series of one-on-one consultations with Changer Studios to get strategic and practical advice on developing online content and audience as well as how to find income streams for this.
I employed my fellow Moreton Bay comedian Jasmine Fairbairn to do some initial brainstorming and writing to come up with some experimental format ideas for live-streamed comedy shows.
I live-streamed some of these experimental ideas in my Funny Mummies Facebook group, surveyed my audience for feedback, tweaked and repeated!
Here are some of the things I learned!
Great examples of live-streamed shows working were absolutely NOT just straight “delivered to camera as if it’s just another stand-up night” but rather, embraced improvisation and went to great lengths to incorporate audience interaction, such as:
Queenie Van De Zandt’s “Choose Your Own Adventure” used a game-like format, where audience members were put into “teams” with different colours, and awarded “points” throughout. They voted (she recommended using Slido) - in the moment on what story/song they wanted to hear, and there was a prize at the end (tokenistic only) for the winning team. You can check out the trailer here.
Queenie also put me onto this show which looks AMAZING and is available to stream now: Who’s Your Baghdaddy?!
She also told me about a live-streamed show which went crazy well - a guy in Wagga Wagga (turns out this is comedian Dane Simpson!) approached local businesses in his community and got them to sponsor his live-streamed game show Servo Bingo and it went crazy! I just discovered a live-stream recording here.
The Iso Late Late Show which took off during lockdown - I missed it while it was on because I was busy crying in the foetal position over lockdown, but all full episodes are up and available on youtube! Woot!
Colin Mochrie’s lockdown Zoom show - I unfortunately didn’t get to see this personally and there’s no recording that I can find, but apparently they did amazing audience interaction, even encouraging audience members on Zoom to have their own “green screens” at the ready, then they could call upon said audience member to be their “weather man” or similar and they’d put them on-camera with graphics super-imposed over the top. So cool! Plus Colin himself and his guest used green screen to great effect, sticking their heads through green screens and then having cartoon bodies and settings. I mean, if you’ve gotta do it on a screen, then heck yes, take advantage of it! Here’s a tiny snippet.
Note: this obviously requires a level of solid tech prowess. I’m very lucky in that my hubby/manager/partner in crime is a tech nerd from way back and loves trying to get his head around what’s possible - thus far he’s found the best free-use live-streaming software is OBS plus he’s also Prism, and has played around with this plus our own green-screen and graphics he’s created in Canva. Suffice to say there’s a LOT of stuff to be learned and played with purely on the tech side.
Other Key Learnings/Musings:
Gaming streamers have been all over how to engage audiences and keep them watching for AGES. There is a lot we can learn from them. I did start to spend time diving into Twitch but then realised the depth and breadth of it is quite overwhelming, so instead I asked my teenaged son to summarise the people who tend to do well! I did notice a few comedians on there but few seem to have done more than a few shows before presumably they’ve gotten tired of it and quit. But even if you don’t look at Twitch as a platform for comedy/performing in itself, I think their ability to use prizes/gamifying audience interaction is worth a look.
You can create production values that are surprisingly high with basic equipment and it is worth the effort. It just goes from a feeling of "I'm performing in circumstances I don't like" to "I'm making an effort for you!" You don't even need a proper green screen now to do a basic semblance of green-screen effect, or if you really want to spoil yourself, even a green piece of cardboard can make a difference (spoiler: my hubby bought a green screen). We also got some studio lights that were not expensive and make a HUGE difference in terms of a professional look. Heck I'm pretty sure Coles is selling selfie-ring lights now! Point is, the look of my live-streamed experiments got a little bit better with each incarnation and I'm really trying to up the ante each time I appear on camera now, mainly lately with my corporate gigs (yes, they're still happening over Zoom and I feel like I'm getting better at them each time, thanks in no short part to my extremely tech-savvy hubby!)
Audience feedback was mainly qualitative rather than quantitative but showed that most people liked structure to the live-streamed show (i.e. not just watching people chatting aimlessly) and liked the games/segment components more than just free-form. The struggle we had with audience interaction was that people really wanted to interact/comment, but the time-lag between them physically typing out comments, and then us performers reading them, then responding to them, was frustrating. It disrupted the flow of the comedians, and by the time we responded the moment they had typed about had kinda passed. But then the vast majority of everybody surveyed said that they wanted audience interaction. It’s a tough one! Hopefully technology will advance to a point where people’s thoughts just get transmitted directly to the comedian’s brains…?
Comedians doing live-streamed gigs have struggled with the absence of laughter. I’ve seen a few that have experimented with audience laugh “tracks” - i.e. leaving the sound on for a select number of audience members over Zoom - however the consensus seems to be that this is just distracting and jarring, because of course, the speaker/comedian’s voice cuts out in favour of the laughter. Until the technology evolves to allow for this to be remedied, it’s better to opt for no laugh track at all. OR have a small audience in the room with you, so that laughter is just part of the actual live ambience.
Changer Studios - who have a PLETHORA of info and were an absolute fountain of knowledge - pointed out that at the moment, live-streaming isn’t really a great way to BUILD audience, but is a great way to CONNECT with your audience. That is, you’re unlikely to win a lot of new followers by live-streaming, but once you have built your audience through other means e.g. youtube channel, socials, etc, then live-streaming is a great value-ad. I asked about publishing your live-streamed content then after the fact, but they pointed out that unless you’re at celebrity status, the stats show that live-streamed content just doesn’t translate into huge after-the-fact views. Why would somebody invest time re-watching a live-stream they can’t participate in? It’s like watching a replay of a sports game (Again, obviously there are exceptions for people who already have massive followings/huge investment from their audience. And obviously there are people who rewatch sports games :) ). Their overall advice was to incorporate live-streaming as part of an audience engagement strategy while focusing on consistent, high quality content posted on predictable schedules. I do highly recommend doing their Youtube Accelerator to really get your head around best practice for video content creation.
I could go on forever, I’m still learning and reflecting and planning how I’m going to move forward with this. My initial thought was that by the end of this project I’d have a regular live-streamed show ready to go, but the things I concluded that have changed since then include:
Live-streaming as an end unto itself doesn’t seem a wise strategy, but rather a great way to engage an audience you’ve developed elsewhere.
Because of the chapter of life we’re in right now as a world mean that people are not actively and regularly consuming live-streamed comedy at the moment. It’s almost like “that moment has passed/we’re back to normal now” (feedback I heard a lot from performers) - I’m sure this gave me much different results/a smaller audience to survey had this project been carried out during lockdown itself.
That said, I think getting across - creatively and technically - best practice for online comedy, live-streamed and in general - is smart artistic practice. So that if, heaven forbid, there is another instance in which I as an artist need to pivot my practice mainly online, I will be rearing to go and able to do it in a really high quality and appealing way for audiences, not just a “hey I put fairy lights up in my bedroom” kinda way.
Questions? Comments? Examples of other great live-streamed recordings to check out? I’m all ears!