When the pandemic is over, we’re all going to need a few things— a healthy economy, an efficient government and a good laugh. While the economy and government may be years in the away, a good laugh is being served up in a variety of ways already via Twitter and Kenneth McLaurin, one of Ithaca’s local funny guys.
A few weeks ago, Kenneth hosted a scripted competition game show So You Think You’re Antiracist?And now he’s working on a follow-up titled Woke as F@k Game Show, premiering Sept. 17 at 7:30 p.m. I sat down with him to find out exactly what comedy looks like during COVID-19.
Ithaca Times: What does comedy during a pandemic look like, Kenneth?
Kenneth McLaurin: For me, it looks the same. My motto in life has been life’s a joke, find the funny. I think comedy is a great way to look at the world around you and share different experiences with people, COVID-19 has only made it more difficult to do that. Before, the focus of stand-up was on connecting with people in person, being on stage in front of a live audience and making people laugh and with the pandemic, the in-person element has been taken out of it. It’s forced me and other comedians to find different ways to bring the funny to the people, to try new things and really listen to the joke.
IT: What’s it like being more disconnected from the audience than is comfortable for a comedian? I mean, you can’t necessarily hear a joke land; and you don’t know if you're funny, how do you work around that?
KM: When you do standup comedy in a virtual event, the best way to do it is to have people with headphones on and the microphone open, so that as the performer, you can hear the laughter and the feedback. That’s the ideal setup. But when you can’t hear it you just have to trust in the joke and trust that what you’re saying is funny.
I mean, there are still opportunities to practice too. I work with other comedians online and people host open mics so people can get online and tell the jokes. Yeah, it’s odd, but in some ways it’s more like T.V. and less like live stage performance and you have to approach it that way. Generally, in [television], you don’t get the same feedback you get from a live audience. Whenever I produce shows I encourage people to have their headphones in and keep the mics open so we can hear the interaction and the feedback and when that happens it can actually go really well. I’ve seen shows where comedians have done crowd work— and now we see not just people, but also people’s houses. I’ve had comedians make jokes about what people’s rooms look like. There are still opportunities to be funny, there are just different ways to do it now. We’ve had to adapt.
IT: Moving onto adaptation, I watched your comedy game show So You Think You’re Antiracist?, which is really made for this time. That’s very much the television setup, is it complicated to put together?
KM: Yes and no. It’s probably more complicated because me and the people who put the show together are really new to the Zoom production medium. On a television game show, it’s a larger production, they take breaks and everyone’s together. Finding the right technology and using different parts of video work on this but something else works better at another time. This was a real learning experience, but I think that for the next show, it’s going to be a little bit better. Answering your question: it was hard, but it’s going to get better.
IT: I think you’re underselling the complexity of comedy, Kenneth.
KM: [laughs] In some ways I think comedy is really simple because the thing that makes us laugh is surprise. Essentially with comedy, it’s you telling somebody one story and people expecting what’s going to come next, and then you take them in another direction and there’s the surprise ‘oh, I didn’t think he was going to say that.’
IT: But what do you think about the audience’s need to be in on the joke? That’s what you get in person that may not always transfer virtually. That question: am I laughing at the right thing? Was that the joke? Am I the only one who found that funny? Is it appropriate to laugh at that?
KM: [laughs] That was difficult for me with So You Think You’re Antiracist? competition, originally when we planned it, the whole thing was going to be entirely over Zoom. But as we were going through it we realized that while laughter is good, on Zoom people can talk and they can interrupt, so we decided to just stream it on Youtube. By doing that we removed the feedback and it was quiet, but what helped was that everybody participating believed in the script. [The actors] thought it was funny and that transferred over on screen and it made it easier for people watching to catch on and get the jokes and see where the jokes were supposed to be. We also wanted it to be over the top so people could grasp what was a joke.
IT: Yeah! Over here, we were expecting for it to be a real competition. I ended up describing it as a show where the points don’t matter and the winner is anyone who can catch on to the joke.
KM: I promoted it that way on purpose. When people were asking me ‘is this a real competition,’ I’d reply ‘Yeah, people are going to be judged.’ And the reaction was always, who would do that? Why would anyone do that? And then part of the reason I wanted to do that was because of the irony. If we look at all the competitions and the contests that we do now: Basketball has the dunk competition; you’ve got figure skating contests; in some ways, the NBA is a competition and with anti-racism, it’s so important and it has such an impact on everyone’s lives, why wouldn’t people be competitive about it?
IT: So, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, what’s funny about it?
KM: [laughs] Oh man! One joke that I wrote at the start of the pandemic was: COVID-19 is a terrible name for a pandemic. With the way that it’s hurting the economy and taking everything from everybody’s wallets, they should’ve named it COVID-Ex Wife, but i don’t know. I think there’s always an opportunity to find humor in what’s going on.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.