Comedian Manny Garavito smiles at the crowd, but he can't see them smiling back. Instead of performing on a stage, he's broadcasting from his bedroom, a comedy nerd den decorated with posters featuring the likes of Steve Martin and Richard Pryor. Since the pandemic, this has become a home base for Garavito's "Miami Comedy" podcast, which livestreams daily at 3 and 10:30 p.m. on Instagram.
"We as performers have a responsibility to continue to perform one way or another to highlight that entertainment doesn't die because there's no stage," Garavito tells New Times. "One of the funnest, most dynamic things about a live comedy show is that you're surrounded by people. And that energy of being around people that want to enjoy a live comedy show is what makes it more exciting."
Plenty of online outlets provide comedic content (think YouTube, Funny or Die, CollegeHumor), but those sites cater to content creators who produce edited videos, i.e., a final product. If Garavito gets tongue-twisted in the middle of a punch line, he can't rewind for a second take.
"It's interactive content where I get in touch with the locals — people that are readily available that just want to have a conversation and just try to make things funny," Garavito says of the podcast. "The people logging into the chat are the guests of the podcast because they feed you the content by asking questions and telling you about their day and what life is like as a local in Miami and what they're doing."
That interactivity, so crucial to live comedy shows, is what Garatvito seeks to re-create online.
And he's not the only local comic trying to bring the in-person experience to a virtual space.
Comedian and improv actor Carlos Hernandez saw his workflow suffer when comedy venues were shuttered.
"I was doing stand-up shows at least three days out of the week, and then I was doing improv shows two days out of the week all the time," Hernandez tells New Times. "I was going to rehearsals for improv, going to auditions, and that adrenaline that I felt getting off stage — it's really hard to get it back."
Hernandez typically works with the Miami-based sketch and improv theater Just the Funny. These days, the venue uses Zoom to stream its Thursday and Saturday shows on Facebook Live. Like your typical improv show, the livestream relies heavily on audience interaction.
"We ask for suggestions from the audience in the comment section on Facebook," Hernandez explains. "Sometimes we ask an audience member to join us in the [Zoom] meeting so we can interview them — they could be part of the show."
Little Haiti's Villain Theater has been using Zoom to stage weekly virtual YouTube open-mikes Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. EDT.
There's a reason Villain Theater specified the time zone.
"Our last show, we had someone from California, someone from New York, someone from Toronto," says Anastasia Pavlinskaya, Villain's director of stand-up. "We actually had one lady who signed on a little bit late for the open mike and I told her, 'Hey, you're late, but I'll let you in.' She said, 'I'm late? But you start at 9:10.' Yeah, 9:10 Eastern."
Despite Zoom's ease of use, Pavlinskaya says it's a challenge to adapt to the app. How does the theater take a platform designed for business meetings and mold it into an outlet for creative expression?
"When you watch our shows, it's not like a Zoom call going to YouTube," Pavlinskaya says. "There's graphics and musical transitions. There's all this streaming software that's so new to us. But we wanted to deliver the same caliber of production that we would deliver on our stage because people expect that from our theater."
Self-isolation does have its perks. Some comedians have pursued creative projects they've been kicking around for a while.
Postal worker J.P. Knauer, for instance, started streaming a podcast, "Addressing It With the Mailman."
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"I was eventually going to do a podcast, but it kind of accelerated things with COVID-19," Knauer says. "I'm just interviewing people in a radio-style environment with an open forum, and I bring up everyday topics. We try to make it light and entertain people."
Certainly, the coronavirus broke during what might have been a fruitful time for Miami's comedy scene. Garavito had been laboring to set up open mikes throughout Miami every night of the week. Before the stay-at-home order descended, he'd made it to six out of seven days.
Still, he believes the Miami comedy scene might emerge from isolation changed for the better.
"You're online more than you are on stage, and we as performers can use that to our advantage," he says. "Nothing can take away the energy and the excitement of performing in front of a live audience, and the virtual world is a great place to curate that."