Listen: The Comedy and Tragedy of Virtual Live Events

When events went online, they lost something indescribable. But did some of them gain something new?

On this episode of Social Distance, the comedian Maeve Higgins is back home in New York after weathering the pandemic’s first peak in her native Ireland. She joins James Hamblin to talk about her strange journey back to the United States, and the strange moment the country finds itself in.

James Fallows returns to reflect on the Democratic National Convention and why politics (unlike comedy) might actually be better without the crowds. The conventions became televised spectacles more than half a century ago, so perhaps the straight-to-camera speeches offer a frankness that better fits the medium.

Listen to their conversation here:

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Here’s a sample of their conversation, edited for length and clarity.

James Hamblin: How weird is it, as a former presidential speechwriter, to see things happening without audiences in our new pandemic Zoom world?

James Fallows: It’s really weird, but I think if we had been having this conversation before the first night, I think we’d have a very different tone, or at least I would. Conventions have always been these bizarre combinations of state fair, freak show, and prom. They have no real reason to exist, except people like to get together and they give a party free airtime on TV.

The shift has been more radical than it might seem if you hadn’t been to these conventions before. But I thought that overall it was only 10 percent as embarrassing as I expected and 200 percent as effective. I thought it was much more effective than most people would rationally have expected, even five minutes before it went on air.

Hamblin: What made it so much more effective? We were just talking about live comedy, which Maeve does, and how ineffective that seems to be over Zoom calls.

Maeve Higgins: You really miss the audience at a comedy show, but I didn’t miss the audience with the politicians. I was glad that they were just speaking to me.

Fallows: One thing that became obvious when this was being played out, and wasn’t as obvious before it happened, is that it was a fairly tight two-hour segment on TV, as opposed to the hours and hours that these would normally go on. And the difference is, there was never more than two hours of actual content in one of these five- or six-hour shows. It was padded out with all this bloviation, with the anchors weighing in to say, “Well, this was good; this was bad.” Most of the blubber was rendered out of it. You had more planning on what they wanted to get across.

Also, I think, a point that should have been obvious 50 or 60 years ago—and was even commented on when John F. Kennedy was learning how to use TV—is that TV is fundamentally a cool medium, an intimate medium, and the people who were appearing last night acted as if they understood that. And there’s a very different way, whether you’re performing live in a comedy club or you’re giving some speech someplace, or if you’re orating in an arena of 20,000 people—there’s a different vibe than there is if you’re delivering something to camera. It was as if they had actually thought that there’s not going to be an audience there, that they had actually planned it.

Hamblin: So that’s a good thing to come of the moment?

Fallows: Yes, it’s a good thing, in just an immediate operational sense. It will be interesting to see if Donald Trump can deal with that when the Republican convention comes, because he is a person who lives for the arena of 20,000 people … and he will not have that. And there’s a question of whether he can do what Michelle Obama and, I think, even Bernie Sanders effectively did: just talking intimately in the cool medium of TV without a crowd, as opposed to the hot medium that William Jennings Bryan and Donald Trump, despite their obvious differences, both thrive on.