What Happens When a Joke Is Followed by Silence

Usually, that’s bad. The pandemic makes it normal.

Calum Heath

Imagine sitting down at a grand piano to play, I don’t know, a Chopin ballade—something that requires technical skill and emotional engagement, an understanding of rhythm, stress, and volume. Now imagine that when you press the keys, you hear absolutely nothing.

That’s what performing comedy without an audience is like.

Over the past month, comedians have been relearning how to generate laughs when no one is there to laugh back. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, they are recording remotely, over the internet, usually sitting safely in their own homes. On The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon began the social-distancing era trying to make his crew and house band crack up; now he’s filming from home, and his two young daughters are redefining the phrase tough crowd.

Britain doesn’t have the same tradition of late-night chat shows with opening monologues. Instead, it has “panel shows,” on which guests answer questions from a host about a given topic; politics and sports are the favorites. Lols, hopefully, ensue. For the past few years, I’ve been a regular panelist on the grand duchess of these, The News Quiz—a BBC Radio comedy show that is older than I am. And in November, I got my first stab at its BBC Television equivalent, Have I Got News for You (a relative youngster, having broadcast its first program two days before my seventh birthday).

Like The Tonight Show, both are so well established that they have become national institutions, and both are usually recorded in front of a live studio audience. Until now, of course. I was on the first remote episode of Have I Got News for You, broadcast last Friday, and recorded a remote test run of The News Quiz before appearing on the series itself later this month.

Now, I’m not the funniest person in the world. (Maybe the fourth, or fifth? I try to stay humble.) But when I started doing live comedy, I was even worse than I am now. Nothing teaches you how to generate a laugh—or makes you more keen to get one—than ending a sentence and being greeted with the howling sound of absolute silence. I would imagine that only tightrope walkers and bomb-disposal experts have more incentive to get good fast.

As you perform, you begin to understand the underlying grammar of comedy—the order in which to reveal information, for example, or the shameful ease of getting a cheap laugh by swearing, or by mentioning someone’s appearance. You discover all the registers that you, personally, cannot access: I would love to do long flights of fancy, building up the hyperbole until the audience is nearly hysterical, but I can’t. In the words of Flight of the Conchords, “Sometimes when I freestyle … I lose confidence.”

Generating a healthy fear of failure is only the most obvious way that audiences make comedians better. As comedians are fond of saying: The audience is a genius. It knows what’s funny. Good stand-ups will use the audience as an editor, which helps them refine their material, and take established routines into new areas, prospecting for laughs as they go. For a television or radio producer, the audience also provides an instant judgment on each joke.

Audiences provide rhythm too, which the best comics know how to surf. Like that Chopin ballade, a good routine has light and shade, fast sections and longueurs. When I first started doing panel shows, I was wary of emphasizing the punch line, in case the audience disagreed with me that it was a punch line. Instead, I would gabble on and hope that I would be stopped by gales of uncontrollable laughter. This is a bad idea. (I also learned that the professionals are tough enough to accept that a certain percentage of jokes simply don’t catch fire, for whatever reason. And, of course, these misfires do not appear in the finished product of recorded programs such as Have I Got News for You.)

When I interviewed the television producer John Lloyd for the New Statesman in 2013, he was candid about the initial failure of one of his first projects, Blackadder. The historical comedy was co-authored by Richard Curtis, who went on to write Four Weddings and a Funeral, the Bridget Jones film adaptation and Love, Actually. It starred Rowan Atkinson—later known as Mr. Bean—with a supporting cast that was a who’s who of British comedy in the 1980s. It should have been a surefire hit. And yet the first season, set in the medieval era, was a flop; such a bad flop, in fact, that three years passed before a second season aired, after much pleading with the BBC for another chance.

“Rowan is a stage comedian, and we had no idea how to time laughs …  without an audience,” Lloyd told me. Without humans providing realtime feedback, the deliberately wince-inducing gags fell flat, and Atkinson’s physical comedy seemed bizarre. When Blackadder was recommissioned, its actors moved to indoor sets and a live audience. There, it flourished, spawning two more seasons and several special episodes. It is now regarded as one of the 20th century’s most successful British sitcoms.

All the delicate interplay between the entertainer and the entertained is lost when you perform without an audience. Timing has to be relearned, even before we get to the interruptions and overtalk that plague any Zoom call. Have I Got News for You’s team captains, Ian Hislop and Paul Merton, have been with the show from its start, in 1990. The last time a video appearance was used on the program was 20 years ago, when the British former spy David Shayler appeared from Paris because he would have been arrested if he had returned to Britain.

Even then, Merton found himself talking over Shayler. When we recorded last week, with five people all in different locations, the problem was heightened. Have I Got News for You became Have I Got Politely Aborted Interruptions for You. A joke is not improved by being prefaced with, “No, you first.” Contrasting that experience with The News Quiz pilot confirmed my suspicion that radio shows are easier to adapt for remote recording because they are more naturally discursive. (This was predictable: Four people laughing at one another’s jokes is pretty much the definition of a podcast.) Television is a fast, image-based medium, where anyone saying more than three sentences in a row sounds like they’re making a best man’s speech. To gather enough snappy material, recording the half-hour episode of Have I Got News for You took nearly three hours. Whoever edited it together is a wizard.

Comedy without an audience is, by definition, less funny. Laughter is heightened when it’s a collective experience. We laugh more in a club or an arena than we do watching the same comedian’s Netflix special from our sofa. (When the material is highbrow, laughter is also a signal to those around you that you got the joke). As a performer, being part of that communal act of creation is exciting; it feels like hundreds of minds at work at once.

Most fascinatingly, on a panel with several people, you can see everyone’s status ebb and flow: One minute they’re mocking, the next they’re the object of mockery. It’s a little like writing a play—one of those intense European dramas set over a family dinner, or maybe an Arthur Miller play but with laughs—in real time. The unspoken convention is that regulars will get the most airtime, and deserve the most respect. Sometimes, watching a younger comedian nip at an established star, a Merton or a Hislop, feels like watching one of those nature documentaries in which a baby tiger goads its father, and is indulged, until finally the big fat decisive paw reminds junior who’s in charge. Again, that subtlety is lost with the jerkiness of a remote recording; you are going to talk rudely over people, whether you mean to or not.

There is something magical about humans responding in real time, whether watching a play or a comedy gig. Comedians talk about “reading the room” and “losing the audience” for a reason. When someone crosses the invisible line—by making a joke that repulses the crowd, or by attacking someone on the panel in a way that seems mean-spirited rather than good-humored—you know it. Again, the audience is a genius. It knows what it wants.

Which brings me back to … well, me, tossing out jokes (or what I hoped were jokes) into the formless void. The audience-free Have I Got News for You received mixed reviews. “It was less like a panel show and more like an awkward family chat over Skype but Have I Got News For You (BBC One) somehow succeeded,” Michael Hogan wrote in The Telegraph. The harshest critique came from my dad, who explained to me—over FaceTime, naturally—that he missed the repartee of panelists in the studio. Almost everyone else I spoke with appreciated the effort; some even enjoyed the postapocalyptic vibe. (Parts of it reminded me of the Mitchell and Webb Look sketch about a comedy show set in the aftermath of something known only as “the event,” where the canned laughter is interrupted by frequent manic admonitions to “stay indoors!”) Afterward, I was relieved, mostly. Prime-time television might not be bomb disposal, but rewriting its rules at such short notice was certainly a high-stakes experiment.

Who knows if comedy over videoconference will endure beyond the current moment? I am glad to have tried it, and to have made the implicit case that it’s still appropriate to laugh in the face of a pandemic. Perhaps a new comic grammar will emerge from these unprecedented circumstances, and in six months’ time whole sitcoms will be filmed over Zoom. Or perhaps, like Bill Maher and his very obvious laugh track, performers will find unexpected ways to bring back the audience. Necessity breeds creativity.

Until then, though, I have a new item to add to the list of things I’m missing in lockdown. God, I’m nostalgic for a time when hundreds of people didn’t laugh at my jokes.