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Laughing Alone: An Exchange

Decades apart in age, two Tyee colleagues chat back and forth about reasons to smile in isolating times.

Em Cooper and Crawford Kilian 27 Mar

Emma Cooper is The Tyee’s outreach manager.
Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

Crawford Kilian, who has been writing for The Tyee since its first week in 2003, is in his late 70s and lives with his wife in North Vancouver. Emma Cooper, who joined The Tyee team a little over a year ago, lives alone at the moment and performs comedy in Vancouver and beyond when not engaging with our supportive readers in the role of Tyee outreach manager. Recently the two exchanged these emails:

Emma: Hey Crof, I am thinking of you during this discombobulated time of remote working and video chats. With our office closed, I no longer see you at our pizza-fueled Wednesday Lunch and Learn sessions. And you seem to have played the senior’s card (or cashed in your experience points) and gracefully opted out of our new staff ritual of a daily team Zoom video chat at noon.

As an extroverted Millennial and standup comedian living alone, I find these moments of online connection to be sustaining me as I socially distance. I realize that might not be the case for you and I really have no sense of how your day to day has shifted in these extreme-personal-bubble-times.

So how are things in North Vancouver when being lost on a hike is no longer the number one threat to the population? Many people are getting creative with how they reorient their time. I’m wondering about how you are taking care and what you are doing to keep busy. I like knowing what is blossoming moments of joy amidst this tangle of thorny news.

Crawford: Hi, Emma! Zoom is something I need to learn about. You’re right — we do need continued social contact.

I imagine sheltering in place is a lot easier with a spouse; we can share the chores and go for walks with the dog. It’s also good to get my wife’s take on events. I’m often too close to the story to see the proverbial forest for the trees, and she’s good at assessing the politics of the response. She also knows when to turn off the news and get busy with gardening. I try and lend a hand, and she’s right — digging in the dirt and bagging the trimmings is a good way to decompress.

COVID-19 is especially dangerous for people in my demographic cohort, and my wife and I are trying to follow the advice given by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Some advice is easy to follow: retirees are already semi-isolated, and many of our social outlets are closing down. We can potter around the house, work in the garden, and walk the dog without risking too much social interaction. That leaves shopping as the main hazard, and for our household that’s just about done.

As for social distancing, we’re doing it. But a better term would be “physical distancing.” Socially, we need to be closer than ever, in touch with friends, relatives, fellow-workers and neighbours by phone and email and social media. That includes the other people in your condo or townhouse development. If necessary, volunteer to start a local neighbours’ network over email so people can ask for help or offer it.

I find an ordinary walk boosts my morale. It’s become all too easy for me to obsess about the drip-feed of disaster that Twitter now delivers, or to wait for the next horrifying update on Worldometer.

A walk, however, offers updates on the neighbourhood that have nothing to do with body counts. I look around and notice the green on the huckleberries and Indian plum. Chat at a safe distance with my neighbours as they tidy up their front yards. Gawk at the Canada geese flying north in a V formation, not even noticing our troubles. Laugh at the amorous flicker banging on a street lamp as he tries to impress the girls. Try to spot the barred owl, doing the same thing with his seductive hoots.

If you have a dog as your personal trainer, as I do, you can expect two or three such therapeutic outings every day.

But I have the advantage of living out in the suburbs. What are urbanites doing amid all that densification?

Emma: I have been noticing how my in-person networks are shifting over to digital connections. The comedy community was the quickest transition. With shows cancelled, people adapted to set up live streams faster than I could stock up on peanut butter, pasta and pot. At any given moment, I can look at Instagram and a talented acquaintance or friend is sharing a sketch, opera-singing in drag or singing a tribute to grocery store workers. I’ve put together a list for you of funny folks to follow. (See sidebar).

Little pockets of community form around live-streamed shows and friends can message each other in the comments and tip the artists. I would try to call a friend who was busy Zoom-chatting with colleagues and have been too tired to watch other interesting shows even though I don’t have to bike across town in the rain, all I have to do is kick open my laptop. I’m trying to figure out what a healthy amount of online connection looks like for me.

Sunday has always been a great comedy evening. When I lived in Halifax I would go see Picnicface in a cozy upstairs pub with creaky stairs each Sunday for years. It was the thing that made me feel part of the community and signaled the end of the week. Here in Vancouver the Sunday Service improv is the same, warm ritual. They have been performing weekly for over 15 years and have no intentions of missing a show. Their first online show was performed on stage with no audience and it felt like such a relief that I could still watch this thing that made our "new weird normal" feel a little more familiar. I could orient myself in time, knowing that the weekend was over and a new week would begin.

Their second show they all were isolating so they performed via Zoom, so it looked like an episode of Hollywood Squares. They played different characters and would close their windows to exit the scene. Viewers posted suggestions to inspire the scenes in the comments. My friend Riel and I watched it together while on the phone.

It’s a little weird. When I laugh at comedy by myself, I will still laugh out loud, but then I realize that the people on the livestream can’t hear me and I reach out and type the word "clap" repeatedly, or send a smiling face or heart in the chat so that the performers can get feedback.

The best and hardest part of comedy is that you know instantly if a joke resonated with people by their response. Laughter guides comedians into refining and crafting their work. When you tell a joke to a live audience, and no one responds, it is called dying on stage because it feels like a death. It is such a harsh and vulnerable moment. Clicking on hearts is the online way to let people know that they are appreciated and they are doing well when you can’t otherwise offer that immediate, involuntary feedback of laughter.

Watching with Riel, we had issues perfectly synching the livestream so I would laugh at a joke and hear her laugh hard a minute later. There is a sudden demand for online services that facilitate watch parties, like Netflix Party and Discord. I’m not a particularly online person, but I need shared experiences and some weekly rituals at a set time to mark time and feel part of something and to laugh.

I will be performing on my first online show as part of Sara Bynoe’s Teen Angst Night tonight, March 27 at 6:30 PST. The idea of doing a funny reading or standup comedy to my computer and not hearing an audience reaction is daunting but all the other performers will be on audio laughing along, so there will be some support. It is still exciting to share, connect and figure out how to bridge the isolation through performance.

Do you find yourself turning to online sources of comedy as well in the face of all this challenging news?

Crawford: Yes! One welcome distraction is the endless archive of the internet. If you have never heard The Goon Show, you have hours of hysterical laughter awaiting you. It was the great BBC Radio comedy show of the 1950s, a wild send-up of post-war Britain and the inspiration of later groups like Monty Python. Don’t be put off by the seemingly racist remarks and stereotyped accents; they’re just more mockery of racists. The Goons haven’t aged (and the musical interludes tell you how far we’ve come in pop music since then).

The same is true of Beyond the Fringe, a troupe of Cambridge students who could imitate the speech of any British group, from the plummiest of aristocrats to the coarsest of coal miners. Sixty years later the Fringe is still timely — especially “Aftermyth of War,” a mock-documentary of the Blitz that mentions how “Alvar Liddell of the BBC brought us news of fresh disasters.” (Another sketch explains U.S. politics: “The Republicans are like our Conservative party, and the Democrats are like... our Conservative party.”)

Other morale-boosters abound: the vice of my old age is downloading books to my iPad, so I can wallow in history and politics and science fiction — but no plagues or pandemics, thank you.

Emma: I enjoyed listening to The Goon Show. You are right, you can really hear the Python in there. Their silence sketch seems like an inspiration for the classic Python Argument sketch which my friends and I would recite back and forth as kids. If social isolation gets comedians to circle back to this style of fast-talking, character radio comedy, then Vancouver’s Phantom Signal are ahead of the curve.

Crawford: Another thing about the Goons: they advanced sound effects by a generation or more, paving the way for the multitrack recordings of the 1960s. Without the Goons we’d never have had Sergeant Pepper. And without Spike Milligan’s endless plays on words, we’d never have had John Lennon’s wonderfully nonsensical book A Spaniard in the Works. (“Ella Fitzgerald, my deaf Watson.”)

Emma: Oh! I didn’t know any of that. I’m only halfway through Kliph Nesteroff’s The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy. Any final suggestions for me on how to have a laugh in the face of sobering news?

Crawford: I grew up in the stodgy 1950s, and the standup comedy of those conformist years was pure subversion on vinyl records. Montreal-born Mort Sahl found more laughs on the editorial page of the newspaper than in the comics. We might like Ike, but we rejoiced to laugh at Nixon.

Then Lenny Bruce in the 1960s subverted language itself, finding laughs built on what oft what privately thought, but no one ever had dared speak aloud — and he forced a generation to examine itself and its prejudices as no one had before. It cost him, but modern standup comedy cavorts on his grave.

So however long this pandemic may last, however locked we may be, as long as we’ve got electricity and a decent connection, we can laugh our way through to the other side.

In the meantime, I’m feeling oddly calm, something like waiting in hospital to go under anesthesia. Events are largely out of our hands, but one hopes for the best.

Emma: Agreed! But please don’t joke about the Internet not working. Some things aren’t funny...

What reminds you to laugh these days? Please share in the comments below.

Emma Cooper will be performing their first online show as part of Sara Bynoe’s Teen Angst Night on Friday, March 27 at 6:30 PST.  [Tyee]

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