The Coronavirus Economy: Stand-up comedy without a live audience

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You could say that conversation is key for George Chen. The Los Angeles-via-Oakland comic is a jack of all trades who currently works in podcast content operations at streaming service Pandora, co-hosts a podcast of his own called Sup Doc, and hosts three live comedy nights around L.A. at which he also performs. He talks and more often, listens for a living. 

Chen also recently started a conversation with some bands to revive his dormant indie record label, Zum, but record pressing plants closing due to the coronavirus spread put that idea on hold—along with all his comedy nights for the foreseeable future. For live comedy, Chen is batting around the idea of virtual laughs but worries about joking to an empty space—or worse, people recording material meant for workshopping.

While he hasn’t personally seen a difference for podcasts yet, new data from Podtrac shows downloads are down overall in that space—likely due to dips in commuting—though news podcasts are still by far the most streamed, which makes sense in an unsettling time.

Fortune spoke with Chen for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, to find out what it’s like to work as a stand-up comic, podcaster, and all-around collaborative creative, as the coronavirus pandemic spreads and audiences are told to stay home. The following Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited.

George Chen, a Los Angeles based Comic, works at Pandora and co-hosts a podcast of his own called “Sup Doc.”
Angi Brzycki

Fortune: What brought you down to L.A. from Oakland, where Pandora has an office, a few years back?

Chen: Luckily my job is something I could always do remote, but my girlfriend got a job offer [in L.A.] and also I knew that the comedy show that I was running at Lost Weekend in San Francisco was about to close down, so it seemed like everything was leaning that direction.

My role did change [at Pandora], about a year ago, but it’s always been something I could do remote. I’m now in podcast content operations at Pandora, which is a little bit different, before I was doing comedy analysis. I started at Pandora in 2014, so six years now.

So nothing major has changed in that role because of the spread of coronavirus? 

Right, I’ve been doing Zoom calls this whole time, meetings on Slack and Zoom, and emails. So in that regard, I’m pretty used to it. Like when people are saying things like “You’ve got to mute yourself in a group video” I’m like, “oh I’ve learned that.”

In addition to your job with Pandora, you also host live comedy nights around L.A., how have those shifted recently? 

The two that have been running the most regularly and the longest are Real Pain and the Giant Robot Comedy Night at the Giant Robot Gallery on Sawtelle and right now the store is closed. I don’t know when they’re going to reopen, but I think we just need everything to chill out and get the official word that we can start doing shows again. 

The other show, Real Pain, which we had to cancel fairly last-minute this month, is at an art gallery called Real Pain Fine Arts.

I remember March 12 I was not sure if I was going to have my open-mic that I also run at the Uniondale Library in Echo Park. I was waiting to hear something, feeling personally like I should cancel it and then the library as a whole decided they would stop doing events.

I was more concerned about the Real Pain show because we had booked a lot of people to do that show on March 14, and now the idea is we’re going to try to rebook some of those people when the show can happen again. 

When was the last live comedy night you hosted?

We did a [Giant Robot] show on March 5 and there was obviously a lot of talk in the air. So April we definitely canceled, and I’m imagining that May is probably off the books as well. We’re just going to have to wait it out and see just like everyone else.

Do you have plans or inclinations to do any virtual live comedy? 

I’m thinking a little bit about this whole Instagram Live streaming thing. I did it for a separate thing I do, which is the Sup Podcast, a podcast about documentaries. I did one livestream thing on Facebook Live for the artist Liz Walsh. I didn’t want to do standard stand-up because it didn’t fit the format, so my thought process was to do a character for that. 

When you’re used to stand-up, to the immediate reaction from someone else, it’s going to be hard to replicate over Zoom. Maybe one-on-one stuff, but then you’re basically making a podcast. You do really have to prepare if you’re doing a livestream—it’s not everyone’s forte to be able to extemporaneously ramble on about whatever.

I was just thinking today, do I want to try and replicate the idea of [live comedy] and ask all the people I had booked for the April show to join a Zoom room and just do jokes to people who are willing to turn their camera on, and then risk having it be recorded? Because that’s the other thing, comics don’t tend to like having their stuff recorded, and this is definitely a digital footprint when you might be trying out some new material that you don’t feel solid about it because you haven’t had a chance to run it by an audience. Comics are clearly going to keep creating content, it’s just going to take different shapes.

Comics will have to figure out a way to do their craft. 

And people are valuing art and music now because it’s like, what else are you going to do in your spare time other than stream some content people made. I’m still working my regular job so it’s only taking away my out of the house activities. 

My day-to-day has altered a little bit though now as I’m nervous about the anti-Asian sentiment going around. I’m reading about it and being like, that’ll never be in my neighborhood, but you never know. I hadn’t been thinking about it until we tried to do the farmers market and I had gloves and a mask and I was just like, are people going to look weirdly at me? You just have to hope they’re not going to throw something at you from six feet away.

Has your podcast changed? 

My Sup Doc co-host Paco Romane is in San Francisco, so we’ve been doing it over Skype [anyways]. So it hasn’t changed too much in that regard.

Do you think people will tune in to podcasts more now that they’re home, or will we see a decline? 

There’s a report that just came out about podcast listening trends. What’s one area where people love to listen to podcasts? Commuting, so that’s gone. The type of show we do is just talking about films and television, so those might have fallen off in favor of people trying to keep up to date on current news. For me, I listen to people talking for my job, that’s my job at Pandora, so that’s fun.

How else has the coronavirus pandemic changed things for you personally? 

It’s an adjustment that my girlfriend is home now too at the same time as me in a one bedroom apartment, so we really have to negotiate a lot of our time and space. She’s also doing a lot of Zoom calls and making video content, she’s in another room and I’ve been posting up in the bedroom. I do feel we are very lucky to be able to be in that position to have a paycheck and to be working from home.

Are you still playing music? [Chen was a member of several bands, including KIT, and has produced physical music for his record label, Zum, on and off since the late 1990s.]

I don’t actively play music right now but I was gearing up to start putting out some records this year, but now everything is up in the air. It’s unclear what will happen with the retail situation—retail, manufacturers, all of it. I still have a job so I can still pay for something but I’ve been dealing with a pressing plant that’s sheltered in place and their cover printer is not functioning at the moment either. And Record Store Day got pushed back. 

When South by Southwest got canceled, that should’ve been a sign but it took some time to trickle down to everyone—everything is going to be put on hold for a while.

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

—China releases data on asymptomatic coronavirus cases—but doubts remain
5 questions for a ventilator manufacturer
Everything you need to know about furloughs—and what they mean for workers
SBA small-business loans: 8 things to know about the Paycheck Protection Program
—The stock market had its worst quarter since 1987—and its worst Q1 ever
How to job hunt during the coronavirus pandemic
—PODCAST: Two health care CEOs on why coronavirus tests and vaccines are the ammunition needed to fight COVID-19
—VIDEO: World leaders and health experts on how to stop the spread of COVID-19

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