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Photo: Mike Birbiglia
Behind the scenes of one of Birbiglia’s virtual comedy shows.

My older granddaughter is having a birthday this week, and her joker dad told her she wouldn’t really be 8 until after the pandemic. Maybe sometime in the summer.

She is on to his tricks, but I laughed as I unnecessarily reassured her over What’s App that she would be 8 on her real birthday. Gotta be grateful for any wisp of humor in a pandemic, even goofy humor.

Comedian Mike Birbiglia always knew that laughter was important, but since he started putting his comedy online, he’s learned just how hungry people are to laugh in difficult times.

At Vulture, Birbiglia how his virtual shows got started. “On March 10, 2020, I drove from my apartment in Brooklyn to a weekend of club shows in Buffalo, New York, to work out new material for a theater tour. … I like Buffalo because I like the people at my shows and the hotel near the club and the people at the hotel and the coffee shops near the hotel. In general, those are the folks I encounter when I’m on the road.

“And I love being on the road. I like meeting people from all over the country and performing shows. … The further you go into more remote locations, the more people seem to crave live comedy.

“When I was 24, I was asked to perform in Seward, Alaska, which has a population of 2,700 people. I was booked there by, I believe, the town of Seward. If memory serves, I was pretty terrible and the crowd was pretty great. Same with Fargo, North Dakota. I remember driving there with my brother Joe through many feet of snow and thinking, This show is gonna be as bad as these roads, and then it was one of the most appreciative crowds I’ve ever played for. …

“These types of shows are typically called ‘hell gigs’ by comics — shows that don’t take place in clubs, but instead loud bars, town gymnasiums, bowling alleys, sometimes even laundromats.

I’ve performed in the center of all-night college walkathons and in the deli lines of cafeterias in the afternoon. I’ve shown up to at least 30 shows that didn’t have a microphone and 100 that didn’t have a stage. Hell gigs are part of the job.

“But the location actually doesn’t really matter. People just want to watch comedy. Everyone’s reason for watching comedy is different, but for me, it’s the shared catharsis of a person onstage talking about the same anxieties you might be experiencing. …

“At its best, stand-up comedy is one person taking the mic and providing the audience with an hour of escapism from the predictability of life. … In one moment, it shocks us, and in the next, it hangs a lantern on the universality of the absurd.

“Stand-up comedy on TV can shrink the format. It can feel like reheated pizza. When you show up in Fargo or Seward, you’re delivering the fresh, hot pizza of comedy right to their door. Showing up in people’s towns cements the communal upside of comedy, which is that it isn’t just the comedian who is seen and heard, but it’s also the audience.

“On March 11, 2020, I was driving to Buffalo via Ithaca, listening to epidemiologists on NPR weigh in on the spreading virus. I stopped at a local pizzeria called Thompson and Bleecker and sat down at the communal table. I was sitting with a couple of strangers who just drove in from Maryland, and they were concerned about the virus too. The guy said, ‘We were listening to Joe Rogan, and he had this scientist on, and we’re starting to think this is really serious.’

“That was the moment I knew I had to drive home. When the Venn diagram of Joe Rogan intersects with NPR, I know there’s something of a national consensus. Things are bad and are about to get worse.

“I drove the four hours back to Brooklyn. We postponed the Buffalo shows for what we thought was a shocking amount of time: four months. My agent asked me to consider doing some virtual shows, to which I was completely resistant.

“The next person I talked to was comedian Sam Morril, who [said] to me, ‘I actually get a lot out of it. I also didn’t expect that not only are you performing for people who can’t leave their houses from the shutdown, but you’re also performing for people who maybe couldn’t even leave their houses before COVID.’

“That’s when I decided I would try this at least once.

“In summer 2020, I did one night of Mike Birbiglia: Working It Out Virtually for 500 people who were located around the world. It was weird. And fun. Then I decided to do more.

“I started adding virtual crew members: a cinematographer, a sound technician, a director. We added three more iPhones to give us new camera angles. We lit my brother Joe’s Rhode Island office like a TV studio. It became this strange hybrid stand-up comedy interactive talk show.

“What I discovered was that the same thing people enjoyed about the live shows were things they were able to enjoy on the Zoom show. One of our producers noticed that during one of the shows someone wrote in the live Zoom chat: ‘I can’t unmute! I want to laugh!’ Those folks were unmuted by the hosts. They were seen. They were heard. …

“People Zoomed in from the most remote locations: living rooms with their cats and dogs and rabbits, gathered around bonfires with whiskey, families huddled in their children’s playroom because it has the best Wi-Fi, a woman knitting a shawl in her TV room, a couple carving a pumpkin with their family in the kitchen. Five continents and over 20 different countries were represented. …

“I’ve done about 18 of these virtual shows, and I’ve learned things from them that I thought I had long understood after 20 years of being a professional comedian. People need comedy. At very least, they need to laugh — particularly when life is most burdensome and unwieldy. People need to laugh to be reminded what laughter feels like and why anyone would have laughed in the first place. It’s the defibrillator that sends a shock to the heart to restore a normal rhythm. …

“I enjoy it because I feel connected to people all over the country and all over the world. I’m not saying it’s ideal. Arguably these are the worst conditions imaginable for comedy, but I think the people participating appreciate that I’m showing up at all. I mean, let’s be honest. It’s a hell gig.”

More at Vulture, here.

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Photo: New Music Box
The First Congregational Church of Los Angeles virtual choir.

Online group singing has become a fixture of the coronavirus era, and many of the choruses have given great pleasure to listeners. But how do the singers fare emotionally, considering that part of what they love has always been the proximity of other participants?

Fahad Siadat has a few answers at New Music Box.”While the entire music sector has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, the choral community has been hit especially hard.

“Singers have been deemed ‘super spreaders’ of the virus, by a study commissioned by a coalition of performing arts organizations. The study has let the national community know they don’t believe there will be a safe way for choirs to safely rehearse until there is widespread testing and/or a vaccine, potentially an entire year or more in the future. Like other musicians, this bleak forecast has prompted panic for professional choristers who rely on group singing for their income, but it has also affected some 40 million people in the United States who rely on choirs for the social community, mental health, and emotional well-being.

“My spouse Cynthia Siadat, a licensed psycho-therapist, recently wrote an article about how choir helps alleviate mental health distress. She writes, ‘73% of singers report that choral singing helps them to feel less lonely. … A 2015 study, found that loneliness has been proven to be just as detrimental to one’s longevity as obesity and smoking 15 cigarettes a day’. …

“The question becomes not only, ‘how do we make a quality musical product?’ But, ‘how can we continue to have meaningful musical and social experiences?’  …

“I have the good fortune of making my living as a chorister in a particular subset of the community deeply interested and invested in innovating and experimenting with choral music, and because of this involvement have had the opportunity to participate first hand in how different groups are handling the crisis and trying to move forward.

“No one group has ‘solved’ the issue of not being able to sing and rehearse together, but all of them have found unique ways forward and are experimenting wildly. …

“Building a virtual choir, once considered a technological marvel, has become astonishingly commonplace in the last few months. The professional choir at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles (led by my long time colleague David Harris), for instance, has recorded 3-4 virtual choir pieces every week since March.

There are many resources for those interested in getting involved with virtual choirs. I’ve even put my own document of step by step instructions for composers, conductors, and singers.

“(Virtual Choir ProTip: Recording the audio and video separately allows a great deal of editing and ‘punching’ in while recording. It goes much faster than trying to get a single perfect take.)

“(Additional ProTip: Conductor tracks aren’t all that helpful for the singers, use a click instead. Also consider using a ‘section leader’ to create a guide track for each part so the rest of the choir has a voice to follow along with for style and phrasing.) …

“There are some unexpected perks to virtual choirs, namely in terms of how it makes certain kinds of repertoire more accessible than ever before. … The ability to learn and record a piece phrase by phrase allows for the ‘performance’ of music that might have otherwise been out of reach of an ensemble.

“In May, for instance, the FCCLA professional ensemble performed Stravinsky’s 12-tone anthem The Dove Descending, an emotional and mystical work rarely performed by choirs today, especially church choirs, perhaps in-part due to the amount of rehearsal time required. In the virtual choir setting, however, we were able to effectively record the piece in a matter of a few hours. …

“While the end product of virtual choirs can be satisfying, the means by which that product is made can be sorely lacking. The great communal spirit of singing together is completely lost. …

“Luckily, there are some low-latency audio options specifically designed for musicians to re-create some semblance of in-person music making. (Soundjack and Jamulus are two that my community uses, but there are others.)

“It didn’t take long working with this medium to realize that remote choirs are entirely new kinds of ensembles. … Typical choral values like blend, balance, and uniformity are made that much trickier by every singer’s individual mic set up. Rehearsals started with about an hour of tech adjustments, setting levels, and troubleshooting. …

“And yet, once we finally waded through the tech set up and arrived at our first moment of singing together, just a simple C Major chord, I felt a flood of emotion. After long weeks of isolation, I was finally singing with my friends. It wasn’t the choral experience I was used to, but it was unmistakably live music making, and that taste was enough to keep me coming back every week.”

The author provides a lot of technical detail showing how to approximate the group-singing experience, here, at the New Music Box.

I wonder if the rest of us can find ways to feel more present with friends and family via new internet applications. FaceTime and What’s App and Zoom are way better than a mere phone call, but nothing beats meeting someone in a yard for a chat that feels normal. And how will we manage that in winter?

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2019-BI-School-graduation-by-Malcolm-GreenawayPhoto: Malcolm Greenaway
Gone are the graduation ceremonies of yesteryear.

Spurred on by a suggestion from Nancy Greenaway and by actor John Krasinski’s Some Good News (below), I poked around on the web to see what people were doing about class reunions and graduations this year — besides canceling them.

A group of women missing out on their 50th class reunion got together on a video call, dressed mostly as they would have been in person. Max Chesnes wrote about their reunion at Treasure Coast Palm in Florida.

“At 67, Mimi Kuriger prepped for her first ever Zoom video call the only way she knew how: ‘I wore my Barbara Bush pearls to hide my wrinkles,’ laughed the now-retired nurse living in Vero Beach.

“Kuriger is among the 92 graduates of Mount Saint Joseph Academy, an all-women school in Flourtown, Pennsylvania, who had been planning their 50th class reunion weekend for over a year. … But as is the case for most people around the world who have altered or cancelled travel in the midst of a global pandemic, the novel coronavirus shuttered their plans. …

“Instead of an in-person meetup, 25 women from Saint Joseph sipped from their glasses of wine and martinis (or several) and gathered virtually. …

‘We were all probably sitting in our pajama pants, but we were dressed to the nines up top,’ Kuriger said. …

“The online conversation ran for two hours and went on without a hitch, Kuriger said. Some ladies pulled out their 1970 yearbooks and pointed to pictures from five decades ago, while others brought up the academy’s nuns.

“The virtual meetup was nostalgic — and sometimes emotional — as everyone came together from the comfort of their own homes to reminisce.” More.

Meanwhile, there have been nontraditional graduation plans for many age groups, including drive-by celebrations for kindergartners.

Brown University will have a virtual graduation May 24 and a double in-person one next year for both the class of 2020 and the class of 2021.

UMass Amherst had wide range of speakers for this year’s virtual commencement, held May 8. They included sports stars, actors, politicians, and graduates like John Jacobs of Life Is Good.

Photo: UMass Amherst
UMass alumnus John Jacobs, cofounder of Life is Good, spoke from a social distance to UMass graduates during the online commencement.

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Jacobs told graduates, “I know it hasn’t been easy this year, but the resilience you’ve shown — that’s going to serve you well in the long haul. … If you’re feeling a little lost right now, we did too. The only way we learned was to try, and stumble, and adjust as we went along.” More.

Howard University in Washington also held an online ceremony, and although some would undoubtedly have preferred to hear their names read out in a crowd of people, graduate Anna Sumner reported pure joy to a local television station: “I feel like I’m on cloud nine right now. Even though I wasn’t there in body, I was definitely there in spirit. …

“I could imagine instead of being on the bleachers, for once actually being the one in the seats in my cap and gown. … It was bittersweet for sure though, and I try not to dwell on the negative aspect, but still just the recognition and the moment of victory. It was awesome.” More.

Pretty sure Anna has a bright future.

Meanwhile, students at Berkeley, preserving their reputation for being a bit “out there” are hosting a virtual Minecraft graduation on an exact replica of the campus, followed by a two-day virtual music festival that will be streamed on @twitch TV. (Follow at @blockeleyofficial on Instagram.) More here.

Now, Friends, set aside 25 minutes or so to watch this graduation ceremony from the John Krasinski YouTube show called Some Good News. It was amazing. And be sure to hang on after it appears to be over and the credits start to roll so you can hear National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman recite her graduation poem.

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bitcoin-machine-at-South-StationA friend is doing research on bitcoin and other virtual currencies.

Although it sounds like phoney money to me, I still honor the lesson I got in fourth grade about how a dollar represents trust. You trust when you receive it that it will be accepted by someone else in exchange for something you want. You trust the entity that backs it. Today people are using virtual currencies like real money, so trust is working so far.

But does it all remind you of the company that used to accept your money and promise to do your worrying for you? Or how about virtual gift giving, which enjoyed a flurry of attention in the media a while back. (The gift company will e-mail your friend that you “bought” a virtual gift. The concept is based on the premise that it’s the thought that counts. VirtualGifts4U.com, for one, just asks you to support its sponsors.)

I took this picture at Boston’s South Station, where, during specified hours, a friendly young man will explain how you can buy bitcoins at this machine. I haven’t chatted with him, so I don’t know if he also explains that the value of your bitcoins can not only go up in an hour or two but go way down.

There is no significance to the fact that the machine is located right next to an endlessly running “If you see something, say something” security video.

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