VR makes you feel like you're in a safe space, somehow.
A screengrab from the soundcheck the night before the show.
Recently, I performed live stand-up comedy in virtual reality.
My manager says I should tell you this makes me the first comedian in VR, but I'm more excited to be the world's first stay-at-home comedian. If there really is a generation of internet-bred shut-ins, I intend to be their comedian of choice. Generation Otaku: I hear you. I don't want to leave the house either.
Still, I didn't expect much going in. Virtual reality may be the future, but like a friend who's late meeting you for lunch, it's perennially "just around the corner."
More selfishly, if and when VR comes around, what does that mean for live performance? Frankly, I had no clue. But when the Hammer & Tusk VR newsletter announced a VR comedy event, I sent them an email begging onto the show. Worst case, I figured no one else knew what they were doing, so I wouldn't stand out.
I've noticed that the best spaces for comedy feel safe and protected, like basements and back rooms
The event itself was held on VRChat.net, a startup that enables users to host virtual worlds created using the Unity game engine. Audience members can join virtual worlds on their desktop or with a VR headset, such as Oculus Rift, as I did.
The immediate benefit I found to performing in VR is that I didn't have to be myself.
I mean, I like myself well enough, but being yourself in virtual reality sounds as fun as those weird dreams where you do something at work in an endless loop. Sometimes I need a break.
I chose to perform as a giant 3D rabbit.
Unfortunately, my 3D skills are weak and my rabbit ended up with scoliosis. It was so severe that he stared upward even when I looked directly at the audience. Picture Bugs Bunny, gazing heavenward in existential crisis. The audience loved it, the sickos.
Speaking of the audience, you might expect the early adopters of VR to be a motley crew of internet trolls. And you would be right. This is largely because the audience chose their own avatars and a significant number were actually 3D trolls. It was diverse audience otherwise, including stormtroopers, Pikachus, and my personal favorite, the Flying Horse.
Adding to the fun, many avatars had animated combo moves, which they frequently used these to signal enjoyment of the jokes. As I hit the final punchline, not only did they laugh, but a chorus line of digital characters moonwalked, flexed, and swashbuckled at me in approval. Then, to top it all, the Flying Horse flew up into the air and blew a rainbow out of its ass.
There were some noticeable differences to performing in virtual reality, of course. First, instead of speaking into a mic on stage, I spoke into the oculus microphone so I felt a bit like a guy trying to be funny on a conference call. And any material I had that referenced my physical appearance had to be cut, often just as it was leaving my mouth. Also, while I could see the audience moving their heads, I couldn't see them moving their eyes. I imagine future VR headsets will address eye movement, but it will probably be a while before we can see someone's eyes glaze over in boredom or other sub-expressions. These are all important feedback devices for regular conversation and performance.
However, my favorite part of performing in VR was that it enabled me to live the dream of introverted performers everywhere: I ended my set by running, while screaming, into a portal that transported me immediately out of the performance space.
My hasty exit aside, I had a tremendous amount of fun performing in VR. Candidly, I had more fun than I've had at many gigs in the real world and I'm particularly excited about the flexibility of self-representation that VR will bring performers. It was liberating to be a cartoon for a change.
The biggest surprise I had, however, was the feeling that the qualities that make VR enjoyable for comedy also make it ideal for addressing some of the problems of social media.
Over the years, I've noticed that the best spaces for comedy feel safe and protected, like basements and back rooms. I think it's because there's a reassurance that comes with being in enclosed space. You know who's there and what is said lives, and generally dies, within the context.
This gives the audience members permission to relax, allows performers the room to make mistakes, and on the best nights in comedy, real emotional connection occurs.
Contrast this with our current world of social media: you have no idea who will hear what you say, it will likely last forever, and there's no guarantee it will be taken in context.
Virtual reality as it stands right now is more intimate, more like my favorite comedy basements.
At the least, I think VR will be great for live performers because it will give them access to audiences that most likely would not trek out to see them in physical reality. And best of all, in VR no cares that you're really a human. In fact, it's more fun if you're not.