Oxford’s Jericho Comedy embraces coronavirus social distancing on river, at distillery and garden centre

Oxford’s Jericho Comedy embraces coronavirus social distancing on river, at distillery and garden centre

FOR comedy to work, ideally you need the audience to feel as one, to come together, to be close to each other and to hear each other laughing, writes Jerich Comedy’s Harry Househam

With social distancing in place, many feared comedy clubs would go out of business, and indeed 77 per cent of comedy venues in the UK report they may not survive the pandemic.

But as soon as outdoor performances and drive-ins were permitted and safe to put on, Oxford comedy club Jericho Comedy organised a summer of socially distant comedy shows.

After a long lockdown and performing digital shows over Zoom, this summer we began to host socially distant shows. Many other comedy clubs had transitioned to online virtual shows, which were great fun, but like many organisers we longed for and missed connecting with our audience in person. Then the Government said drive-ins were allowed and we leapt at the opportunity to put on shows, socially distanced, from the safety of people’s cars.

Inspired by our audiences’ creativity in lockdown we knew we could make drive in comedy work. It took a while to work out the logistics and the tech; how could an audience in cars hear the comedians with their windows up? Could drive-in comedy work?

Oxford Mail:

But after months of research and work, we figured it out, and we rolled out our drive-ins. Audience members drive along and park up to hear the comedians using a clever bluetooth speaker fitted on their dashboard, the audio from the microphone is transmitted directly into people’s cars meaning performers can be heard, come rain or shine from the safety and comfort of an enclosed vehicle.

As soon as we knew drive-in comedy was going to be possible, we went all in and contacted drive-ins across the UK. We quickly partnered up with @thedrivein a touring cinema company organised by Suzuki. We worked with them to get comedians back to work performing stand-up at their drive-in shows across the UK.

So far we’ve booked and performed stand-up shows at drive-ins from Birmingham airport to Edinburgh Zoo, from car parks in Manchester to Leeds, Glasgow, London, Newcastle, with more lined up this summer.

We never thought we’d perform shows in airports and zoos, but here we are under the new world order!

Oxford Mail:

We also put together our own drive-in shows at The Oxford Artisan Distillery, which sold out overnight. We love working with TOAD and had a great time putting on drive-ins and open air shows in their car park, served alongside their extraordinary cocktails.

They even provided hand sanitiser that they had made on site. At our drive-ins we’ve been honked at, flashed, and indicated at, all in the spirit of a good time. Our driving has suffered immensely now we associate honking horns and hazard lights with jokes going down well. The new round of applause is a sea of flashing lights. We didn’t just embrace the new normal, we drove towards it.

A personal highlight definitely has to be at a drive-in at Sandon Hall, a country estate in Staffordshire, in the middle of a massive thunderstorm. We were told the big screen had to be shut off in case it was struck by lightning, so the audience wouldn’t be able to see us.

After some quick thinking we performed the audio only from the tech booth, playing stand-up comedy in a massive storm from a shed to an audience of 100 cars parked nearby, the microphone playing out through their car stereos. It was essentially radio from a shed to an audience of cars. It was bizarre, but the show must go on.

“The weirdest gig I’ve performed in 12 years,” said headliner Suzi Ruffell.

We were well prepared for running such strange show. Before the pandemic hit we had run shows in cathedrals, on moving coaches, in bookshops and museums. We’ll perform anywhere so long as it’s safe to do so.

When open air shows were allowed in July, we leapt at the opportunity to make the most of the summer weather, running shows at The Oxford Artisan Distillery and the Fishes in Hinksey.

Read again: Oxford pub closes for good after disastrous lockdown

Audience members had to be seated in socially distanced ‘bubbles’ booking tables or a space for their household with distance between groups.

We were almost rained on, but largely outdoor shows have been a lot of fun. We were even lucky enough to perform an open air show at the Cherwell Boathouse with audience members seated on punts floating on the river.

‘Live stream’ – a floating comedy club on a river was an absolute joy, I don’t think we’ve ever organised a more quintessentially Oxford experience. People paddled past the floating stage, a marvellous wooden plinth mounted on two punts, stand-up paddle boarders drifted past the show, bats swooped overhead to catch insects over the water as the twinkly candlelight created a gorgeous shimmer on the moonlit river.

Oxford Mail:

I, meanwhile, dressed up as a ship’s captain to host the show to steer our audience towards a good time.

It was nothing short of a joy to perform, no one fell in the river, we didn’t hit any icebergs, but plenty of laughs were had. The audience lapped it up, as the river lapped at the punts. I have never felt more of an Oxford stereotype than performing to literal punters.

Read more: Oxford writers of David Tennant/ Michael Sheed hit Staged banter about the show

But what lies ahead for comedy in Oxford? It’s hard to predict too far ahead but for now we have drive in shows at Millets Farm every Saturday until September 12. These are the safest way of watching shows for those who aren’t ready for completely outside events. You can honk and flash at comedians, with a great array of food and drink (and ice cream) served up by the Millets Farm kitchen.

We also have have a night of cinema and comedy in Kidlington on September 4, with classic slapstick on screen while comedians perform in person. It’s a fusion of the golden age of Hollywood with Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy to be enjoyed on the big screen alongside comedians dishing out jokes in the open air.

If you love films and comedy, this is the show for you. Now that indoor performances are allowed, we hope to be able to return to shows inside as the autumn nights turn colder and wetter, we are working hard to make sure our transition back to a traditional indoor comedy club is done with the utmost safety and best social distancing practices in mind. We hope to have some indoor socially distanced shows on offer by the end of September, but we’ll only make the move when we can assure our audiences are comfortable and as safe as possible.

We are so grateful to the support we’ve had from audiences, from venues, and the Oxford community.

Read more Coronavirus art competition shows value of close family and friends – and our fears

We wholeheartedly recommend supporting some of the great venues we use that we haven’t been able to perform at this summer. Grab a coffee and cake at the Jericho Cafe, work in the Common Ground Workspace on Little Clarendon street, buy books from Blackwell’s bookshop, and visit the Natural History Museum. These venues have made Jericho Comedy what it is, and have supported our shows over the years, we’re so sad not to be performing at them and to have missed so many fun shows.

These venues are worth supporting as wonderful local institutions, otherwise we hope to see you, at a distance, at a show soon!

For all show details go to jerichocomedy.com

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