There is a place you can go every other week and watch live stand-up comedy where there’s no risk of catching COVID-19. You do not have to wear a mask. You can watch a group of comedians all in the same space, clapping and laughing for one another, and you can hear other members of the audience laughing (or not) at the jokes. Comedians — including Jenny Yang, Judah Friedlander, Yedoye Travis, and Ify Nwadiwe — have done sets there; the July 3 show will include Cristela Alonzo, Andrew Orolfo, and Danielle Perez. That place is Jenny Yang’s comedy show Comedy Crossing, and it takes place on a remote island in the video game Animal Crossing.
I’m one of the millions of people who have spent a good long time in the world of Animal Crossing over the last few months, and when I heard about Yang’s show, I was both fascinated and completely unsure how it would work. Animal Crossing has an appealing, sweet visual style and an addictive catalogue of cute items to collect, but the premise of the game involves clearing and organizing a deserted island, gradually turning it from a wilderness into a little village. It isn’t designed to be a hub where lots of people can communicate with one another, and although you can go visit other people’s islands, the chat system is fiddly and unbearably slow. One person’s island can only host up to eight online visitors at a time. Nothing about it screams “great location for a comedy show.”
But when Yang first started playing the game a few months ago, she could immediately see the potential. Like everyone else, she downloaded Animal Crossing not long after the country shut down. “It was a sad quarantine purchase,” Yang says, laughing. “I got the game because I was so sad.” But before long, “it very quickly dawned on me that I could try to re-create all the places I missed in real life, including a comedy club.”
At the same time, while Yang began collecting items and modeling her virtual island after the L.A. she missed (she also has a LACMA lights installation and a Hollywood Forever Cemetery), she started participating in some of the comedy Zoom shows popping up to fill the void of live, in-person comedy. Yang started paying attention to what seemed to work and what didn’t in those shows. “There were a lot of Instagram Lives, a lot of variations [on the format],” she says. Eventually, comedians began to land on a structure that sort of worked: Zoom shows with at least a few audience members unmuted to help re-create the experience of a reactive audience. “If you know that your room is quiet, if you want to laugh and be part of making the show a show, unmute yourself,” she explains. “If you have even five people who are unmuted, it’s already 100 percent better than telling your jokes into a hallway of nothing.”