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How to be funny on Zoom

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Lessons from TV comedies’ quarantine specials

We live our whole lives on Zoom now, and honestly? It’s kind of lousy. Transposing every aspect of work and play to a grid of videoconference windows is a great short-term solution, but long term, it just can’t make up for everything we used to do in person. It’s harder to do everything in front of a webcam, whether it’s teaching kids or making people laugh.

Over the last couple of months, several TV comedies have managed to pull together quarantine specials that invariably feature their characters grappling with the teleconference way of life. It’s a grand experiment that’s incredible to watch in real time, as networks figure out how to make TV in a pandemic to which we’ve all struggled to adapt. It has also proven — in most cases — that you can still be very, very funny on a video call, even without all of the benefits of being far away from everyone else.

Stick with what’s comfortable (Community)

Community’s reunion special was charmingly low effort. There was very little production involved — the whole thing was pretty much a videoconference call uploaded to YouTube, an unceremonious live read of the fifth-season episode “Cooperative Polygraphy.” Perhaps this is why Donald Glover — who has generally avoided acknowledging the show, or most of his comedic career, since leaving it partway through its fifth season — was able to attend, along with guest star Pedro Pascal.

The simple DIY nature of this particular special allowed its cast to enjoy goofing off with each other again, laughing at jokes they’d forgotten and surprising Pascal, who is reading the script for the first time. It was less about new Community and more about bringing back the idea of Community, which was always about building your own family no matter how ridiculous everything around you got.

Let people know how you really feel (Parks and Recreation)

Few modern sitcoms were as sweet or earnest as Parks and Recreation, and that feeling of big-hearted affection translated extremely well to A Parks and Recreation Special, which featured the cast banding together via video chat as they dealt with self-quarantine. A lot of why it works comes down to a feeling of genuine affection — there are a few non-webcam bits, but the majority of the episode is a chain of video calls. Characters call each other up individually and complain about calling other characters, even though they will because they care.

Socializing via webcam is terrible because it literally makes people smaller, so much less than what they are. If you’re going to have a good time, you have to do a little bit of work to broadcast the feelings you have for them — and the nice thing is, while most things don’t, warmth comes across just fine on Zoom.

Really commit to the bit (Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet)

Mythic Quest was one of this year’s biggest TV surprises, both among the funniest debut comedies and also the rare project about video games that is amusing and accessible to people who do not play them. In Mythic Quest: Quarantine, they do it again, but by doing The Most. Quarantine is slickly produced but also extremely well written and considered. On its surface, it’s a simple episode about how annoying it is to work with people remotely, but it’s also an episode that cares deeply about its characters, taking the time to also underline how lonely it is.

It’s shockingly good television that really keys in to what it’s like to work with other people who you can’t stand and also care about in equal measure, all during a really scary time when nothing is okay but you’re expected to behave as if it is. If you find the notion of Zoom comedy specials exhausting, Mythic Quest: Quarantine will win you over — first by agreeing with you, and then pulling off a truly ridiculous Zoom stunt right before the credits roll.

Get the gang back together (Happy Endings)

Like Community, cult-favorite sitcom Happy Endings was a comedy for TV lovers, absolutely dense with pop culture references and self-aware humor. Cursed with low ratings and an uncanny knack for missing out on all the revivals streaming networks have indulged in lately, Happy Endings is the rare show that can make you feel like being in a secret club. Which is why its quarantine special is so good: it’s like catching up with some very cool friends you haven’t seen together in years.

The special is like Community’s in that it’s a simple Zoom call uploaded to YouTube, but it’s also wholly original, catching up with the characters as they would be now. Some are taking quarantine extremely seriously, some aren’t taking it seriously at all, and others are a bit more lax, trying to hide just how little precaution they’ve taken. (One has been on a 12-week silent retreat and has no idea what’s going on). A good reunion is contagious, and if enough people are having a good time, we will, too.

Don’t get too ambitious (30 Rock)

Easily the worst quarantine special to air so far, 30 Rock: A One-Time Special Episode was hamstrung by the sheer weight of demands placed on it. It’s already hard enough to engineer a socially distant sitcom episode that unfolds mostly on webcam, but 30 Rock also admirably tried to pull off a partially normal episode, with filmed non-webcam scenes in between Zoom meetings.

Unfortunately, it’s also a shameless promo for the Peacock streaming service, and NBCUniversal’s brands as a whole, which means jokes have to be fit around plugs for the streaming service. Add that to a 55-minute runtime, and the picture gets bleak fast. There are good parts, like Jack McBrayer’s Kenneth now assuming the role of NBC’s top brass, while also playing the role of Kenneth’s utterly smitten assistant, but those modest highs cannot make up for the lows of Liz Lemon pitching Peacock to The Rock.