No one ever said becoming a comedian was easy.
At 16, Liz Miele rode NJ Transit trains with her parents from Princeton Junction to Manhattan, to perform at open mic nights. When she left for college at The New School, she would camp out at the bar with her schoolbooks and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, waiting for stage time, sometimes handing out flyers in exchange for a slot.
Miele was following the conventional wisdom dispensed to young aspiring comedians: If you want to succeed, get to New York (or Los Angeles) and get up on stage as often as humanly possible. Slowly but surely, comedic timing, stage presence and, hopefully, success will follow.
For the 35-year-old Pennington native now living in Brooklyn, the formula succeeded. Miele has appeared on Comedy Central and “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!,” was profiled in the New Yorker and wrote her own animated web series. Against the odds, Miele has cobbled together an honest living as a comedian.
And then, well, you know what happened next.
“Up until about March, I was touring around the world and now I make cat videos… it’s an underdog story that continues to be an underdog (story),” Miele told NJ Advance Media.
Though her self-deprecating jab might cast an image of a bored and out-of-work comedian, Miele has never been busier. That cat video comment is no joke — a self-avowed cat lady, Miele’s videos have gone viral on Instagram and TikTok.
Miele is one of many comedians who have turned to the internet to promote content and find new audiences, using social media and online platforms like TikTok, Zoom and Twitch. While comedy clubs have remained closed, performers have never found themselves on a wider stage than during the pandemic, turning to alternate streams of revenue and exposure.
Since March, most comedians have at least dabbled with Zoom shows, the only option beside outdoor venues for “traditional” stand-up.
Comedian and musician Morgan Jay, 33, has performed over Zoom two to three times a month for corporate crowds since March, leaning into the medium, even while some of his peers are lambasting Zoom sets.
“What else are we going to do right now — this is the best thing we have, outside of performing at the beach or in a park,” Jay, who was born in Teaneck and now lives in Los Angeles, told NJ Advance Media.
Others are taking advantage of the internet’s swath of tools that encourage creativity. Impressionist and comic Gary DeNoia, 36, has something at his disposal that Steve Martin never did when he was coming up: FaceSwap Live, a 99-cent app that allows DeNoia to superimpose a celebrity’s face onto his own.
Now he posts to Instagram multiple times a week, churning out lifelike impressions of Ray Liotta, Quentin Tarantino and Brad Pitt, as well as goofy New Jersey and Philly-themed sketches.
His set-up is minimal: a microphone, a tripod for his iPhone, a green screen and a couple light fixtures in his Jersey City apartment’s loft.
For a shtick about a Jersey character obsessed with leather, DeNoia taps the spacebar of his computer with his toe, records his video in front of the green screen, edits it in the Apple program iMovie and, voila, has a viral-ready clip to share to his followers — about two hours to produce a clip thousands will see.
More unlikely formats have emerged for comedians, too. Jay hops on Twitch, a live-streaming platform more associated with video game culture, about three times a week to practice new songs. He’d be spending hours each week rehearsing and formulating his musical comedy whether he streamed it or not.
“As a person, I am late to this platform,” Jay said. “As a comedian, I feel like I’m early … there is such a huge potential for comedians on this platform.”
Plenty of comedians are using TikTok as well, either to produce original videos or repurpose trimmed stand-up clips. Miele said comedians have an advantage on the app due to an ingrained scrolling behavior that tells users to keep watching and wait for a punchline at the end.
Miele has turned into somewhat of a social media guru, learning how different apps’ algorithms work and the best way to get her content in front of new fans with strategic likes, comments and follows.
Still, the hours spent each day responding to commenters and scrolling through feeds can take its toll on the enterprising comedians. Miele started receiving death threats and inappropriate comments from trolls all over YouTube, Instagram and TikTok.
“I was noticing it was affecting my mood, because, just a little fun fact — if you’re a female comic, people think you don’t deserve to be alive,” Miele said. “Even though I don’t believe them, it doesn’t feel good to read that 40 times in a day.”
Though he finds social media draining, DeNoia has booked paying gigs, like as a recurring impressionist on a podcast, thanks to his Instagram videos.
“You’re kind of planting a seed, hoping somebody’s going to come by and put some water on it, and then you have a chance to grow,” he said. “It’s a crapshoot, you never know what’s going to happen.”
DeNoia added: “I didn’t get into stand-up to have all these side hustles and online shows, but you have to evolve as a comedian, and this is the arena it’s at right now.”
Still, comedians differ on their attitudes toward the digital realm. While John Poveromo, a comic who’s opened for Jimmy Fallon, sees TikTok as a “wild west” of uncharted territory to capitalize on, he views it all as a means to an end.
“The hope out of this, for as long as we have to stay in quarantine… is to come out with a whole new set of fans that will come out to shows, once we’re allowed to tour again,” Poveromo, who lives in Toms River, said. “That’s the goal. That should be the goal for every comic.”
For Jay, the digital platforms offer a new place to grow and reach fans without having “to wait in the back of a dark comedy club, wondering when my set is, what time I’m going to go on, and do I have to drive an hour to the comedy club to get there.”
“As clubs do reopen, the people who are going to get to perform first are the biggest names in the game,” Jay said. “Bill Burr is gonna want to hop on stage and do standup as soon as he can. I’m going to have to compete with that, so I might as well just chill out and just work on performing online.”
Nonetheless, for an industry intimately concerned with “the greats,” there’s a sense that these new digital renegades are making history themselves.
“During a pandemic, I was telling jokes, and I made it work, and I continued my career, and I inspired others during some of the worst times anybody was ever having,” said Miele, whose Brooklyn room is covered with framed comedy albums and a signed picture of George Carlin, with whom she corresponded for years. “I’m a part of comedy history right now.”
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Josh Axelrod may be reached at [email protected].
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