If one defining experience of the past year has been staring at the unending, awful news on our phones, another—for many of us, at least—has been distracting ourselves from all of that with funny videos. Quarantine comedy is now a genre unto itself. New stars have been born, follower counts have ballooned, and big breaks have arrived, all against the backdrop of a devastating pandemic. So Slate convened a panel of a few of our favorite social media comedians and creators to discuss making viral comedy during lockdown: Caleb Hearon, a comedian and writer who specializes in deceptively lo-fi and specific-to-the-point-of-absurdity impressions; Alyssa Limperis, a comedian and actress known for her hilarious impressions of her Bostonian mother; and Megha Rethin (aka Bootlegmegz), a TikToker who shares goofy, self-effacing glimpses of college life. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Heather Schwedel: What do you each think is the best and/or worst online work you’ve created during the pandemic?
Caleb Hearon: The worst thing I’ve made is this video where I was sitting in my car and a police siren or an ambulance siren or something went by and I just sat in silence and then was like, “It’s not illegal to be yourself.” I thought that was so stupid, and I couldn’t even believe I posted it, but people love it. The fact that anybody likes it at all, I feel comfortable now saying that I think this is trash. If we got 10 retweets, it would have been deleted, babe.
Megha Rethin: I made a really dumb thing I did not think was funny, but I was like, “Oh, I guess I have to post today.” I was just making fun of the idea—’cause I’m on my WhatsApp group back home, in India, so our time zones are kind of crazy—so almost every other morning at like 3 a.m. I just get a really fat text with like 20 different line items, like butter, bread, eggs, milk, cereal. My family is texting each other the grocery list, because they live in the same home, and I’m like, “I am asleep, because it’s 4 a.m.!” Not particularly my comedy opus. But I put it out, and people were like: “This is hilarious! I have to send it to my dad!”
I would say the best thing I made was—I just kind of switched up my style of content for one or two videos where I was doing these montage videos to some of my favorite songs that aren’t as popular or just aren’t, you know, top 40. It was just simple: I was walking around in the snow, and it was very beautiful out. And it didn’t get any views. They did so badly. But that was the thing I had most fun doing, and I would want to do that again.
Alyssa Limperis: One of the worst for me is that I did a live event, a corporate Zoom event where I had to do stand-up. Every video was off and every sound was off. I was doing stand-up comedy to about a hundred people in the middle of the pandemic, in the middle of their workday, to no reaction. And I had to go for 45 minutes. I think it’s probably the most painful experience for me as well as the audience. I finished, and I was like, “Yeah, I don’t think I need to do that again.”
And then, best video, any video where I’ve gotten to collaborate with someone that I didn’t really know before the pandemic has felt really fun to me.
I don’t know if any of you would self-identify as a “quarantine comedian,” but certainly you’ve all been posting homemade video content and getting a lot of attention for it in a way I’m sure you didn’t plan for before this.
Rethin: At the beginning of quarantine, I was on TikTok, but I wasn’t posting very much. I really only used it to watch other people’s content. But once basically all of the aspects of my regular life went away and I was completely left alone to my devices, literally, I was like, “OK, now I guess it’s socially acceptable if I post on TikTok.” The very beginning of October is when a couple of my videos were getting a lot of traction. With TikTok, you can’t predict it.
Limperis: Meg, you’re in college—has that been crazy?
Rethin: I’m at York University right now, a little bit away from Toronto, living that 7-by-10 dorm life.
Limperis: Oh my god, that was bad to begin with, never mind if you can’t leave.
Alyssa and Caleb, you guys are out of school and have already been doing comedy for a bit. Where were you both in your careers when this started?
Limperis: I’ve been in L.A. for two years. Caleb, you moved here in a pandemic. What’s that been like?
Hearon: I was in Chicago for three years doing live shows and not really posting stuff online. I always preferred live comedy. Then the fall before the pandemic, I started posting stuff online, because I’d screen-tested at Saturday Night Live and they were like, “You should be posting stuff online.” I was like, “You should hire me instead!” But they hired someone else and that went how it went. I’m in L.A. now, doing nothing and sitting in my house. The real tea is that I chose L.A. over New York because I don’t want to do seven shows a week anymore. I want to do, like, two. And I really got my way.
Limperis: New York, Chicago, East Coast is very show-heavy. I was feeling very burned out on shows. Once you were doing it every night, it started to be like the joy was gone. Whereas if you have one show a week, you’re like, “I can’t wait to do this show.” But now we have like one show a year. Have you done live stuff, Meg, or did you start with online stuff?
Rethin: Well, I did “live performances” in college because I was in a couple of musicals, and I auditioned for the improv comedy club and stuff. But I would say mostly online content. I actually have not done live stand-up before. People have told me to try it in the past, at parties or whatever. They’re like, “You should try stand-up.” I’m like, “I’m scared shitless of rejection! But OK.” So TikTok was kind of the jumping-off point.
Alyssa and Caleb, what are the big differences between live performance and creating online videos?
Hearon: Videos to me are so much easier. I don’t prefer them, but they’re easier. The reward for me is way less. Likes and retweets are almost never enough. Like, you know, you get like 2,000 retweets on a video and you’re like, “Dammit, that should’ve gotten 5-”—which is what? Mental illness. It’s almost always enough in a live room; to get even a medium laugh, I can convince myself it was the biggest laugh of the night. When you’re doing a video, you’ll be like, “And then!—ugh, fuck that, delete.” Then you’ll try it again.
Limperis: I also feel like the medium laugh is collective. You’re in a moment with everyone in the room and you’re really sharing it, and that’s special. I will say this to give an argument to the other side: Sometimes I started feeling with live performance like I was at the service of the audience. I have to bend myself whichever way works for them to make them laugh. Whereas online sometimes I really like that I’m like: “I don’t care if you don’t like this. I don’t care if this isn’t for you.” I just get to make exactly what I want, and whoever wants it can come to it.
What’s the process of filming and editing things to post online actually like?
Rethin: The short answer is it takes a long while—I can have a funny thought, but to craft a joke around it will take forever. I’m like, “Oh, this is not even a funny thought,” at the end of it. When I’m shooting, I’ll be recording little chunks of it. Halfway through, if I don’t like my cadence or the inflections, I’ll stop and start over, which I almost resent a little bit. Because I know when I’m talking to normal people, when I’m just being funny in the flow of conversation, I don’t think of things like that. Once I know that people are watching, I’m like: “What are they watching for? What parts of the previous video did they like that I want to try and replicate for this video?” It becomes a very intentional movement and less of a “Here’s an off-the-cuff thing.”
Hearon: There are people for whom it looks effortless because it is for them, and then there are people who have to work on that aesthetic. I definitely have to create that aesthetic and make it look like I didn’t try. I came to comedy through improv, where there are a ton of rules when you’re starting out, and stand-up and sketch, where everything has a science and a math and a five-point structure or whatever. So then to reverse-engineer this careless, cool, “Oh, I just did this,” it’s very manufactured for me.
Rethin: Like, “Oh, my God, look at how much I don’t care about this thing!”
Hearon: Yeah. And like choosing not to dress up, like just doing it in the T-shirt you’re in, even that, I’m like, “I don’t feel my cutest in this.” But I’m like, “Well, that’ll read as, like, it was on the go,” or whatever, which is maybe psychotic?
Rethin: I am so glad that the first thing that people decided to blow up or make viral was me looking like trash because now I don’t have to dress up for any of my videos. I’ve seen people who spend hours on these amazing looks. I’m just in my T-shirt, unshowered, talking shit.
Limperis: I feel that way with a lot of my characters. It’s really freeing to put on a really ugly wig and to not care what I look like. Then you can just worry about what you’re doing. I noticed sometimes if I’m doing a character that’s not meant to have a bad wig, I’ll worry more about what I look like. Once I’m in that zone, it’s not gonna be as good or playful.
Hearon: I have a ton of characters I’ll never put online because I’m, maybe wrongly, saving them for when I have a budget. Things that I want to be costumed or want to do makeup for, anything like that, it needs to look correct for the story to work. And then with things where it’s just, like, a gay person ordering a coffee or whatever, I could be at home.
I see people put out beautiful stuff on Twitter that’s shot on a real camera, edited by a professional, gorgeous sound design, and it’s like a two-minute-and-15-second sketch that’s actually funny. And I’m like, “Damn, if you had done that on your phone by yourself with quick edits, this would go viral.” There’s like a judgment, like, “Damn, they put time into this?”
Do you ever feel like you’re trying to replicate the aesthetic of quarantine, where everyone’s in sweats at home?
Hearon: I feel like the content in quarantine specifically has been like mixed parts psycho-escapist, like dumb, weird shit like Grace Kuhlenschmidt doing the video about the family doing the porn—just so funny and bizarre. And then there’s other stuff that’s very much trying to speak to the moment, drinking-wine-in-my-sweats-on-the-couch vibe.
Rethin: The entire world had this collective ego death where it’s like, “None of you are wearing pants or leaving the bed. We all know what’s up, we’re all feeling more or less the same thing in various forms.”
Hearon: Meg, you keep saying things that my mind is pulling as book titles, like you said, “In My T-shirt, Unshowered, Talking Shit.” I was like: book title. Or “The Whole World Suffered Ego Death.” I’m like: book of poems.
Limperis: Meg, Caleb and I are too far out of college. You’re a genius. Stay where you are. Every year my brain has lost cells.
Rethin: I had a breakdown recently. At our Christmas-ish dinner, my cousins and I were talking, and they were like: “So I’ve noticed that the followers aren’t going up as regularly. Do we have to have a talk about it?” They’re like the irritating managers that nobody fucking asked for. I’m like: “Who are you? Why are you this self-appointed Kris Jenner in my life? You work at a fucking financial company!”
It must be really hard not to obsess over the share and view numbers when they’re always right there. How do you guys deal with that?
Hearon: Well, it makes me feel crazy. It makes me feel like I’m vain, self-important, unwell, need to check into a clinic in the bad way. But the reality of it is jobs come from numbers. Opportunities come from numbers. So there’s this whole business side of it that actually has consequences for your life. You have to just let go. Make your little rules and be like, “I’ll check the numbers in a day, a week, in a month, whatever.” Otherwise you’re just sitting there going, “Was that enough to get a job?”
Limperis: That’s really it. The internet did everything for my career. Everything that I have that’s good came from videos, so there is a real part of you that’s like, “This is serious and it’s important.” But I agree: It can make you really crazy, and you’re not in a good place when you’re just looking at it.
Rethin: It makes me feel very gross. When I first started posting, I had like 10 followers, and they all went to my school. I knew who they were. And I was making the same stuff then. Only after a lot of people are paying attention to you does the question of “What am I making?” show up. TikTok engineers it like that. When you open up the app, the notifications that pop up [of new likes, followers, and other forms of engagement with your videos] first are bright red, and you’re meant to look right at them and click into your inbox. The self-doubt comes with it, even though the numbers are not an indication of whether your content is good or not.
Alyssa, you’ve been quarantined with someone who also does comedy, right? What is that like?
Limperis: Yes, my boyfriend [Luke Mones] is also a comedian. We got to make a lot of stuff together in the beginning, and we get to help each other shoot stuff. It’s nice to have someone who gets the whole creative process right inside.
But you’re also sharing a very small space, obviously …
Limperis: That’s been really, really, really challenging. It’s hard to both be having to make stuff or someone’s on a call and the other person has to go to the bedroom in the middle of the day. On the flip side, if my boyfriend were a lawyer and I was doing weird videos in the back of his law thing, that might be harder. Caleb, you live with comedians too, right?
Hearon: I do, I live with Shelby Wolstein, a very funny comedian. We moved because of this. We were in a two-bedroom apartment. It’s too much. Someone’s always on a podcast, or making a video, or recording an audition. We were like, “We gotta get some space.” But we don’t hook up. And I’ve got to tell you: She would. But I’m playing hard to get.
Do you keep a schedule or do you set any sort of quota for how often you put out material online?
Hearon: Meg said something earlier that I thought was brave, because I feel it, but I’m sometimes scared to say it, which is that I feel the pressure to post. I feel like I need to be putting stuff out and I should be building followers or getting on new platforms. People are always on me about getting on TikTok. I mean, like, no one’s beating down my door, but, you know, commenting and stuff. And I just don’t do it.
Rethin: When I first started posting and was getting a lot of traction, literally the only thing that anybody ever told me was, “Keep this energy, sustain the audience engagement.” That immediately translated to, in my head, “You need a post schedule, you need to make sure you’re looking at the analytics.” TikTok has weirdly specific analytics: You have what time of the day your followers are most active, which feels slightly illegal that they can track that information, but we have it. So I began thinking very methodically and strategically, like, “[You have to] have these videos done, and you need them edited by X time so you can post them at this time … ” It got old so fast. I can’t do that shit.
You’re all in this interesting spot where you’ve found success at such a weird time. Have your expectations or aspirations changed? And where do you think you’d be if 2020 didn’t go the way it did?
Limperis: It’s been a helpful reminder for focusing on why I got into this and what I want to do. When things were really busy, there was a lot of running from one thing to another or auditioning for stuff and you can kind of get away from, like, “What did I come here to do? What kind of art do I want to make?” So I think having everything slow down for a second has been helpful, to get to be like, “OK, wait a minute. If there aren’t [traditional comedy] things out there that I can get, what does that leave me with?”
Rethin: People ask me for advice, and I’m like, “I cannot tell you anything that is actionable. I can tell you to post and pray.”
“Post and pray” might be a good place to leave it. Anything else?
Hearon: Who’s your favorite of the three of us?
Limperis: Yeah, before the call and after? It can stay the same; it can change.
Hearon: Play “Kill, kill, live” with the three of us.