Usually, the Boston Comedy Festival includes a handful of headliner shows with bigger names, and dozens of comics coming to town for the festival’s stand-up competition. But with indoor shows still restricted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the BCF has gone virtual this year.
Shows and workshops for comedians started Sunday and will continue until Saturday. Many comics, including Judah Friedlander and Lewis Black and locals Bethany Van Delft and Dan Boulger, are making repeat appearances.
Festival founder Jim McCue and festival director Helen DiMarzio decided they didn’t want to skip a year and started planning and reaching out to comedians in October, accepting submissions for the stand-up competition. The goal was to make it feel like the annual Boston Comedy Festival. “We’re still doing a lot of panels,” says DiMarzio. “We’ve got a lot of industry coming, we’re even doing after parties. We’re trying. It feels like our first festival.”
Friedlander, who headlines a virtual show on Wednesday, has brought his “World Champion” act to the festival in recent years. He’s become especially adept at virtual shows since he started self-producing from his home in New York in July. “He’s the champion, right?” says DiMarzio. “So he’s comfortable at everything.”
The “30 Rock” alum hadn’t even heard of Zoom before the pandemic hit. Now he does multiple shows a week with opening acts and more than 90 minutes of new material and crowd work. “Technologically it’s obviously a lot different,” he says, “but it’s really very similar to what I do at venues, and I’ve been enjoying the shows a lot.”
In his 2017 Netflix special, “America Is the Greatest Country In the United States,” Friedlander frequently bantered with his audience, smoothly incorporating prepared material and spontaneous interactions. He does much the same thing in his online shows. Zoom allows him to hear and see his audience, so he can take live questions like he would in a club — with a few strange twists.
One dedicated fan watches while delivering pizzas. “Sometimes, you know, I’ll highlight him on the camera as I’m talking to him,” says Friedlander. “We see him getting out of his car going up to a house. There’s cool things that happen that wouldn’t happen at a venue.”
He has also been able to find novel approaches to current events. Friedlander delivers his satirizing of the “America First” mentality with the stone-faced seriousness of a personal trainer trying to whip a client into shape. On one recent show, he hit politics and the spread of coronavirus with one punchline. “. . . If you’re an anti-masker you’re sharing air with other people. You’re a socialist. If you’re wearing a mask, you’re a capitalist.”
Funny comes first for Friedlander, even if he’s taking on his own personal political beliefs. “It should be so funny that no matter what someone’s ideology is, they should still be laughing, even [if] they hate the fact that they’re laughing at that, because they disagree with it completely.”
The last time Friedlander did a live show at a venue was March 10. While he loves doing virtual shows, and frequently hosts hangouts on Zoom afterwards, he will miss coming to Boston and socializing face-to-face. “You maybe do a meet and greet with the audience afterwards,” he says of in-person show. “Maybe even you go out and get some food with some of the staff or another comic or some of the audience afterwards. Here. It’s like, thanks, everybody. That’s it. Zip. Over.”
BOSTON COMEDY FESTIVAL
Through Dec. 2. Complete schedule and ticket information at www.bostoncomedyfest.com