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The pandemic has become a cleave point in our lives. This story is the first in a series in which Victorians reflect on how the pandemic has changed theirs forever.
It’s after dinner on another night in lockdown, and Kirsty Webeck’s audience is settling in for her comedy show. Many sip wine. Some cuddle their dogs, others their cats, one holds a snake and another presents a turtle for her inspection. One couple is in the bath.
Webeck, master of this unusual ceremony, hoots and lets loose a laugh at the intimacy and absurdity of it all. For her and her mates in the comedy world – and for people in the arts generally – this is life in the age of COVID-19: in lockdown, via Zoom, the audience at home, and turning up on screens with a come-as-you-are dress code. And pets. Plenty of pets.
Comedian Kirsty Webeck with Joan the Pomeranian.Credit:Chris Hopkins
“You’ve got to get used to having a different kind of feedback,” says Webeck, 38, of the Zoom shows that have become a financial lifeline when the performing arts have been hammered. “You can see people’s happy faces in the Zoom gallery. I think it was a real psychological shift where I had to get used to being satisfied with happy faces rather than lots of audible laughter.”
Webeck, who lives in Elwood with her partner, Elle, their pomeranian Joan and cat Fergie, is reflecting on how the pandemic has changed her life and what it has taught her. When lockdown #6 was announced on August 5, she was resigned to it even though the previous one had ended only nine days earlier. “We all knew that it was going to be a little short one,” she says.
She didn’t skip a beat: she just went on with planning more shows online – to keep the money coming in, to “make people happy” and to flex the comedy muscles she has been perfecting since she began her career eight years ago.
For Webeck, the COVID-19 experience can be summed up in a tale of two festivals. The 2020 Melbourne International Comedy Festival died in a blizzard of cancellations that March. Webeck was on stage the night before the rug was pulled; the grand prix had just been nixed, too.
“The penny dropped for us all. We all thought, this is bad.”
Scores of gigs exploded. “I kept getting event notifications on my phone, so I sat down and deleted all the events out of my calendar. Deleted everything. It was almost like watching the dollars mentally disappearing. Tens of thousands of dollars immediately disintegrated.”
Her partner is a nurse, so they had one secure income, a benefit Webeck retooled as gag material: “I do a joke now that the most important thing you can do if you work full-time in the arts is date an essential worker.”
She didn’t get JobKeeper or even seek it.
“I thought, right, what can I do … how do I still be a comedian but try to make that work and find a way to make a sustainable income?”
With a background in public relations, she did corporate work online – sometimes doing shows for companies seeking to keep staff engaged, or making training videos. With her partner at work, there was no living on top of each other. She found company in her pets, took walks near her bayside home every day and used social media as a creative outlet.
“I never really experienced any serious dips in my mental health. I spent a lot of time writing jokes on Twitter and that served as a buoy for my own mental health. I was keeping things silly. I think at times, when I was a little bit frustrated by lockdown or remembering that I was meant to be on tour or whatever, it was very easy to realise we had a lot to be grateful for.”
Fast-forward a year to the 2021 comedy festival, when Victoria was in a brief lockdown-free state and dared to hope the worst was over.
“Absolute elation,” says Webeck of this sunshine after a storm. “People came out in droves. The vast majority of my mates and I had the season of a lifetime. People came out to support us. And we were very grateful.”
Since the festival wrapped in mid-April, Victoria has had three more lockdowns.
In pursuit of silver linings, Webeck says she made it a project to – as she calls it – “shit-post my way to 10,000 [Twitter] followers”. With her blend of whimsy and slice-of-life observations, she built an online audience hungry for laughs. When she launched her series of Zoom comedy shows – where she shares the screen with guest comics – demand was high.
Hundreds have bought tickets, and Webeck is preparing another show for Friday, August 20. Tickets are $15 a head, but people are invited to contribute more to help performers left reeling by another lockdown.
Webeck is aware she is one of the lucky ones, with a big enough profile to make a go of it when many younger comedians have had to give it up.
“If this had happened four years ago, things would have been very different for me,” she says. “I might have had to leave comedy behind.”
For those who have survived to tell the tale, and the jokes, it’s now a matter of confronting the toughest question of the times: how do you joke about a pandemic?
“It’s been more about the changes to our lifestyle. You find your angle, and you look to the things that everybody can agree upon. And steer well clear of the actual horror of the illness. You’ve got to tread really lightly.”
What do you miss most about life before COVID?
Professional stability, travel, being able to see my family in Canberra and my friends.
What is your best lockdown strategy?
Having a routine and sticking to it. Exercise, working on jokes and my Zoom comedy shows, checking in on mates, reading, cooking, walks with mates, watching stuff. It helps having a cat and a puppy to hang out with.
Has there been a silver lining?
I got Fergie the fluffy ginger cat and Joan the Pomeranian puppy, I’ve gotten to spend more time with my partner and I started looking after my health.
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