“The thing that you should know about being everywhere at once is that it’s hard,” Reggie Watts told his fans last Wednesday night. He was simultaneously entertaining hundreds and hanging out in his living room, doing a full live show completely in virtual for the second time this year.
Using a borrowed Oculus headset, I entered the makeshift VR comedy club developed by AltspaceVR, a company that attempts to create community in an otherwise relatively singular atmosphere. Snug in my avatar, I was in a room full of attendees from all over the world, expressing their excitement through emojis and pop noises where laughs would normally be. At the same time, I was really at home; Watts and I are in the same city, but the nature of this show and most AltspaceVR joints is that you can enjoy them without wearing pants, if that’s your pleasure. The show is free to attend provided an audience member has the right equipment, which narrows the crowd by a bit — judging by the comments here and there throughout the show, the fans are more interested in the VR fans than comedy ones glitching in the crowd.
Has comedy in virtual reality matched the same ecstasy or dread that accompanies attending a normal show? Well, we’re getting there, but Watts isn’t aiming to have a flawless show. He’s experimenting in real-time and working through and in spite of the kinks.
Watts is the perfect comedian candidate for an experiment like this. He’s all but built his career on experimentation in comedy and music and has the reach as the former co-host of Comedy Bang! Bang! with Scott Aukerman and now as James Corden’s bandleader; it’s hard to think of a performer that VR suits better. Watts puts on a hell of a show in the digital theater, but this early in the game, live comedy in VR at its best is still a slightly bizarre experience. The performer brought his signature brand of looped, semi-improvised music interspersed with crowd work and environment exploration, as what seemed to either be longtime fans of curious VR enthusiasts looked on. He sang short songs about Taylor Swift, liking computers more than people and stray observations about the venue that didn’t really exist.
This is Watts’s second full-length foray into Altspace, the first taking place in May; it garnered plenty of enthusiasm, despite many technical difficulties. I only watched the YouTube recaps of the first show, but was ticketed and present at the second — in my living room, but also in a vast room full of strangers and a celebrity. In the safety of my own avatar, I could watch the audience around me dance awkwardly as Watts stretched the motion capture to its very limits onstage. He’s engaging and the audience is enthusiastic, with thousands of emojis exploding from their digital representations, and the environment has less glitches and more detail than the May show.
Heres the big problem, for live comedy especially: You can’t hear laughter in the audience. The experience of receiving bubble noises instead of laughs onstage makes me uncomfortable enough to leap from a twenty-story building, and it was one of the main barriers to making the experience fully immersive. Watts makes me laugh nonstop, but I felt alone in a sea of pop notifications and eventually fell silent without the egging on and electric atmosphere his presence elicits at a show in the third dimension.
But what’s the alternative? Would the show have benefited from hard laughter into the too-close mic of most VR headsets? We’re probably not there yet, either.
Regardless, it was exciting to be there — you get the feeling that five years from now you’ll brag that you were there to see the early experiments in live comedy VR. If you cast speculation even further into the future, it’ll be fun to watch back fifty years from now, too, and how simple this currently state-of-the-art experiment might seem. Just like first-year film students laugh their tequila-soaked brains out that people watching early first films thinking that trains could burst off the screen and onstage.
Watts promoted the medium throughout the performance, showing users around the environment, which is mapped like one of the many awkwardly structured venues he’s performed in in real life. While there’s glitches abound, Watts embraces these moments of avatars sinking into the floor, audio delays and inexplicably floating items as happy accidents, and incorporates over-criticizing them.
“The problem with VR is you don’t know who you are,” he joked halfway through the hour-long show: half a simulation of Watts’s live show (stage and all) and half audience interaction and guidance through the virtual club AltspaceVR constructed for him.
There are a million applications for VR, and we’re still learning what application fits best for which experience you can have in the sensual world. No matter how brilliant the comedian, there’s no question that Altspace can’t match the alternating excitement or despair of attending a comedy show in the flesh, depending on what kind of show you end up in.
While it’s not perfect as a comedy or a live production, Reggie Watts is the man that live VR needs — he’s got years of experience and passion for exploring the medium, is acutely aware of its strengths and weaknesses, and isn’t afraid to try anything. If it doesn’t work, or if the VR somehow hinders it, he acknowledges without any loss of enthusiasm and moves on to the next experiment. And that, my friends, is the stuff good pioneers are made of.