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Running engineering meetups and other community events remotely

Richard Huffaker

Welcome back to Distributing Joy, a blog series and podcast (see: iTunes, Stitcher, Breaker, or virtually any other podcast app) about the joys and lack of joys encountered when working remotely.

In this edition we’re talking about moving in-person events to the internet. If you’re part of any engineering meetups or take part in small talks in your city, then you’ve probably had to at least deal with this as an attendee, and may also be thinking through how to deal with it as a host. With companies like Square and Twitter going almost fully remote, and with the pandemic in the back of everyone’s minds, the need to adapt to running meetups remotely is probably not temporary.

How do you take a small event, an event that is probably mostly about community and networking, and not just put it online, but put it online in such a way that it continues to fulfill those community and networking needs, while also maintaining a high level of quality to keep attendees engaged?

Additionally, maybe those events cost money. Both to allow you to have a budget to continue running them and to ensure only people who are interested end up showing up.

How can you do all that and do it well?

To answer this question, I spoke to Nick Stargu, the producer / host of a small but popular long running San Francisco Bay Area comedy show called Talkies. Nick Stargu is also known as DJ Real. He runs Talkies alongside fellow comedians Aviva Siegel and Land Smith-Abbinante.

Beyond producing online shows, Nick Stargu is a musician, comedian, writer and filmmaker who is best known for his multimedia / musical comedy act, DJ REAL, which has been featured at Comedy Central's Colossal Clusterfest, Big Sky Comedy Festival, Outside Lands, San Francisco Sketchfest, Bridgetown Comedy Festival and more. He has appeared on the TV show “Flophouse” on Viceland and as a host on NBC's show "The Guest List" on Seeso. He’s opened for Devo, Scott Thompson, and Bridget Everett. He also spent many years as a producer, sound designer, and creative genius at Audible.com.

Talkies is a multimedia comedy show that has historically mostly centered around power point presentations. At it's simplest it's parodying the kind of presentations you might encounter at work, and at it's least simplest it's much more (as you might expect from the words "least" and "simplest" being put together like that).

Talkies has hosted many, many comedians over the years, some of them San Francisco locals, some of them fairly big names who’ve gone on to appear on Netflix, write and appear in comedy TV shows, and tell a lot of funny jokes to a lot of people.

Why have Nick tell us how to run events remotely? Because he’s successfully taken Talkies from being an in-person comedy show in Oakland to an online show that still maintains the sense of community and presentation that the in-person show had. Comedy shows like this have to be run well to succeed because, unlike an engineering meet up, there is no possibility of learning anything to balance things out. Comedy shows must be entertaining.

Let’s dive into the interview with Nick. Read it below. Or listen to it through your Podcast app of choice (iTunes, Stitcher, Breaker, or virtually any other podcast app).

Tell us about moving Talkies from real life to the internet. 

Talkies is a multimedia variety comedy show. When we do it live at the All Out Comedy Theater in Oakland, we have a projector and a screen, and we make full use of that. I think moving over into this format was actually a lot easier for us than for other shows because we're used to the tech side of things. There's getting your sound right, which is really tough. For me, personally, I do a lot of audio comedy. I was lucky enough to have the gear in my house already, so I didn't have to go out and buy a lot of stuff.

I was reading somewhere that people's attention span when they're watching something, it's 50 — I don't remember what the percentages were, so this isn't really going to be a good example, but they could watch something with degraded video quality as long as the audio was really good. Once the audio gets funky — because that's what's engaging you, you're hearing someone's voice and that's in your ears, if it's sounding really awful then people are going to tune out.

For comedy, that's a huge part of it. You just have to make sure your audio is solid. Whenever we have guests on, I've really encouraged them if they have a microphone to plug it in and use it, and if they have an ethernet cable, plug it into their computer, so we get the best quality audio and video that we can.

Tell me more about your background. You have all this audio equipment. Why do you do so much multimedia comedy? How’d that get going? 

I do a solo act called DJ Real, and it's a musical comedy multimedia act. It started as a joke a long time ago where I made these one-minute songs. I was in a prog-rock band that played 10-minute long songs and King Crimson covers and Zappa songs. This was the antithesis of this self-indulgent - albeit we had a sense of humor about it, but it was pretty self-indulgent.

I also made these really short little songs. I wasn't even trying to do comedy. I just wanted to weird people out, but people started laughing and then I started getting into the comedy scene more when I moved to San Francisco.

My act evolved from being a boombox with a CD player, I would burn a CD for the setlist that night and it would always change. I went through a lot of CDs over the years. I think I have some of them still. It evolved from that and then about seven years ago, I started using a laptop which totally changed the game. I use MainStage on my Macbook. That houses all of my audio. I do a lot of weird stuff. I play electric saxophone for a bit. I'm always trying to include some new weird thing that I get inspired by. I'm like, "What kind of ridiculous thing can I make out of this?”

Talk a bit about the challenges of comedians and presenters coming to Talkies who are not so knowledgeable about sound as you are. You recommend they plug in a microphone, but what else do you tell them to do to prepare?

Typically, our show has been running on Zoom. I had to learn a lot about Zoom. There are a lot of features that are hidden, that they just automatically set for a default user. For example, if you want to have stereo audio, you need to enable that in your user settings on the website. That's not even available in the app until you activate it on the website. That's very weird.

There's a bunch of other audio settings that you can change to make your audio sound like the original audio should be. If you're trying to do anything music or anything related to that, you can make your original sound better, so they don't put all the compression and stuff on it. That's the first thing I do. There are the obvious things, as you said, asking them to plug a microphone in. We have musicians on the show too. When they can, it's plugging in directly.

I think we’ve done two or three of these so far.

Three

Three online so far. I feel like the audio and the tech has gotten better because we just learn each time. It's simple things, like if you choose the room well, if it's a little more reverb-y in the room, try not to use that room. Don't do it in the bathroom. Unless it's for a bet, then definitely do it in the bathroom, but I don't know if we want to necessarily — That might not be safe for work, I don't know.

I think the concept of bathrooms is completely safe for work.

Okay, the concept is yes.

The idea of a bathroom is. Doing a bit from a bathroom might not be very safe. That is true. You have all these sound settings on Zoom that you changed and that's great. If somebody asked you, "What's a piece of equipment I should buy right now to make myself sound good," what's the first thing you would tell them to buy?

The easiest thing would be a USB microphone. What I suggest to people who want to go the extra mile is a little DAW, Digital Audio Workstation so that you can just play with the settings more. I think GarageBand might be a stock thing on a Mac, so you can make your voice sound better with compression and reverb. There's other software, there's free versions of this, but there's this software called Loopback and I think there's another free version called BlackHole. it basically redirects your audio so you can hear anything happening in your computer and then have that stream. I recommend the free version for people who don't want to pay for it.

On top of actually producing it, this is not a free-for-all. This is not a free show, you charge people to attend. For that reason, you have to actually have it be gated, but you're using Zoom for it. How does that work? How are you charging people and making sure only people who pay show up?

That's tricky. We've been using Eventbrite. What I do is, I've been handling all the backend stuff, so I make the Zoom invitation, and then on Eventbrite, I'll make that an email that gets sent when someone purchases a ticket. Typically, it's a $10 ticket for the show and then $20 for like a household if you have more than one person watching.

We've made enough money to pay the comics decently and we've been giving a good chunk of that to All Out Comedy Theater where we usually perform. As far as preventing people from coming in who didn't buy tickets, we have a guest list, emails, so we could do that. We haven't really been that diligent, but we could do it.

On that note, have you noticed — because obviously, you've done more shows than just Talkies too, have you noticed a comedian seeming less engaged and less interested in doing their best work or people seem to rise to the challenge?

I feel like that's a really hard thing to answer. I don’t want to disparage people. Here's the thing. This whole situation that we're in right now is really affecting people. I have seen people being a little more lackadaisical about getting on a Zoom show and just sitting on a couch and talking. I feel like we have Zoom fatigue at this point. There's articles written about it and people want to see something different. I don't know. I have seen what you're talking about. I think that's a symptom, not necessarily of the performer being not interested in performing, but it's like they're affected. They're emotionally affected by what's happening.

Things are so different now. What I try to do in our show is put people that I know that won't do that. It's only because I've seen them perform online before. They've been people that have performed in our show and I know that. We are all affected by this thing. For me, personally, this is the thing that keeps me going. It's like, "This is what's different." We get to go outside, walk around and stuff, but this is something to look forward to.

I certainly look forward to watching it. To your point, it's obviously not to disparage anybody. It's already incredibly challenging to just be dealing with the pandemic in general and to be dealing with the way life has changed. The challenge of switching from being in front of a crowd with a microphone, and now you're in front of a laptop looking at a webcam and trying to —

It's so different.

As you noted, something that's important for anyone on stage, I think, is feedback from the audience. For a lot of shows, the people are muted. You can't even hear if people are enjoying your jokes or laughing. Talk a bit about that. Talk about why it's so important for you to not mute the audience. 

As a performer, you want to hear the feedback. It's 50% of the reason, for most people, to get on stage is to get that immediate reaction. For our show in particular, we have friends that come to the show too. We want to hear their laughter. We want to hear if they think something is funny. It's just really important, I think, at least for our show to have that engagement. It would be a very different show otherwise. I haven't really noticed many times where it's interrupted a performer on our show at least. That immediate feedback can add to what's happening.

We had George Chen on the first show. He did a whole thing about the Census. You were there for this, he would spotlight people in the audience and then he basically interviewed them. If you muted them, that would be a totally different show.

You're trying to make it more interactive just because people are going to be unmuted anyway, so why not?

Right.

Have you seen any problems with heckling or too much noise coming from one person's mic, do you have the ability to go in and just individually mute people if you notice that they're an issue?

Yes. We have a tech guy, Will Scoville. He's been one of the producers for years. He's basically on mute duty in case things get out of control. From the shows that we've done, I don't remember anything really being crazy. We had one person who you kept hearing the microwave go off. That was two shows ago, I think. I was worried it was my girlfriend, but it ended up not being her.

But there was — not on our show, but there is another show, I don't know if you heard about this, when this whole thing first started, people I don't think quite understood how to use Zoom all that well. This is before Zoom bombing became really known. A local comedy show had a handful of people come in and say racist things in the chat, took over the chat, took over the show, basically, as a host somehow. We've been lucky in that regard and are really containing everything. There are settings you can control to make sure that doesn't happen. There's a setting where anyone can share their screen, which would be complete chaos, I think. Although that would be fun just to see what would happen. A free show where anybody could share a screen could be a fun concept.

That's like the open mic of Zoom comedy.

Beyond the Zoom bombing that happened to that one comedy show and all the awful stuff that went along with it, the Supreme Court just had one of the justices flush their toilet during oral arguments which is, if that happens on the Supreme Court, that's really not that bad if it happens on a comedy show. Or really any event. 

Oh, even better on a comedy show.

Why do you think it's important that comedy shows and events like this be live and not just pre-recorded and then released?

It depends on the show but as a comic, you don't want your -- this is the dream of having your own special someday. If you're going to do a bit that you're just going to have out there, you got to really be thoughtful about it. For our show, we make things for the show. It's okay if it's out there.

With live streaming, I think having the interaction with the chat, having the interaction with the crowd makes the viewers feel like they are there in a way, it's an audience. With a pre-recorded thing, I don't think it's not good, I just think there's more value to that interaction.

I agree with that as a viewer. It makes it a real event.

It's an event, yes.

Tonight, Monica and I, Monica being my partner, we're going to go to two comedy shows. We're going to order in, like we're going out for a night out to the shows. We're going to make some cocktails.

Have some drinks.

It just feels like we're there. We can see the other audience members on Zoom. We can hear them laugh. We watch videos all day long, and if this was just another video, we would still watch it, but it wouldn't feel special. Being there, feels almost as good, not as good, but almost as good as actually going to the show.

It's a community thing and it activates a certain part of your brain that wants to connect and I think that's super important. I don't think I even realized it before we were trapped at home. We really need these connections. To me, a live comedy show can feel like church in a way like you're all directing your positive energy in one place. I'm not a religious guy, but that's the closest thing to church that I personally have. As you were saying, it is an event and we all need these things to look forward to.

Here's the thing, the nice thing about these shows is you can dip out whenever you want. You don't have to make a big scene. At a comedy show, you have to stand up, scooch across a row of people, the comic sees you, calls you out, makes fun of you for having to go to the bathroom. Here, you just mute yourself or just leave, and no one knows. Especially if there's like 50 people, no one's going to know.

It's interesting. Because it's live and because my mic is on, I feel like I only get up and go to the bathroom between sets, just like I would do with an actual show. I go up and get a drink after a comic is done and a new person comes on. 

It is nice that I can get up and no one will really care or notice, but I don't want to just get up and walk away. That feeling of community is there. I still want to ensure this person gets their time, and I see their whole set before I wander off.

You can also listen too. You can make your drink and still be listening. You can still be engaged. That's great. There's definitely some really great things about it.

What was the most challenging thing for you about going from actually putting this online? What was the hardest part of it in making it happen?

I spent a full week just trying to figure out how to understand Zoom. That was the hardest thing. I know my tech runs okay, but what do these platforms offer? I had never live-streamed, so it's like, "What is restream? What is OBS? How do you use Facebook live?" These are things that I never even really thought about before. I think the biggest thing for me was figuring out all of the tricks.

I would use Zoom on two different computers, test the audio on the other computer, "Does this sound okay? Does this look okay?" Figuring out that you need to plug in your ethernet cable or you're not going to have a solid stream which seems like a no brainer, but most people don't. Most laptops don't even have a port on it for that, so I had to buy the adapter for that. The first Talkies show, I dropped my computer right before the show started. I had to get a new computer, figure out all the new ports on that thing. In general, give yourself a one week learning curve. There's tons of really good YouTube videos of people explaining how to get your audio right and how to get your video right. There's good articles about comedy, how to do a good livestream comedy show. Just read everything you can and do your best.

“Do your best” is a very nice thing to say.  I know you're not here to disparage anyone and I don't want you to but is there anything you've watched now or a part of, that didn't turn out good in your mind, what were the parts — if you could go back and give them advice, what was the weakest part of it that, if they had fixed it, would have made it a lot better?

I watched a cryptocurrency conference that normally takes place in person, you have to pay thousands of dollars to go see, and my God, this thing was so boring. There were probably announcements made, but I just think, for that particular event, I feel like that would've done better in a live setting because you have people that can do Q&As after the thing, and that wasn't happening. People were just basically talking and then it was just boring. Not that it should be.

I'm somebody who's interested in that stuff. It should be really exciting to watch this, and then they also had some musicians. I was so surprised that their audio wasn't killing it for being a tech based conference. They were just using their computer speaker or computer mics to get the audio in. I was like, "What is happening right now?"

To play music?

Yes. It was some guy singing over a pre-recorded track at a huge crypto conference. I'm like, "What is this? What am I watching right now?"

That's crazy. It sounds like preparation is one of the most important things. I think there's a real- because it can look so easily for when people are doing it on YouTube, even though they actually put a lot of work in to be just normal looking videos, this is not easy to do like a multimedia event. You can't just point a camera at someone and just say, "Go," unless they just are already an entertainer or performer, it's just not going to work. 

At an in-person event, it's fine because people at the in-person events, half the reason they do it is to drink and to leave early and to just not be at the office and now the office is, for anybody who's lucky enough to be working at home, now that the office is at home. There's not really anything special about going to that event unless you actually make it interesting and don't have the audio be terrible and actually prepare beforehand.

Preparation is key. Preparation and a good set up, that's it. I would rather watch a boring person sound good than an exciting person not sound good.

And that's a good piece of advice to end this interview on!

Thanks so much to Nick Stargu for talking with us today about how to run a meetup or other in-person event remotely. Talkies is a very funny show that runs every two weeks. If you're interested in attending, you can find Talkies by searching Talkies Comedy on Instagram and find Nick at djrealsmells.com.

To be clear, Talkies is a comedy show over which we have no control. Some shows are PG rated and some shows are R rated depending on the comedians involved in an individual show. Clubhouse is obviously not affiliated with the show and does not directly endorse it outside of valuing the expertise on sound and presentation that Nick brought to the podcast today.

But I can say that it's very funny. It's a show I’ve been attending for years now, and I've watched several comedians I've seen there go from just starting out to successful careers.