Irish comedian Ed Byrne has performed a new stand-up comedy show that allows fans to watch him via a virtual reality (VR) headset, but insists he is not worried about new technology such as artificial intelligence “taking his job”.
The 50-year-old completed a set at The Comedy Store in Soho, London, which was filmed using a 360-degree camera providing close-up views of Byrne and clear footage of the audience watching and laughing, including those who did not laugh as well.
“If you look over to the left, you’ll be able to see the woman who was sitting there who didn’t crack a smile the entire time, you can focus on her if you want,” the comedian explained.
Byrne “liked the innovation” of the VR headset and is “surprised” it has not been introduced into the comedy industry sooner, until PICO, the company behind the headset, collaborated with the comedian to produce the immersive show.
“I’m surprised, if I’m honest, it’s taken this long for somebody to take up the idea of doing stand-up comedy in a VR format,” the Mock The Week panellist said.
“I have to hand it to PICO for being the ones who’ve done it because I thought it was going to happen a long time ago.”
The comedian, who has been doing stand-up for more than 30 years, believes the VR headset allows people who typically avoid the front-row seat to experience this without the fear of “being picked on or spoken to directly by the comedian”.
“What’s great about this is you get to sit in that seat and get that view without any of the worry of actually being picked on or spoken to directly by the comedian,” he said.
“It’s like watching a horror film – it’s scary, but it’s safe.”
Though he welcomes the new medium, he said there is “higher pressure” for comedians to perform as VR allows no room for editing like in traditional stand-up.
“The thing about filming something for a virtual reality experience is that you can’t edit it,” he explained.
“Normally when you do stand-up for a TV, it’s a case of ‘give us 15 minutes and we’ll cut it down to 12’. You can sort of throw stuff out there and there’s less pressure.
“There’s slightly higher pressure on you to give your best performance … but at this stage, I’ve been doing it for 30 years now, so if I can’t give you a decent 10 minutes from start to finish, I may as well hang up my microphone.”
Though it seems VR and artificial intelligence (AI) could potentially revolutionise the way fans consume comedy, Byrne is confident that this technology will not take over his job any time soon.
“I have no worries whatsoever about AI replacing stand-up comedy,” he said.
“I understand the leap from VR to AI as a discussion point, but, no.
“Just judging by scripts that have been written by Chat GPT and things like that, what’s funny about them is that they’re not that funny.”
“So at this point, I’m not overly worried about a robot taking over my job.”
However, the comedian is worried whether VR might prevent fans from attending comedy clubs.
“I think the more pertinent question is whether or not VR would replace going out,” he explained.
“If VR is too faithful and captures the atmosphere too well, are people going to do that instead of going to stand-up comedy?”
He hopes the new medium will allow comics to perform hour-long sets and admits that he would be willing to attempt it.
“I’d love to see a full special in this form. I’m surprised no-one’s done it yet.
“I think the idea of releasing an entire hour-long show by one comic is a great format to do it.
“I quite fancy it myself … I think that will be the next thing.”
Byrne will perform at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August before starting his Tragedy Plus Time tour in September.
The tour is inspired by the loss of his younger brother, Paul Byrne, who died in February 2022 aged 44.
He explores “whether or not enough time has passed for me to make jokes” about his brother’s death.
“[The tour] is based on something that Mark Twain is supposed to have said is that humour is tragedy plus time, so I’m going to be testing that theory,” the comedian said.
Despite the “awful” experience, he said that looking back at the situation “was really quite funny”.
“The music I picked to play as we turned off his life support system was incredibly inappropriate, and at the time was horrific,” he said.
“I played Sebadoh and I played the whole album – he took a long time to go – and the last song was a song called As The World Dies, The Eyes of God Grow Larger, which is as horrific as it sounds.
“But now looking back was like, ‘how did you pick that song? Why would you pick that?’
“It is incredible how much funny stuff happens around death when your emotions are incredibly heightened.”
Speaking of his brother’s passing on tour, Byrne said he is “looking forward” to “remember him and talk about him for 90 minutes”.
“When he died, I was still on tour with my old show, and when I went back on the road after he died it was the best I felt in two weeks being on that stage,” he said.
“That 90 minutes I was on stage was the one time I didn’t think about it, so that was a great escape.”
Ed Byrne is headlining the second episode of PICO’s first VR comedy series – Stand Up at The Comedy Store.
All episodes are free to watch and users of PICO headsets can find them in the PICO store. For more information about PICO visit: www.picoxr.com/uk/products/pico4 and for more info on Ed’s upcoming shows visit: www.edbyrne.com