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How Do You Make People Laugh During A Pandemic?


The coronavirus has stirred up a lot of emotions, grief, stress, anxiety, anger. More than a million people have died worldwide, and the pandemic has upended the global economy and our lives.


But what about hope or joy? How do you make people laugh in a pandemic? It's a question funny people around the world are struggling with and solving in similar ways, like in a satire program in Brazil.

ALESSANDRA OROFINO: My name is Alessandra Orofino. I'm the show runner for "Greg News" on HBO Brazil. And I'm speaking to you from Rio.

GREENE: "Greg News" is named after the host, Gregorio Duvivier. It's a comedy news show poking fun at current events, sort of like a show here in this country.

ALISON CAMILLO: My name is Alison Camillo, and I'm the executive producer for "Full Frontal With Samantha Bee." And I'm in the United States.

GREENE: So NPR's international desk decided to connect the people behind these shows so they could compare their experiences creating comedy during a pandemic.

MARTIN: Both shows have moved from studios into the homes of their stars, which was a difficult transition. And Alessandra, in Rio, describes how "Greg News" has enlisted the host's family to help with production.

OROFINO: So it's his mom, his brother and his sister taping, and then his wife has been doing our makeup. And that's it, you know (laughter).

CAMILLO: It's so funny. I love that it's a family affair. I know Sam had to figure out sort of a different rhythm now that there's no audience. Did Greg run into that same issue?

OROFINO: Absolutely. We used to have a lot more pause, you know?


OROFINO: And even the script length has changed, you know?


OROFINO: Now we have to write more because he just doesn't stop as much. He doesn't wait for the audience to react.

CAMILLO: Totally.

OROFINO: He definitely adjusted the rhythm. And we also had to adjust the jokes in a way.


OROFINO: Because there are some kinds of jokes that just don't ring as funny if there's no one there to laugh, you know?

CAMILLO: Yeah. Because there are ones that you know that are specifically to, like, get a reaction from people. And so you just don't have those in there anymore.

OROFINO: Yeah. One thing that we did do is actually tape the laugh track from Gregorio's mother. So we can listen to her laughing.

CAMILLO: Amazing (laughter).

OROFINO: And we made a the running gag out of it. So sometimes she won't react and Gregorio will be like, Mom, I mean, if you're not laughing, who is going to laugh? Come on.

CAMILLO: (Laughter).

OROFINO: And then we can hear in the background. And people love Gregorio's mother. They really want to hear her laugh. So it's been...


CAMILLO: So funny. Since we've been in the pandemic, one of my favorite things was actually the very first thing that we did once we were shooting from Sam's house. It was a cold open where, you know, the first part of it is, like, she's walking through the forest. And there's a babbling brook, and it's green and lush.


SAMANTHA BEE: This, too, shall pass. The seasons are changing. The brook is babbling. The birds are chirping.

CAMILLO: And we knew later that day it was actually supposed to snow. So then that, like, smash cuts to Sam in the forest covered in snow.


BEE: Why are you doing this to us?

OROFINO: (Laughter).

CAMILLO: And to me, it was just, like, such a cathartic, perfect, little encapsulating nugget of what was happening in the moment, and I loved it. Do you have, like, a favorite segment that you've done since you've been in the pandemic?

OROFINO: So earlier this season, we did a whole show that we called Lightness.


GREGORIO DUVIVIER: (Non-English language spoken).

OROFINO: And it was one of my favorite segments because we were discussing something that a government official had said previously about death. And she was, essentially, complaining that the press and artists were talking about death obsessively because there was a pandemic going on. And she also mentioned death and torture under the military dictatorship that happened in Brazil many years ago and essentially said that people should keep it light and not discuss death as much.

And we did a whole show about that and how it's actually impossible to find lightness unless you embrace loss. And at the end of the show, we had a segment with Gregorio's family, including his mom and siblings, singing a song that was written under the military dictatorship, and that is incredibly light and beautiful and uplifting, but also incredibly powerful in terms of very clearly stating what was wrong and what was horrible about that political climate and the political situation.

CAMILLO: Yeah. I think that it's shocking to see, like, how emotional those things can be, even in a comedy show. I love that story.

OROFINO: When did you decide that it was OK to make fun of the pandemic? For us, it was a really hard thing to point out, you know?

CAMILLO: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I understand it's so hard to make jokes about things where people are dying. But I do think that, like, our comedy comes from passion and it comes from being frustrated and being angry. So there's always some sort of target in that where you can make jokes but also be respectful of what's going on. I just think that, like, to me, comedy is like therapy. That's what gets me through the hard spots in life. So especially in a situation like this, there's never been more need for comedy than right this minute. How did you do with it?

OROFINO: Well, I think similarly to you. Like, initially, we were a bit unsure of how to poke fun of this crisis when there are so many people who are suffering real consequences, including death. I think where it becomes increasingly complicated is when we try to talk about things are more specific to the health crisis itself, so shortages of ventilators in hospitals. Like, things like that are a lot harder to laugh at.

We also, I think, shifted our role a little bit in a sense. I mean, we're still, of course, a comedy show. But we realized that people needed us to be more than that. They needed us to be sort of the campfire. They needed us to be that place where people gather and make sense of what's happening in the world.


OROFINO: And the end of the day, that's why we do this job. Right?


OROFINO: Like, we like providing people with that glimpse of hope and also that time when they can come together and watch something together. Or even if they're watching together alone, that still gives them a sense of a shared experience. And if there's something that is missing from the world as we are dealing with this pandemic - is this idea of shared experiences. Like, that's what we have to give up at the end of the day.

CAMILLO: Yeah, totally.


SUSANNAH MCCORKLE: (Singing) And the riverbanks sings of the waters of March. It's the end of despair. It's the joy in your heart.

MARTIN: That was a conversation between Alison Carmello of "Full Frontal With Samantha Bee" in the U.S. and Alessandra Orofino with "Greg News" in Brazil.

GREENE: The piece was brought to us by Daniel Estrin and Greg Dixon as part of the NPR International Desk's Same Here series. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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