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An Interview with EJ Penalba, NextUp’s Community Manager

By Martin Willis.

If you, like the subject of this article, identify as a ‘big old comedy nerd’, then you’ve probably been aware of NextUp for a little while now. Founded in 2016 as a streaming service for shows and an afterlife for work once Edinburgh Fringe was over or a tour ended, the company has become a cornerstone for the industry and source of pride for any act that makes it onto the platform.

In the last few weeks though, NextUp have done something quite, to use a very 2020 word, ‘unprecedented’. For one, it has been surging forward with a virtual comedy venue on Twitch, providing a platform for acts to showcase work old and new, be creative to an audience and get bloody paid for it. Praise be.

Moreover, since the week before lockdown, their #HeckleTheVirus campaign has raised a good bit over £80,000, to be distributed among comedians every week. Their pace in providing a protective barrier against the economic hardship facing the industry has been remarkable. That it’s in tandem with a creative outlet with an avid audience is, frankly, astounding.

You may be able to tell that I’m something of a fanboy of the work the company is doing, so I made it my mission to track down one of the Good Eggs involved: EJ Penalba, the company’s Community Manager.

One of the things that most struck me talking to EJ is the commitment he and his company share for introducing people to new work, breaking them out of their comfort zone and challenging their preconceived notions of what stand-up is and can be. This is obvious from their programme of recorded shows, which includes fringe delights that one would be unlikely to catch on a mainstream network. It’s wonderful to me that somebody who logs onto NextUp as a fan of say, Ed Byrne or Miles Jupp, can stumble across alternative icons like Laura Davis, Ali Brice and Helen Duff.

And that’s not to say anything about their current live-live output. My technological know-how is lower than nil and, probably not unrelatedly, I’ve something of a niggling fear about live-streamed shows. Personally, the thought of doing a stand-up set to my video camera makes me want to eat my own laptop. So I wanted to find out from EJ how their Twitch platform was doing, and keen to be told how wrong I was. He didn’t disappoint.

“Live comedy still exists; it’s just now in a different format. You can still perform, you can still get audience feedback live and in real time, at a virtual level. It’s not going to be a replacement for the live industry but it’s something that can provide an outlet for performers to still do their work and still do their craft, and for them to gain some money, really. Those crowds, those audiences, they still laugh at performances, and now more than ever they probably need a reason to laugh. So it connects both parties of people who need this outlet.”

An energetic smile spreading across his face, EJ is clearly incredibly motivated by this desire to connect artists and their fans. “Comedy is so creative as an industry. It’s a melting pot of great ideas, unique ways to interact with an audience, unique ways of making people laugh. There are pioneers who’ve made it work and have got really unique shows that lend themselves to live-streaming. John Robertson is a good example. Something like The Dark Room really lends itself to the live-streamed experience.”

He’s right, of course. Having popped my virtual head into a handful of live shows now, I’m struck that it’s the comics that are most willing to play with the format that fare best.

“The potential of the digital comedy scene is insane,” he said. “That’s the thing. The reach that you can have, by having something that’s well crafted, put together really nicely and marketed out, it’s fantastic. It’s a really exciting thing.”

As our conversation slalomed around the industry and I became confident that EJ was now my best friend, we got talking about the role that comedy can play in our lives at this moment. I told him, as I do all of my besties, that for the past few weeks I’ve found escapism really hard to attain; right now I only really feel able to watch something soft and known like The Office or The Simpsons, something unchallenging. I haven’t escaped my brain just yet. But I am ready to, I think.

“I’d love to say we are [ready for escapism] but I know that that’s probably not quite true as of yet.” EJ mulled. “I think there’s still a real struggle with it. I think everyone is trying new and different approaches, and everyone has to kind of find what works for them. I hate the whole ‘unprecedented situation’ phrasing of it, but it is, and that lends itself to meaning everyone has to find their own personal way of dealing with what is an undeniably shit situation.

“It’s your own mental health, and your own approach to navigating just how to live, day-to-day. It needs to really be a personal discovery, something that works for you on that basis. And no-one has that insight into how badly it will affect you except you. It has to have that personal journey of ‘what can I do to make my whole four-walls-and-a-door living situation even moderately better.’ I’m at the point now where I’ve got every window open, I’ve got as much natural light and the outdoors bleeding into the house as much as possible, to just kind of get that little bit closer.”

I find it hard to disagree with EJ on that one. I mean, obviously, we’re best buds. We agree on everything. Now, beginning to feel ready to open myself up to new experiences from isolation beyond the soft relief of decades-old American sitcoms, it feels true to form that it’ll be with a platform that’s been easing comedy fans out of their comfort zones for years.

I’m looking forward to settling down for the first time with NextUp’s Twitch channel. I’m going to watch madcap DIY show Piñata with my mum and dad on the big TV this evening. It’ll be the first full live stream I watch. I’m ready, I think, to open a window. Get that little bit closer.

You can subscribe to NextUp by clicking here

From their pre-recorded back catalogue, EJ recommends:

Bec Hill, Lazy Susan, Séayoncé, President Obonjo and Robin Morgan

To contribute to the #HeckleTheVirus campaign or apply for financial support go to @mar_tin_wil_lis

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