At first glance, the year 2020 has given the people of the United States precious little to smile about. The stark fact that more than 200,000 American lives have been claimed by Covid-19 ensures this will go down as one of the grimmest years in the nation’s history. Yet it is in dark times that we most need light relief. Which is why Comedians on Call was created to ease the loneliness and fear of social isolation among some of the most vulnerable members of our society.
Bipasha Mookherjee and Samantha Brody are the founders of this free phone comedic helpline that brings a laugh, a smile and a moment of happiness to seniors suffering from the impact of the coronavirus.
What sparked the creation of Comedians on Call?
Brad Lander, a Brooklyn councilman, sent a newsletter in April, during the early days of the pandemic, that contained a surprising and fascinating fact. He said that when people from a wellness center in New York called on home-bound seniors to see how they were coping, 50% of them said they would like to hear a joke.
Social isolation has hit the older age group hard, especially those who live in senior homes with no access to digital entertainment or tech such as Netflix and Zoom. Bipasha and Samantha immediately realized that putting improv artists in touch with those seniors would have real value by easing the stress of the new reality with a few laughs.
What was the initial response?
Comedians on Call reached out first to Heights and Hills, a local organization that looks after seniors in Brooklyn. They also appealed to the comedic community for help. The response was overwhelmingly positive from both sides. At first the comedians would have a one-to-one conversation with a senior, but this quickly turned into just another chat – with the performance element taking a back seat.
It was also apparent that people craved the communal experience of laughing together. Still, it was clear that the demand was there from the seniors and that the laughter-makers were keen to play their part in bringing some much-needed cheer to a new audience.
How did the service develop?
As Bipasha explains, a slight tweak to the format made all the difference: “We changed to group calls. We pair one comedian with two or three adults for a group comedy call – and seniors love that."
“Being stuck at home, they loved laughing and sharing stories with others on the phone and chuckling along with a comedian, even trying to one-up each other’s jokes!”
Comedians on Call also received a hefty boost when it was featured on the Daily Skimm newsletter. A huge number of comedians across the United States offered their services, while numerous older adults wanted to call in.
The biggest challenge was to build a robust back-end system to cope with the sudden uptick in demand, but a company in Ukraine built one for them in record time.
What are you most proud of?
Samantha says: “It’s how everyone associated with the initiative – the comedians, the elderly, tech support – has been so enthusiastic and appreciative of the service we offer.
“We’re learning as we go and sometimes, when the system fails or we have scheduling conflicts, it’s the seniors who remind us it’s not the end of the world. They encourage us to keep going and doing the best we can.”
The impact of the initiative is summed up by Ellen of the Good Shepherd Center in North Carolina, who told Comedians on Call: “It’s great you guys are doing this. It’s just so nice to have something to look forward to.”
How can people help?
Bipasha and Samantha say there are several ways in which their service can be supported. The first is to visit the website www.comediansoncall.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to refer someone who needs the service – or if you are a comedian and you want to volunteer.
At the moment, this is the way they reach seniors – and they work with hmes across the nation. But they are always happy to be connected to more people who will benefit from the service. They could also use an intern. As things stand the founders are running the service around their day jobs; and they admit matching the availability of more than 100 comedians with the seniors they want to serve is proving “pretty stressful”. Assistance with the cost of running Twilio, their back-end platform, would also be a major plus.
How long will the service continue?
It’s clear that Comedians on Call is making a considerable contribution to easing the stress, anxiety and fear felt by socially isolated seniors during the Covid-19 crisis by putting a smile on their faces. That impact and value could, however, continue into the future. As Bipasha says: “We are excited to continue growing even after we’ve all settled into the ‘new normal’.
“Because for older adults, social isolation doesn’t end when the lockdown does. While we can’t cure loneliness, we can help them deal with it better – with a few laughs.”