Christine Olivas of ‘Off Mic Comedy School’: “Interact with the audience”

Add an audience activity, such as trivia, in between speakers or presentations. Paul Reese and I recently coordinated and produced a corporate event for a local health IT group. We broke up the networking (in breakout groups) and main speaker with a fun interactive live trivia game through Crowdpurr. It only cost 50 dollars and […]

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Add an audience activity, such as trivia, in between speakers or presentations. Paul Reese and I recently coordinated and produced a corporate event for a local health IT group. We broke up the networking (in breakout groups) and main speaker with a fun interactive live trivia game through Crowdpurr. It only cost 50 dollars and was a memorable, interactive part of the event. Plus, we got to see how much about Philadelphia culture and history everyone knew!

As a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christine Olivas.

Christine is the creator of Off Mic Comedy School, Philadelphia’s first entirely virtual comedy school. She is a marketing consultant by day and a standup comic by night. Christine has been hosting popular Zoom comedy programs since the beginning of the pandemic.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

From 1982 to 1996, I was homeschooled in California by conservative Christian parents who were part of a strict religious organization that shielded its youth from modern teachings and ideas. I was only allowed to wear dresses, never got any sex or modern science education, and was prohibited from forming close relationships with those from other religions.

Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?

After leaving home and graduating with honors from Stanford University, I became what I call a nomad, moving from city to city and profession to profession. After finding my way to Philly, I got into stand-up comedy, where I could explore my past by telling jokes on stage. I caught the comedy bug and found what I was looking for in the comedy world: a diverse community where I could tell my truth, belong, and come into my own.

Then, I took a big leap and created Philly’s first all-virtual comedy school. Off Mic Comedy School was designed for the post-pandemic era and is committed to paying its instructors more fairly than any other comedy training program in the United States. The school has taught 100+ aspiring and experienced comedians in improv, standup, crowd work and producing — all on Zoom — and has doubled its class offerings for the winter semester (which also features new courses for kids and teens). Off Mic already has nearly 15 instructors.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

“Leaving the Fold” by Marlene Windell changed the course of my life. It’s about the impact of fundamentalist religion on psychology and emotional wellbeing. It’s about how cult-like thinking can cause deep scars and holes in you that you don’t even realize are there. It made me realize for the first time that my background shaped me, that my experience was unique and that I had permission to talk about it out loud.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote of all time is from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Having lived in two worlds — homeschooled Fundamentalist Christianity and liberal urban life — it’s at times been hard for me to know who I am. Real freedom has come from me in understanding how both of those have impacted me. Even though I don’t agree with the belief system I grew up in, being homeschooled gave me the ability to be autonomous and creative. And the living I’ve done since then gave me a well-rounded perspective on diversity and humanity.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?

Yes! I have been planning and producing events in the corporate context since 2007, when I began my career at a small startup in San Francisco. Since then, I’ve gained a reputation as someone who treats events not just as something to coordinate but as powerful business and marketing tools that can change perception and achieve key objectives.

More recently, in 2019, I started producing comedy events and showcases, first in-person, such as the sold-out No’ Mo Sexual FOMO (sex education meets comedy). Then, on April 1 2020, I produced the first post-pandemic virtual show in Philly, under the production company “Fools for Good.” Since then, I’ve also produced other unique virtual comedy/storytelling shows, including “Things that Used to Scare Me” and “Doomsday” (a virtual roast battle).

Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?

When the pandemic hit, I created Fools for Good, a series of live virtual comedy shows to benefit Philly comics and the causes of their choice (8,000 dollars raised; 800+ people have attended shows). Before it became popular to do so, I decided to unmute the audience, so that people could laugh out loud, applaud, or lightly heckle — giving it a real comedy club feel. It helped participants feel a human connection that we were all so desperately lacking in the beginning of the pandemic shut down.

We also run weekly open mics and class graduation shows for the students and instructors at Off Mic Comedy School.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

Nowhere Comedy Club (all-virtual comedy club) is killing it. They have amazing national headliners and have worked hard to ensure that the virtual experience is engaging and entertaining. Like Off Mic Comedy School, they recognized that the pandemic was going to fundamentally change things and adapted, not just coped. They clearly think through the strategy for their shows, and have a clear purpose. Ultimately, it comes down to not wishing for the “world to come back” but embracing the “new normal.”

What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?

One really common mistake is not sufficiently or creatively promoting the show. In the “before times,” you could rely on foot traffic to draw people into music or comedy events. Now “foot traffic” has been replaced by endless social media feeds and countless emails. To capture attention, and charge for a show, you need to work hard to stand out and “beat the algorithm.” Simply creating an online event and sharing it a few times isn’t going to cut it.

Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?

Zoom. Hands down. Yes, it was built for corporations not entertainment. But their super high quality video supporting so many simultaneous individual feeds makes it the top choice for the shows and events I host (which sometimes have 100–200 attendees)

Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?

There are incredible tools out there to bring next-level engagement and polish to your event, but a lot of them are very expensive. I personally have found great success with the basics: Facebook, Zoom, Eventbrite — and Google Sheets for a buttoned-up Run of Show (ROS) document.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1) Treat it like it’s in person! If you were hosting an in-person meeting, you’d stand and be high-energy. You also wouldn’t (and couldn’t) turn off your video & sound. Don’t yearn for the in person format, but try to replicate it! 
Off Mic Comedy School had a graduation show for our Standup 101 course back in December. We had 100 people on, many of whom had not been to a virtual comedy show before. Rather than mute every person (someone was calling out to their husband to turn the stove off!), we just let a little messiness in. That made the whole thing feel natural — and was that much more powerful when the host, Jake Mattera, was able to grab everyone’s attention. In person, you have to earn it; make it the same way on Zoom!

2) Add visuals and audio! Music (live or recorded) during segments or before the meeting helps spice it up — and fun visuals or videos break up the monotony. You can also play a countdown video with a 5-minute clock counting down until the event starts. Back in May, when my counterparts, Sam Kap, Paul Reese and I did a virtual version of our popular sex education and comedy show, No Mo’ Sexual FOMO, we hired a DJ from a local venue, Warehouse on Watts. The DJ played during the intro when people were joining which gave it a “live show” feel and at a scheduled intermission when folks could go refresh drinks or take a bio break.

3) Interact with the audience. Don’t just say “How is everyone?” or “Surviving the pandemic?” Notice little things about the attendees and compliment them! And if you can throw in a tasteful roast, bonus points! Crowd work is underrated in person, and it’s even more underrated online. Just because we’re separated by screens instead of space doesn’t mean that people don’t want and crave the host to acknowledge them. Dan Vetrano teaches Crowd Work for Off Mic Comedy School, and the virtual course has been so popular, we’ve offered it four times.

4) Add an audience activity, such as trivia, in between speakers or presentations. Paul Reese and I recently coordinated and produced a corporate event for a local health IT group. We broke up the networking (in breakout groups) and main speaker with a fun interactive live trivia game through Crowdpurr. It only cost 50 dollars and was a memorable, interactive part of the event. Plus, we got to see how much about Philadelphia culture and history everyone knew!

5) Integrate some funny. A simple sketch or humorous meme can go a long way. I’m a comedian and a comedy show producer, so I’m biased towards laughter, but it is truly the universal way to connect with people. Even a “boring” corporate event can benefit from a few improv exercises or a short set from a comic. Many of the instructors from Off Mic Comedy School have lent their humor to corporate events of all sorts during the pandemic, and in many ways, that’s been so much more meaningful than performing to just an audience that’s expecting to have fun.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

Start with strategy, not execution. I know that sounds obvious, but I see so many people just say I want to do a virtual event. Just as with any event, you need to take a step back and formulate a strategy. Start by answering the same key questions you would for any big program you’re planning. What is the objective (raise awareness, raise money)? Who is the target audience (corporations, consumers, other performers)? What does success look like (large free audience, smaller paid audience)? The more you know about what you want to accomplish before you start planning, the better. And definitely don’t start with the tech setup. The tech setup enables your vision, not the other way around.

Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Therapy for all. Hands down. And not therapy as a reactive solution. Therapy as a proactive tool anyone can use: when struggling with work, when starting a new relationship, when moving to a new city. The list goes on and on. Therapy for all!

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

My dream is to take Off Mic Comedy School on Shark Tank and have Mr. Wonderful fund us. So, yes, Kevin O’Leary, if you’re reading, let’s have some dim sum and sake and chat about how Off Mic Comedy School can become the nation’s choice for comedy training.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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