Rosalyn Marhatta has been enduring the Coronavirus lockdown while cooped up in her Greensboro, N.C., home with her sister Marsha Harris since March 17. The two septuagenarians had been active patrons of their local senior center, taking part in its diverse array of classes and activities before the pandemic forced it to close.
The lack of social interaction that befell them, along with the constant barrage of bad news on television, was starting to wear the pair down. But thanks to a new pro bono initiative called Comedians on Call (COC) that enlists comedians nationwide in leading humorous phone calls for seniors in order to cheer them up, Marhatta notes that their spirits are lifting as they engage in regular chats with the funny phoners.
“I like that it takes my mind off being home all the time. It’s humorous and you talk to people and make jokes with them,” says the 74-year-old Marhatta. “I write poetry and they used to be funny before Covid, so it’s a good way to think in a funny way again. I laugh, which cheers me up and I can relax more. They say ‘laughter’s the best medicine’, and it really helps.”
Marhatta was hooked up with COC after the Shepherd’s Center of Greensboro emailed her about the opportunity and she signed up. As a result, she and Harris are provided a conference call number to dial into and find themselves teamed with up to two other seniors and a professional comedian or two, who crack a few jokes or tell a funny story before leading a lighthearted conversation among the group.
The idea for COC sprang from two women in Brooklyn, 34-year-old Samantha Brody and 37-year-old Bipasha Mookherjee, who read The Skimm newsletter noting that 50% of the seniors receiving wellness check-ins from a local senior service organization said they wanted to hear a joke. The dynamic duo reached out to the organization and friends in the city’s comedy scene and designed a way to provide that much-needed laughter.
“When coronavirus hit, there was a lot of stress and social isolation that people were feeling, with the older generation hit the hardest,” says Brody, an entrepreneur who co-founded Ella & Oak, a DTC bridal boutique for plus-size women. “We learned specifically for older adults, all these organizations were focused on serious important stuff like providing groceries and rides but they were missing any lightheartedness in their lives, so we pitched in with this.”
“We then reached out to comedians who wanted to give back and were facing their own challenges of having shows canceled and jobs shut down, with lots of free time on their hands, so this helped them as well,” adds Brody.
Within a month of its April start, COC had recruited nearly 100 comics to lead calls, and that number has continued to grow rapidly via word of mouth and comedian message boards online. The jokesters serve about 500 seniors so far, during twice-weekly phone calls that take place at 8 pm ET on Tuesdays and Thursdays for 20 to 40 minutes, with the comics and their senior audience members rotating in about once every two weeks.
“This is a new format, because comedy relies on social cues, so some are relational calls with people just having a fun conversation, and some are primarily comedy calls,” says Mookherjee, a freelance creative director for several New York advertising agencies. “The focus is on isolated adults who don’t have a lot of resources. Our goal is to bring laughter and community to anyone. Many older adults don’t have Zoom, and may not have cable or streaming services. Being able to provide this for free is vital.”
One key volunteer in COC is Rose Sneeringer, a retired sixth-grade teacher in New York City who read about the program in an email from The Skimm. She makes “care calls” to pre-registered participants to confirm the day and time of their phone call and answer questions about how it works, including providing the dial-in number.
“I look forward to talking with people from all over our country and Canada, and most seniors have been so grateful to connect with others even when they themselves are facing difficulties,” says Sneeringer. “I am edified by their willing spirit and their positive outlook. Many look forward to their comedy phone dates and one lovely lady from the Midwest told me that she was, “Infected with laughter!” A timely comment, don’t you think?”
One comedian who’s been involved in the calls is star standup Myq Kaplan, who has appeared on the Letterman, Conan, James Corden and Seth Meyers shows. He has long donated his time and talent to in-person charitable fundraisers, and notes that leading a COC call is similar to “a loose, intimate comedy show that doesn’t have a lot of audience members at it.”
“I might have some material prepared, but I might prefer to be more present in the moment and address the folks there directly, have a conversation and let the comedy arise out of that,” says Kaplan, who notes he was already getting practice joking with seniors via daily phone calls with his mother amid the pandemic. “Whenever we have the capacity to help anyone, it seems like a valuable thing to do, and I understand that during these times, there are a lot of folks who might be or feel isolated, and since my job is generally to communicate with people for a living, for my own benefit and theirs, it seems like a great fit.”
Another comic involved in leading calls is Jackie Loeb, a Los Angeles-based émigré from the Australian comedy scene who finds COC to be “a blessing for comics to exercise their skills amid the lockdown.” She has found some notable differences between live stage shows and creating laughter over phone lines.
“It’s always challenging to be very funny via phone, so it’s been a challenge for me to strip away superfluous stuff,” says Loeb, who drew inspiration from memories of how her mother’s participation in a pen pal program uplifted her life.
“Sometimes people just want to hear a bunch of jokes instead of a funny story of mine, so I Google 20 or 30 jokes and do quality control picking some to tell, then make comments between.
“It goes against everything we do as a comic since we write our own material, but you give them what they want,” she adds. “I just want to make people feel a connection for however long a call is. I think at the end of the day it’s about people not being lonely and having companionship for that call.”
Aside from feeling happier at the end of each call, the chance to have personal attention from a TV-caliber comic also makes Marsha Harris feel like she’s getting a VIP experience. And that enables her to end what might be a boring or rough day of isolation with the glow of feeling both happy and special.
“The first comedian I talked to was actually on a television show and when I went to bed, I thought ‘Wow I talked to a TV star. It made me feel special,” says Harris. “They make you feel good and that’s what we need now, to feel good, and it’s not an easy thing to feel anymore. It makes you happy when you hang up the phone and that’s not easy anymore. The more they talk, the better we feel. The worse it gets, the more we need them.”
To sign up to be part of Comedians On Call, visit www.comediansoncall.org.