Step into the basement of the Komedia Club in Brighton's ultra-cool North Laines, and you enter a comedy free-for-all zone. Anything goes here: weird and wacky acts from all over the world use the club to showcase new ideas, old jokes and sometimes just plain rubbish.
Buy a drink, sit down and you might notice a distinct but subtle aroma seeping into the room - it's the smell of fear oozing from tonight's young comedians.
Niall MacAnna, MSN special events producer and an ex-comedy writer and former stand-up artist himself, said Komedia has a national reputation as a place where 'real' alternative comedy can still be heard.
That's why its regular Thursday night slot, Smartbomb, was chosen as the test site for the world's first live online comedy gig, facilitated by MSN and Brighton production outfit, Festival Radio.
The test shows, which have been running since April, were also wired up to take audio, visual and email feedback. That's right; another world's first: vicious, intelligent, remote-controlled heckling, with email being the perfect medium, of course, for cutting remarks.
Although the experiment has been put on hold for the time being, much bigger plans are on the horizon, with MSN intending to launch a new comedy portal, which will incorporate Komedia and Smartbomb material, before the end of the year.
However, visitors to www.totallycomedy.co.uk or www.totallybrighton.com/comedy can still click through the archives to see what went on. There are three funsters per gig and each is compered by alternative comedy veteran, Graham Duff aka Mancunian wit Moz Side.
And in the last few weeks, more laughmeisters (also helped by MSN) have taken up the challenge of making the UK's mouse potatoes laugh. The wonderfully named www.hahabonk.co.uk has arty, humorous and sometimes very rude animations, mp3 audio and live comedy.
Both sites present their live action in a small box that appears on the computer screen, and a 56k modem should provide users with reasonable video and acceptable sound.
But is there a future for online comedy? The answer is that no one seems to know just yet. For starters, there are all sorts of technical shortcomings - as I soon found out.
Live and direct
I clicked on to Smartbomb and found the viewing window tiny, with smudgy figures jerking about onstage. But hang on; don't they do that in the flesh? Windows Media Player was responsible for providing sound and vision, and only offered, at best, the quality levels associated with medium wave BBC Radio.
But I soon got into the novelty of it and began to enjoy myself. Not for too long though - it cost me the same as a local phone call.
Dan Nathan, managing director of Sony award-winning Festival Radio in Brighton, said: "This could mean a new golden age for radio. The web adds an enormous global dimension to the technology. It won't replace mainstream channels - it's kind of like punk radio, or garage TV."
Next I checked out the www.hahabonk.co.uk live webcast from the Bread and Roses pub in Clapham, South London. I didn't have much fun this time, however. It took me three hours to download RealPlayer (I had to do it twice) and when I finally managed to lurch online, the picture that appeared was of an even worse quality than Smartbomb's. To make matters worse, two ghostly figures appeared, announcing the end of the evening and fled the stage. I'd missed the whole thing.
So why sit at home in front of a PC monitor when you could be necking back beers, leering at the comics and cringing at the hecklers? Back in the basement of the Komedia in Brighton, I searched for the answer.
Mary McMillan Sloan, a Brighton-based comedy writer, performer, journalist and Komedia regular, said: "You need to be here to feel the atmosphere. I can't see how the pleasure and pain of comedy can be squeezed down a webcam into a modem, then teased back out into a normal person's front room. Performers need feedback. You just can't get that online."
The shape of things to come
But it's more complicated than that, claims Nigel Pitman, who is also working on plans to put laughs online at the pivotal London comedy venue, Jongleurs. "This is just a beginning, like in Britain in the 1930s when families would crowd round a tiny four-inch TV screen and thrill to it!"
And he says viewers should make allowances for hardware shortcomings. Technology such as asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) and broadband will soon mean better images, smoother sound and more interaction.
"There's also that Friday night feeling," said Pitman. "They'll hopefully go for it in the same way as late night football or Eurotrash - laziness, lack of money and being at home where all the really comfy chairs are! Look how comedy moved from music halls to radio, then to TV. I think the next move is inevitably to the web."
But what about providing the performers with feedback - how can that be done? At the pioneering Smartbomb gigs in Brighton, emails were read out to the acts. And according to MSN's MacAnna it worked. "There was a whole new class of email heckler - it was succinct, to the point, and devastating in parts," he claimed.
He firmly believes that live online comedy is here to stay and as a result, MSN has big plans. "We're scaling it up, from what we learned from doing Komedia!" he says.
The aim is to launch the world's first dedicated comedy portal by 21 September -dubbed 'chortal' by MacAnna. MSN has already signed up a select group of the best live venues from all over the UK, including Jongleurs and HaHaBonk, and plans to webcast various shows from the Edinburgh Festival.
Acts will do quickfire five-minute spots in the style of The Fast Show because, McAnna says, the idea is to catch punters before they can click away. A dedicated backbone of 130 servers will be put in place to try to ensure quality audio and video, and pubs with cable will be lined up to show the feed, too.
There will also be an archive, the opportunity to buy favourite shows online, and crucially, a unique searchable encyclopedia of comedy, currently being built by ComedystarUK, which was created by ex-BBC Radio comedy writers.
If the idea takes off, MSN plans to webcast some of the best comedy from all over the world. After I spoke to MacAnna, he was off to New York to collect an award for MSN's recent webcasts of performances by Paul McCartney and Oasis.
"I'm also planning to go to this really off-the-wall comedy club run by an outrageous black comedian - just the sort of place we could do a webcast from," he said.
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