Scott Vermeire is standing on a small stage in a button-down shirt and slacks. There’s a strange protrusion jutting out from the rim of his glasses. He introduces himself to the crowd as “Scott Vermeire, Founder and CEO of Thunderbolt Media located in the Mission District of San Francisco,” even though I know him as Scott Vermeire, a comedian and artist who hasn’t ever had an office job in his life. Behind him is a PowerPoint slide displaying a pair of Google Glasses. He begins pacing as he starts his presentation.
“Everybody knows that the future of technology is all about personalization, right?” Vermeire asks rhetorically. “What if you could take that personalized experience and transition it to your entire life experience?”
“There are some things in the Bay Area that nobody likes,” Vermeire says. “The sick.” He clicks, displaying a cluster of stock photos of people sneezing. “The homeless.” The PowerPoint presentation lands on a photo of a guy down on his luck. “And the elderly,” he says in conclusion, as the slide projects a photo of sweet old lady in a sweater.
The crowd bursts into intermittent howls of laughter as Vermeire goes on to deliver his product pitch for a Google Glass plug-in called “Blinder,” which promises to pixelate the wearer’s view of the “unsightly populations” mentioned above.
By the time I got home, I’d watched a grown man drop-kick a trash can, squirt an entire bottle of mustard in his face, and convulse on the floor. I observed a group of comics deliver a funeral service for a very-much-still-alive audience member. But what stuck with me more than any of these scenes were the PowerPoint presentations. So many PowerPoint presentations. A PowerPoint presentation on steak. A PowerPoint presentation on the top ten pharmaceutical brand mascots. A PowerPoint presentation on the Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime bear.
This was Friday night at The Talkies, an alternative comedy show at Oakland’s All Out Comedy Theater. But it could have been a management-skills convention on an alien planet or a version of time-space only slightly skewed from reality. Instead of wanting to blow my brains out due to the boredom of sitting through slide after slide, I was chuffed.
Welcome to the bizarre world of PowerPoint comedy.
The beloved and hated Microsoft Office application has become an unlikely medium for performers in cities across the country, and Oakland is no exception. Instead of performing a standard standup set consisting of 5-15 minutes of setups and punchlines, these comedians make use of PowerPoint slides gussied up with photos, bullet points, WordArt text effects, and fancy slide transitions to deliver presentations about anything and everything under the sun, from fictional product proposals to PowerPoints about PowerPoint.
Act to act, the degree to which the comedian adopts a character or persona on stage varies as much as it does with any performing art. But the thing that remains consistent across PowerPoint sets is that they get laughs big laughs. The why, as with most matters of art, is more complicated.
Vermeire, one of the producers of The Talkies, has an intense but handsome face, as if, by his own account, “Rob Delaney fucked a pug.” His appearance is macho, at least by Temescal District standards: closely buzzed hair and tribal tattoos poking out from beneath a camouflage T-shirt. It makes his affect, which is one of a high school drama teacher, all the more beguiling. Vermeire scarcely utters a word without hand gestures, and his words are carefully enunciated and projected, as if he’s trying to reach the back of the room at all times. He will often use it to say very silly things with straight-faced earnestness like “Punk started and ended with Smashmouth,” or “I look like a cop; that’s why nobody will hang out with me at reggae night.”
Talking to Vermeire, it’s unclear where the performance begins and ends, but you’re certain that you’re speaking to someone who has lived and breathed comedy for a long time. It’s for these reasons that I trust him completely as he opines about why the comedy community has embraced PowerPoint. He first began noticing this phenomenon in 2011, which he believes is both a symptom of and relief from late capitalism.
“Some people in cubical land in Silicon Valley have bullshit managers that demand their sincere attention for a PowerPoint presentation that they put together an hour before a meeting,” Vermeire said. “There are not a lot of environments where people successfully critique work culture that is actually funny and enjoyable to listen to.” PowerPoint comedy, he believes, is the perfect medium to exorcise some of the frustrations accumulated during a 40-hour workweek.
Over the past quarter century, PowerPoint has defined the way a generation learns and works. Created by Robert Gaskins and Dennis Austin at a Silicon Valley startup in 1987, it was originally intended to provide convenient visuals during business presentations. Today, PowerPoint is a fixture of virtually every facet of American life. Trials, Ted Talks, family reunions, middle school English projects, and even places of worship all make use of PowerPoint.
It’s ubiquity has been satirized by Saturday Night Live and analyzed by cultural critics. PowerPoint’s prominence was even a source of controversy within the U.S. military. In the early aughts, PowerPoint presentations became so annoyingly common in military briefings on the Iraq War that General H. R. McMaster went so far as to call the program an internal threat to U.S. security. “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” McMaster told The New York Times in 2010. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.” Defense personnel who end up at desks jobs instead of field positions are pejoratively dismissed as “PowerPoint Rangers.”
On the opposite end of the cultural spectrum, PowerPoint also has inspired high art. In 2005, David Byrne toured a theater piece titled I [Heart] PowerPoint, which he created to highlight the aspects of “Brechtian drama and Asian puppet theater” within the software program. That piece became a book. The book then spawned a modern art movement in Italy called “pptArt,” which aims to celebrate corporate art installations. It is perhaps not surprising then to learn that it is being used by comedians to crack absurdist jokes.
Some comics think that PowerPoint is the modern comedic prop, or a tool to lend a visual element to a performer’s words. While it certainly is those things, it also is more. This form of comedy cleverly sends up the very environments that PowerPoint was created to support — platitudinous sales pitches, stiff motivational speeches, awkward HR policy reviews — using PowerPoint. “One of the best ways to critique a system is to put on the skin of the thing that you’re trying to critique and perform as it,” Vermeire said about his act. “According to Joseph Campbell’s theory, you dress as your enemy.”
Even if the content of a PowerPoint comedy act doesn’t riff on professionalism and capitalism as directly as does Vermeire’s act, in building their sets around PowerPoint, comedians are automatically recreating the atmosphere that one associates with being mandated to watch somebody (usually a coworker or classmate, who very rarely are gifted orators) give a presentation.
Many comics have said that comedy is all about generating a strong emotion in the audience, and then relieving the tension that those feelings create by inviting the crowd to laugh. Sympathy, resentment, and awkwardness are all feelings that we experience when we watch people in our day-to-day lives deliver PowerPoint presentations. The genius of PowerPoint comedy is that it introduces the medium into environments where we are encouraged to express these genuine emotions (i.e. the bar, theater, or nightclub) rather than stifle them, as we typically do at work.
On whether the trend will ever go mainstream, Vermeire is not so sure. “Some alternative comedy things, like competitive improv rapping, end up on network TV,” he said. “But I can’t really see the stuff that we do at The Talkies going on TV.” Perhaps Netflix will bite. Talkies is every second Friday at All Out Comedy in Oakland.