Can live comedy ever succeed under lockdown? A comedian’s perfect set grows out of the months they’ve spent listening to the reactions at previous gigs, fine-tuning pauses and rewriting jokes in response to the crowd. Isolation has made this crucial back-and-forth impossible.
None of the online options seems to work: solo shows feel like a lonely uphill struggle; group chats give the unwelcoming impression of eavesdropping on someone else’s video-call, with time-lag ruining the repartee. The more lockdown comedy I watch, the more I miss the real thing.
The ongoing Upload Comedy Festival has been a case in point: even the most tech-savvy comics have been struggling valiantly against the limitations of apps not designed for comedy or performance. Comedy computer-programmer Mat Ewins invited viewers to join his Zoom call and play a karaoke-style game he had built, using the pitch of their voices to guide their avatars left and right, dodging obstacles. An ingenious idea – but Zoom is confused by singing, and cuts off your microphone at high frequencies. Drat.
And yet, two shows from this festival found ways to make the most of the current restrictions. Rather than seeing Zoom as a stand-in for a comedy club, Dutch comedian Micky Overman treated the video-call platform as a medium in its own right, with its own possibilities, in her uneven but jaunty and inventive sketch show Friday Night Live(Stream).
Did you know that you can swap your background on the app to a pre-recorded video? I didn’t. In a clever, disorientating sight-gag, the comic welcomed us from her sofa, insisting that the whole show would be broadcast live – before wandering into the foreground, in front of herself, to explain that this bit is live, and that bit was pre-recorded. And then doing it again, and again, until the screen was crowded with Overmans, each claiming to be the real one.
Another amusing skit offered a simultaneous send-up of Saturday Night Live and Gogglebox, cutting back-and-forth between Overman performing a stand-up routine “on TV” in front of a SNL backdrop, and her watching it on the sofa with her boyfriend (deadpan comedian Patrick Spicer), who is thoroughly unimpressed at the artifice of it all. “OK, so… you’ve edited in the laughter?” he asked, brow furrowed.
The recurring joke was that this “live-stream” was anything but live, which allowed for impressive technical jiggery-pokery, but also meant it was suddenly competing against every other pre-recorded bit of comedy on the internet: why set aside an evening and buy a ticket to watch this live, when there’s so much else out there?
Jordan Brookes’s show POV offered zero technical knowhow – the whole thing was broadcast in portrait-orientation, a rookie’s error likely to annoy anyone watching from a laptop – but made up for it with warmth, charm and a sense of living in the moment.
Brookes’s recent comedy style has been a mix of (intentionally) awkward time-killing and wild-eyed existential dread. As we sit at home twiddling our thumbs through a global pandemic, it couldn’t be more relatable.
But POV offered a different Brookes: less confrontational, gentler and more vulnerable. Rather than straining for laughs, he put the emphasis on intimate storytelling, sharing melancholy, bittersweet anecdotes about his family (in between balancing a boomerang on his head, simply to prove that he could).
Last year, Brookes won the world’s most prestigious live comedy prize – the Edinburgh Comedy Award – and mentioned that he’s spent the prize-money on “an almost toxic amount of self-care”: therapy to deal with his anxiety, OCD and depression, visits to an osteopath and dermatologist. He mentioned that he is considering quitting stand-up for good. With the world of live comedy currently stuck in limbo, I can hardly blame him. But it would be a terrible shame.