It’s my brother who tells us that The Bike Project’s Jokes and Spokes annual charity comedy night is streaming live. Like many others, our family is spread out around the country and, with Scotland, England and Wales all following different lockdown timetables, who knows how long it’ll be before we can see each other again? So he suggests we ‘attend’ this event together, and we (and my parents) are more than happy to comply.
We know it’s bound to a be a little odd. Stand ups need their live audiences more than other performers (theatre link-ups aren’t as good as the real thing, but they can still be wonderful); as an audience member, I need the buzz of shared laughter too, the sense of complicity that comes from sitting in a darkened room, ideally being challenged and surprised. But still. That’s not available, and we all have to adapt.
And The Bike Project is a very worthwhile cause: all money raised goes towards refurbishing old bicycles and giving them to refugees. I love this: ethical, environmental, achievable and genuinely useful.
Jen Brister compères, and she’s good at it: briskly funny, with a warm and generous manner. She puts us at our ease, and we settle in.
It’s a bit of a mixed bag, quality wise. To be fair, not only are the comedians dealing with an unfriendly format, they’re also out of practice, and haven’t had much chance to hone their work.
Still, Suzi Ruffell gets us off to a good start. She’s so twinkly and charming, it almost doesn’t matter if she’s telling jokes or not, but she is, and they’re funny – so that’s good. True, we’ve all seem some of this material before, but that’s inevitable to some extent, and there’s new stuff in there too.
I’m a little disappointed with Andy Zaltzman – whose comedy I usually like – because he’s reading from a script, so there’s no eye contact at all. Also, he reads so quickly that I miss a lot of it. If we were in the same room, he’d be able to gauge that better, I guess, and slow himself down. I can’t really review the content, because I didn’t catch it. A real shame.
Next up is Evelyn Mok. I haven’t seen her before and I want to cut her some slack because lockdown is hard on all of us, and I know she’s appearing for free (like all the comics here). But she doesn’t seem to have any material at all, not even a basic bit of WIP, and she’s just chatting to the ‘front row’ audience members who are visible on our screens. ‘This is like being at somebody else’s family get together,’ my brother messages our group. There are some rare raconteurs who can just shoot the breeze and keep us entertained. But Evelyn Mok doesn’t do it for me tonight. If I get the chance to see her live, I’ll take it; I’d like to know what she’s like in a more natural environment.
Although I’ve never seen Athena Kugblenu, I’m primed to like her because I listen to The Guilty Feminist and I know her well from that. She doesn’t disappoint. Yes, it’s a low energy performance, but she’s cheery and engaged, and she makes us laugh. Oddly, it’s her stuff about how difficult it is to do comedy online that really hits the mark. It’s a relief to mock the elephant in the Zoom.
We’re all big fans of Richard Herring in our family, and he’s his usual cheeky, ramshackle self. But, although he’s set himself the laudable challenge of not performing any of his pre-lockdown material again, we’ve still all heard this set before. It’s not his fault, though, that we listen to all of his podcasts and read his blog; we’re bound to encounter his ideas along the way. Things pick up when he introduces his ventriloquist dummy, Ally, and embarks on a ridiculous improvisation.
Kemah Bob gives us the most honed performance of the night. She seems very comfortable performing online, and she establishes an easy intimacy. This is clearly well practised material, but it’s new to us, and we’re laughing out loud most of the time.
Last but not least is headliner Frankie Boyle. He’s great: his tone is very natural, and he’s as acerbic and cantankerous as you’d expect. This is classic Frankie, albeit with the invective dialled down a notch.
The show ends and our group call begins. It’s been great, we all agree: three households ‘meeting’ remotely to share an experience. Not as good, nowhere near as good, as going out together would be. But a fair compromise in a compromised world. And charitable to boot.