Cheese, Sex and Self-isolation Party
wrote this week, “than a comedian performing to silence.” He was referring to Friday’s no-audience version of Graham Norton’s chat show, but the words apply equally to my Saturday night’s entertainment, watching Anna Mann’s Cheese, Sex and Self-Isolation Party live-streaming on the standup platform NextUpComedy. I already knew NextUp as an online home for fine standup specials from acts who are below the radar of, say, Netflix. On Saturday night, I turned to its bespoke live stream to help with the withdrawal symptoms I’m experiencing as a man whose Saturdays are usually spent up close and personal with live comedy.here is no eerier sight,” my fellow comedy critic Bruce Dessau
The host is Colin Hoult’s luvvie alter ego Anna Mann, spinning superannuated theatrical anecdotes to a webcam. The format consists of an unvarying close-up on Hoult’s face, a houseplant in the background, and our hostess wittering on – to silence, of course. It’s like a Skype chat crossed with a charity telethon: Hoult is obliged to make repeated requests for “tips” from his viewers. It’s good news, of course, that NextUp is generating its own content and that 50% of the revenue is shared with comedians – particularly now there is little work for comics elsewhere. But for the first 20 minutes, this is less than riveting viewing. “This isn’t just me doing this for an hour and a half,” says Anna at one point. “Although it is mainly that…”
My first thought was that this is a show for those who, even by lockdown-era standards, have a lot of time on their hands. Hoult is a funny man who stays in his funny alter ego character, unfazed, across a (too) wide span of airtime. But comedically, Mann’s part-improvised, part-scripted (I assume) monologue is low-wattage, as she recounts stealing sandwiches from Frances de la Tour and a contretemps with Ian McKellen. Alongside that, there is much to-and-fro with commenters below the line, whose input seldom elevates the amount of wit on display.
As well as the money-making imperative, this audience interaction is presumably there to defray Dessau’s deafening silence: if you can’t hear them laugh, at least – by talking with them – you can remind yourself, and anyone looking on, that there is an audience there. But I was relieved when Mann finally introduced her first of three guests, Rob Carter’s spoof novelist Christopher Bliss. Webcamming from his home, Bliss reads us a ghost story excerpt and an erotic vignette, each delivered with his trademark mix of self-delight and inelegant prose.
The energy spikes. Carter – and the later guests, magician Pete Heat and comic Olga Koch – have seemingly made the policy decision to bring with them their own portion of good cheer. Carter is pert and playful. Heat, “Margar-easter” cocktail in hand, is all tipsy smiles (“Blinken nora,” run the comments, “magic man’s off his tree!”). Koch laughs uproariously – and endearingly – from the beginning of her section to the end.
I didn’t laugh quite as much myself: Koch was trying some new material that involved excavating a drawer in her house full of ex-relationship keepsakes. It was a strong idea (below the line: “this is turning into an Edinburgh show”) but underdeveloped, and evidently more thrilling to its creator than the audience. Pete Heat’s magic was more effective, even if gremlins, or Hoult’s tech confusion, diminished one set-piece flourish. But the guests brought variety and dynamism to a format that felt claustrophobic and, yes, eerily quiet without them. There are the makings here of a sparky online variety show, but judging by this week’s edition, it’s not there yet.
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