In the run up to the EU referendum, comedian Alistair Green spent a lot of time hanging around outside parliament. It was the perfect place, he says, to meet “funny people”. One such day, he witnessed a squabble between two men: one with an UKIP umbrella and the other wearing a Bollocks to Brexit hat.
“The UKIP guy was just trying to pick a [fight], saying, ‘Now what you’ve got there on your hat, that is a swear word… that is why you resort to the wrong tactics, you’re trying to no-platform me,’” he recalls, treating me to a mini-sketch performance. Green went home and repeated the conversation “pretty much verbatim” in one of his first videos. It did alright, he says, but was the moment he “first realised I could do that Bob Newhart thing of an implied conversation where the audience has to fill in the gap”. Like obnoxious characters and a sarcastic pushing of the tongue to the roof of the mouth, this style would become his trademark. “Or a not-wanky way of saying that,” he adds.
Since then, Green’s popularity has soared, with the comedian making a name for himself with his one-man online sketches. His characters often have a political edge, but are all excruciatingly recognisable. “I’m trying to create a scene or a moment that’s a little bit of England,” he says. Along the way he’s dabbled in the odd Edinburgh Fringe live show and appeared on programmes such as Stath Lets Flats, but social media is his platform of choice.
Some videos come in direct reference to breaking news. There was a parody of Matt Hancock’s Good Morning Britain interview, in which Green refuses to confirm what day of the week it is and answers yes/no questions with the word “glad”, which gained nearly 55,000 likes. But many are broader: anti-mask protestors or WhatsApp conspiracy theorists. The political sketches are rarely his favourite, Green admits, but “if you take on a politician, you’ll almost certainly do quite well”.
Having produced two or three videos a week for years now, Green has amassed enough material to stitch together a film out of them. Pre-Covid, he did just that, streaming the project at London’s Prince Charles Cinema. Philomena Cunk actor Diane Morgan served as an usher. “I didn’t ask her to, but she turned up in a little velvet coat and a bow tie,” says Green with a laugh. “I’m still not entirely sure why but I was very grateful.”
It must be bizarre, I say, putting videos made specifically for the internet in front of a live audience. He agrees. “I was very apprehensive about that first film. I was like, ‘This is going to be a disaster.’ It went really well but I just couldn’t believe it. Like when one of the videos started, people would cheer because they recognised it – and this was when I wasn’t that big on social media so I was really, really pleased.”
Twitter and Instagram are the main home of Green’s videos, but he’s been experimenting recently with an endlessly fascinating new platform: Cameo. While the website, in which users can buy personalised videos from a host of celebrities and artists, is predominantly populated by former Love Island contestants, it’s also become a showcase for comedians, too. Green is one of the best, averaging a perfect five-star rating and producing bang-for-your-buck videos stretching up to eight minutes long.
When the idea of Cameo was initially floated to Green, he dismissed it. “I thought, ‘No, it’s for Lindsay Lohan and actors from Saved by the Bell, I can’t do that,’” he says. It was the artist Mr Bingo who convinced him to get involved. “We’ve had a lot of chats about how you can have as much autonomy over what you do as possible and then it hit me that Cameo is total autonomy. You’re your own editor, director, writer – all you get is the request.” Some of the requests are “mad”, he says, but he enjoys making them.
Autonomy is clearly important to Green. Social media, for all its pitfalls, gives artists “absolute control” over their work, which can make the old system of TV and film networks deciding what gets commissioned feel unpalatable.
“The one thing I have learnt from all this is that if there’s a way to do it yourself, do it yourself,” he says. “A single idea can be with a producer for like a year or 18 months, [when] in that time you can start a Kickstarter and make it. If the film has to be 90 minutes, make one that’s 70 minutes or an hour, who cares? If you’ve got an idea, rip up the rule book.”