“What is this? What are we doing?” Jen Brister is going off on one. “This is our career now!” Maybe while performing in a new Zoom cabaret isn’t the right moment to let off steam about the disappointments of Zoom comedy. But it’s the best moment in the show. In live comedy, you’ve got to address the elephant in the room, right? Well the elephant in this and every other Zoom room is that live standup – anthropologically weird at the best of times – is even weirder via video conferencing.
NextUp Comedy’s The Virt Locker can’t solve that, but it might distract you for a while, and does so here, with Brister’s winningly grumpy set and a lovable opener from Sarah Keyworth. The effort is made to replicate in-person live comedy: the audience is asked to keep cameras on, and unmute if – unobtrusively – possible. So we hear laughter, and the acts can banter with their crowd – as Brister does about the rapper Flavor Fav, and Keyworth (via the chat facility) about odd things driving instructors say.
Keyworth proves a Zoom comedy natural: her set, about being mistaken for a boy and recently moving house, is performed at close quarters like a confidential chat. It’s even proof against buffering: “Sarah Keyworth’s network bandwidth,” my laptop tells me, “is low.” Sunil Patel followed, with a droll if un-dynamic set, whose highlights mock white people for their tricky year and explain why Patel refuses to learn Hindi.
In real-world comedy, lack of dynamism may be a lesser issue. The audience-performer relationship is unmediated. There are fewer distractions and nowhere else to go. On Zoom, you’ve got to work harder to compel attention. For me, Sukh Ojla’s jokes about fancying Scottish people or about outdoor hookups under lockdown (less jokes, more excuses to use words like “blowy” and “hand shandies”) weren’t quite strong enough. MC Pope Lonergan had more joy, his outrageous material about drug addiction and “washing old knobs” (he works in care homes) matched by a rambunctious delivery. But Brister was the star, her teed-off set nailing the exasperation of life under yet another lockdown – and of comedy confined to a laptop screen.
The Virt Locker is available online on Thursdays.