With gig venues closed, where do you turn for your comedy fix? You can find the creme de la standup creme on Netflix – or so Netflix would have us believe. More and more specials are appearing on YouTube. But don’t forget NextUp, an online home for scores of comedy shows by acts bubbling under the Netflix level, which champions the “wonderful diversity” of an industry that isn’t, it claims, adequately reflected elsewhere.
You can take that with a pinch of salt while still celebrating the job NextUp does, preserving for posterity – and extending the audience for – scores of shows, of all shapes and sizes, by some fine acts. It’s certainly an invaluable resource for comedy completists. I have contrived to narrowly miss Aussie comic Laura Davis’s recent shows at the Edinburgh fringe; this week, I watched her performance at Easey Street Concert Hall in Melbourne on NextUp. It’s a more orthodox performance than her 2018 show Ghost Machine, which she delivered from under a spectral white sheet. But it still showcases a comedian with an engagingly offbeat dark humour.
On this evidence, you might call Davis a provocateur or contrarian, with her outre remarks about the overlooked appeal of small, weak men, or her routine about a sinister approach at a train station (“And that was when I realised that my rapist was a better feminist than me …”). But she’s less showy than that implies. Those gags aren’t just poking us with a stick; they’re making serious points about women’s lives, albeit in twisted ways. Davis isn’t one to sugar pills. She speaks frankly about her experience of depression early in the set, and while this isn’t a downbeat hour, with its spoof observational gags about maple syrup and a trusty routine about the social indignity of ultrasound scans, there’s a sense that any cheerfulness is hard-won.
There’s also a routine on anti-vaxxing that prefigures in interesting ways Hannah Gadsby’s more recent riff on the same topic. Nothing on anti-vaxxing in fellow Aussie Bec Hill’s 2019 show, also on NextUp – but that’s about the only wrong she isn’t putting to rights in I’ll Be Bec, an uncharacteristically trenchant hour from an act better known for lo-fi animations and whimsical shows. (This week, she was announced as the presenter of a new children’s craft series on ITV.)
I’ll Be Bec begins with a few of those noodly, doodly palate-cleansers: one imagining the X-Men movies of the future, another transliterating the Lord’s Prayer. (“Butt deliveries from Evel”, etc) They’re likable enough, even if these opening 15 minutes lean too heavily on shambling DIY charm, and Hill’s crowd work is weak. (“As you can tell, I’m not an improviser.”) The meat of the show comes when our time-travelling host is interrupted by a visitation from her future self. Or selves – a third, decapitated version of Hill, from a parallel time-stream, also makes an appearance.
It’s quite the technical feat to have all three in dialogue with one another, and it’s orchestrated with a few neat trompe-l’oeils. But this section is also marked by a serious diminution of humour, as Hill-from-the-future starts monologuing about democracy, capitalism and the encroaching dystopia. It’s an ambitious undertaking – it couldn’t be more Edinburgh fringe (where it was filmed) if it tried – and Hill ties it up nicely with reference to a well-worn time-travelling trope. But it does not wear its politics lightly.
Throughout July, the NextUp Comedy festival – designed for the lockdown era – promises 31 intimate shows, broadcast via Zoom, in 31 days. Some cracking acts will participate, including Josie Long, Tim Key and reigning Edinburgh Comedy award champ Jordan Brookes. I tuned into Eshaan Akbar’s gig, an adaptation of his 2019 show Infidel-ity. You’d think he’d been performing on Zoom his whole life, so capably does Akbar inveigle a scripted standup show into the context of a cacophonous video conference. As a host, he’s cheerful, responsive – and occasionally invisible, as his image tapers and disappears against a digital backdrop. Not that this fazes his audience, who – when not interjecting with jokes of their own – seemed quite delighted with Akbar’s tales of romantic and sexual failure.
That’s the matter of Infidel-ity, which contrasts western and Asian dating and marriage cultures, laments Akbar’s non-existent sex education – and wonders aloud why our host is still unmarried at 35. Is it because his mum’s oppressive love for her first-born raised the bar too high for the women who followed? The romantic misadventures of this hapless schmuck are familiar territory for comedy, and if the jokes are low-wattage, the stories can’t fail to entertain. There’ll be more creative shows in NextUp’s festival, but few will slip down more easily.
The NextUp Comedy festival runs until 31 July.