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‘I’ve had a lot of DMs about selling feet pics’: Lockdown life as a comedian

Rebecca Shortall was a comedian before lockdown. She still is, but 2020 hasn't made it easy.

Are we signing off on the phrase ‘Before Times’? How about pre-pandem? I’ve heard ‘pandemy’ thrown around. Irrespective of the litany of phrases that conjure up a pre-highly-contagious virus utopia, I used to be a comedian. Which is to say, I used to get up in very small, windowless, dark rooms and talk at a bunch of people packed within coughing distance. Sometimes for money! 

Now, I have made the brave decision to move in with my parents and spend the majority of my day on LinkedIn, job hunting for something with a not-being-in-public-spaces requisite.

I could flirt with the idea of unpacking an increasingly confusing tier system and travel for prospective gigs, but don’t hold much hope. Are we up to four tiers now? Five? And what do they mean? Boris Johnson’s descriptions of said tiers have a World War II verbiage to them, where the main takeaway is to keep calm and overcome but really I would just like to get my haircut.

By the looks of it, performing options are limited to a library or leisure centre in Tier 1, so that’s Cornwall, the Scilly Isles or the Isle of Wight. I don’t think I would do well in the Isle of Wight. I died on my ass in Twickenham once. That was enough for me to know my speed.

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Plus I can’t drive; I’m gay. I told my mum this and she said I can’t ride a bike either and, from her understanding, gay people ride bikes. She saw Graham Norton ride a bike once. I responded that this made me bi and it is the only non-fart joke she has ever laughed at from me. Sexuality is a spectrum and I don’t play well in the Isle of Wight. 

Pre-lockdown, you’d be safe to assume venues would be spacing audience members out and erecting plastic screens, like watching stand-up at a self-checkout. But for whatever reason, brightly-lit rooms and an abundance of personal space are not conducive to provoking loud, unrestrained laughter. My personal theory is that people find the act of laughing to be embarrassing; the lack of light that comes with a black-box theatre or the basement of a pub provides an element of anonymity that allows people to let go, safe in the knowledge that those around them can’t see their faces gurning with glee. A low ceiling is an added bonus.

So I end up wishing I could be more online. I am equal measures amazed and jealous of comedians who have been able to adapt to online Zoom shows. I have trouble submitting to the mortifying ordeal of shouting at my laptop while my parents are within earshot. I find it embarrassing enough when one of them catches me doing an at-home workout, let alone the hypothetical situation of them finding me delivering a “Hey guys welcome back to my channel” spiel. That and I am always hunched over at weird angles to make sure there’s no visible double chin.

I spent the 2020 Pride celebrations in lockdown making my parents applaud me when I entered rooms

It’s a weird distinction to draw, the abject horror of delivering lines alone to camera, because I did monologue to a microphone back when stage time was a thing. A camera shouldn’t be all that different to assimilate to but talking to a camera by myself does not come naturally. It’s very difficult and those who succeed in that realm are talented in a way I envy. I will never be Zoella. Put that on my tombstone.

Is Zoella not a thing now? Replace that with whoever is currently making the most money from their bedroom with a camera. Not to make an allusion to OnlyFans but, come to think of it, I have had a lot of DMs about selling feet pics. My mum is weirdly supportive of this. I think she’s just happy I haven’t inherited my dad’s bunions. Knock on wood! I don’t want to invite big bunion energy into my life.

This is not to say that I’ve made no attempts at online stardom. I have, in a moment of quarantine madness, bought a Marge Simpson wig for the purpose of making TikToks. My big idea was ‘Marge Antionette’, where I would put on the wig and croak out phrases attributed to Marie Antionette in a Marge Simpson voice. I do not do a very good Marge Simpson impression. Nonetheless, consider this my submission of a patent for the idea which is a definite goldmine. Nobody steal it.

My other issue with online performance is I’d gotten used to the instant audience feedback. An offhand joke I like to make is that I got into comedy for attention. It started with improv comedy before transitioning to stand-up, which means my personality rests at the nightmarish intersection of theatre kid and narcissist. So I am very much missing the high highs of on stage comedy and the low lows of dying on my ass. This is a me problem that is indicative of my whole ‘vibe’. 

An example: I spent the 2020 Pride celebrations in lockdown making my parents applaud me when I entered rooms. To her credit, my mum did hand me a pride-themed, rainbow-branded tub of vaseline (in this house, we stan the commodification of gay rights). As she passed it over she smiled at me and said “gay!” by way of explanation. But later that evening she said one of my jackets was “too lesbian”, so, swings and roundabouts, Ingrid. 

Much like Rudy Giuliani, my lawyer abilities would probably extend to performing lines from My Cousin Vinny, with gusto.

A fun aspect of not being able to actively ‘pursue my passion’ or whatever you want to call it, is learning that my mum loves telling me I should be a lawyer. The suggestions have become more frequent since lockdown. She’s possibly been spurred on by the Government shitshow suggesting a ballerina called Fatima should have a career “in cyber”. Remember that? I have crowdsourced this among friends and aggregated the results: turns out a lot of aspirational parents think their creative children could pivot to lawyer with little to no effort. 

Being argumentative and performative would be perfect for the courtroom, apparently. I occasionally fantasise about this and often come to the conclusion that I don’t actually want to be a lawyer but would love to play one on TV. Much like Rudy Giuliani, my lawyer abilities would probably extend to performing lines from My Cousin Vinny, with gusto.

She also suggests I become a teacher, but teenagers make me anxious to the point where I start sweating when I walk past H&M. Anytime I hear teenagers laughing I assume it’s about me and it’s impossible to teach when I want all the teens to think I am cool. Suffice to say, my talents are limited to writing and performing and even then, that’s up for debate. 

Now I may be way off the mark here, but lawyer seems like a very ambitious and time-consuming career pivot. My monologue would probably be lifted from the climax of Legally Blonde as long as the case relied on extensive knowledge of perm after care. 

I’m determined to adapt to online comedy. I also bought a suit to dress up as a giant banana. My room will become a Moira-from-Schitt’s-Creek wig cave before long, then I’ll get tipsy and rid myself of my inhibitions so I can talk to a camera without any feedback.

I do maintain the Marge Simpson wig TikTok idea has legs. Maybe I will announce I am suddenly a lawyer. My next career could be in the courtroom but, like Fatima, I just don’t know it yet.