Jessica Fostekew: ‘Online shows performing to just silence are the hardest'

The comedian and Motherland star on how she’s kept her comedy career afloat during the pandemic

“I hated the first few months of this,” says Jessica Fostekew of her experience of lockdown. “I’m a very gregarious person, I thrive off company, so I was bereft without my friends and my partner. It was just me and my four-year-old son [at home in London]. But since Stay Alert as opposed to Stay Home, I’ve been having a pretty good time of it actually. I’ve had lots to tick me over.”

The 37-year-old, who was born in Sheffield and grew up in Dorset, started doing standup in 2008. Her show Hench, which tackled femininity, body image and weightlifting with no-holds-barred frankness, was nominated for best show at Edinburgh last year. As an actor, she has starred in the BBC sitcoms Motherland and Cuckoo. Now, as well as doing drive-in and online shows during lockdown – she was a guest at the Covid Arms online comedy pub in May – Fostekew has been writing sitcom pilots and recording her food podcast, Hoovering, which she launched in 2018 (she also regularly co-hosts the hugely popular Guilty Feminist podcast).

How was 2020 shaping up for you before the pandemic hit?
I was slap-bang in the middle of a 90-day tour. I’d been at the Soho theatre for all of January, and I’m glad I managed to finish that, but I wasn’t able to go to Melbourne festival, which was gutting. The rest of the UK tour, or most of it, looks like it will be rescheduled for early next year.

When you heard about lockdown, did you think your career was finished?
There were moments. I had what I read as an incredibly passive-aggressive text message from a comedian saying: “Oh my God, what a terrible shame about the pandemic, because your career had just started to go really well, and now it’s done.” I was like, what?! But I just don’t think that’s how the world works.

Watch a clip of Jessica Fostekew on the BBC’s Live at the Apollo.

Were you open to the idea of doing comedy online?
I’ve got friends who said, categorically: “I’m not doing online gigs.” I was cagey about it too, but I’ve got used to it. The trick is not to do anything that was written to be performed live. The stuff I’ve been writing about the current situation, I’m happy to chuck that down the lens. There are people who are using the form in really interesting ways, and I’ve done some more interactive stuff than normal, but I don’t think this is a permanent solution.

What’s it like performing to a webcam?
I’ve done a few online shows where there was just silence – they’re the hardest. But then I did an hour for the NextUp festival and that was extraordinary. I was like: “Oh, I could do this.” I was worried about filling the hour, so I asked the audience various questions beforehand, and one of them was: “What’s the best animal you’ve ever had a ride on?” I could have filled the entire hour with people’s answers.

Does the word “atmosphere” apply to online comedy? Can you say that one online gig had a better atmosphere than another?
Absolutely. It will often be to do with the host and how it’s moderated – if someone’s heckling rude things, they can be booted out. There’s just a nice energy coming off people, though instead of background chat, you’re hearing people making their dog get off the sofa and clinking their cutlery. That is weird. There’s an intimacy to those gigs that you don’t have at a live gig because you’re in your home, and they’re in their homes, and you find that people reveal more about their lives that way.

If there’s less audience feedback online, do you finesse your material less?
Probably. The other thing that’s happening is, audiences are so grateful to have access to any comedy that they’re being too kind. As soon as comedians can gig again, we’ll be rushing to do it – though we’ll also all be terrified, because nobody takes months off. It’s muscle memory, and even if you have a week off, like after Edinburgh, then that first gig back is terrifying. I do wonder whether some comedians won’t go back. The really successful comedians might go: “God, this is quite nice actually, just doing telly work and writing.”

To what extent does online comedy keep you going financially, if at all?
It’s a real mixed bag. If you do an hour as part of an online festival that sells out and has hundreds of people watching, then that’s proper money. What’s worrying is that two of the venues I’d already done tour shows in have gone under completely, and I don’t know how many of the venues I’m meant to be rescheduling into are going to survive.

How are your fellow comics faring?
Those of us who are no longer dependent on live work are fine, and those who are more dependent on live work are having to diversify. I’ve got a friend who’s taken a job in a factory making ventilators and doing night shifts. The comedians who are actually employable in a proper job are having to think seriously about taking those proper jobs right now.

Has the pandemic been good for jokes?
I’ve been pleased that my relationship with my four-year-old has continued to be a goldmine throughout this – he thinks he can see coronavirus, so I’ve got loads out of that. But as a rule, no, I’m never one to use what politicians are doing, or the news in general, as a source for my stuff. I’m more inclined to look internally at my own life, and I think there needs to be a period of reflection and perspective before I can make jokes out of it.


Killian Fox

The GuardianTramp

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