Seann Walsh has had a haircut. “You look like Roger Daltrey after a car crash,” says Jimmy Carr, thoughtfully. “Not a terrible car crash, but … something’s fucked.” “You look like an emoji,” replies Walsh. As you can probably tell, they are standup comedians and great friends.
Backstage With Katherine Ryan (Amazon Prime Video) is predicated on the promise of seeing the men and women behind the comic masks. Four standups arrive at the revered London Roundhouse to deliver sets and are surveilled by cameras in their dressing rooms, in the corridors and in the wings. In this way, we are told, we will glean insight into the wonders of the job, the real people behind the performances, as well as getting to see each set and the reactions of compere Ryan and the others waiting to go on.
Some of this is true. In the first episode, which hosts Nick Mohammed (best known as Nate in Ted Lasso) and US comic Desiree Burch, it is clear that Carr is gentler than his stage persona – a genuinely witty man who creates one-liners as naturally as breathing, Walsh has an air of desperate neediness about him, Mohammed is self-effacing sweetness personified and Burch is the one you want to go out on the town with. At least this first lot all talk to each other. The second episode has two chatters (Judi Love and Ivo Graham) and two who sit in their respective rooms pre-performance going over their lines (Sara Pascoe and Frankie Boyle). But they all know the cameras are on them, so they never really let rip as you might imagine comedians do when they’re together unfettered.
The performers’ preparations are interspersed with stagey, cringemaking spitball discussions between Ryan and writer Geoff Norcott as they come up with jokes for her introductions to each act. Would “Jimmy looks like he would sex traffic a girl then ask her for petrol money” work? What about “As a Black American, Desiree Burch has a shorter life expectancy than a peach”? A sense of the process (do they really sit there and speak finished jokes at each other? It seems unlikely) or the attrition rate (how many make it to the stage?) would be interesting. It would also be great to know whether they care if a joke is punching down (the peach gag, arguably), across (the other – aimed squarely at Carr not victims, I’d say) or up, but their sections are too artificial to allow any of this.
Ryan goes around all the dressing rooms to conduct informal interviews – most lengthily with Walsh, about his tabloid scandal in 2018 when he was caught kissing his Strictly Come Dancing partner and photos made the front pages for nearly a fortnight. His presence, and that of Carr and Boyle – who have both come under fire for jokes – gives the show a faintly rehabilitative air. You sense that the programme, with its behind-the-scenes promise and careful sex and race balance, is trying to air out the fetid corners of the comedy world that have come to public notice. Ryan’s jokey support (she would wonder what was wrong with her husband if he didn’t fuck his wildly hot dance partner) as Walsh describes the near-breakdown caused by the experience only adds to this. There is no mention of the statement from Walsh’s girlfriend alleging instances of “controlling” behaviour in their relationship and whose book on the subject, Why Did You Stay?, is out in a few weeks’ time.
The show evades other potentially challenging moments. When a comedian is on stage, there are frequent reaction shots but it is usually the admiring ones that make the cut and not, say, Burch’s response as a body-positive activist to Carr’s fat jokes. But it does – deliberately or otherwise – contain in the second episode both a discussion among Love, Pascoe and Ryan about the sexism and predators they have encountered on the circuit and Norcott pitching jokes based entirely on his assessment of Pascoe’s attractiveness.
More of that and you could have a really interesting programme, with some heft. Without it, it’s just another comedy show with a shadow one running backstage. It’s funny, and it grants us moments of insight – but only enough to make it feel like a missed opportunity.