“Reality keeps lapping fiction”: David Schneider talks Avenue 5 and live comedy during a pandemic
David Schneider on producing new live Prime Video comedy nights Isolated Laughs and how Avenue 5 predicted pandemic protests
In space, no one can hear you scream. No, that’s technically not true. People can hear you scream, they just choose to not listen.
“Reality keeps lapping fiction,” says comedian and director David Schneider, whose social media company That Lot is producing Isloated Laughs, a series of live comedy shows on Prime Video UK which are raising funds for the NHS. He recently directed an episode of Avenue 5, Armando Iannucci’s latest comedy, which features a prescient scene mirrored in current American news reports,
“Veep has now been lapped by reality and we thought Avenue 5 had a certain level of madness, but, again, reality is lapping it, going further,” observes Schneider.
Avenue 5 is predominantly set aboard the series’ eponymous interplanetary cruise ship, which is thrown years off course during its return leg to Earth and leaves the crew and passengers with just weeks of supplies to survive. The response from the panicked crew is as reassuring as saying, “Sorry if you feel we’re off course”; the passengers are near-mutinous, when they’re not at the buffet.
Their fury then mutates into the misguided belief they’re not aboard a supermassive craft capable of galactic tourism and are taking part in a hidden-camera show, as if they’re contestants on Channel 4’s Johnny Vaughan-fronted reality show Space Cadets, which pretended to launch participants into space. Rather than be faced with Vaughan and a camera crew chuckling at their gullibility when they break down the fourth wall, an Avenue 5 passenger is embraced by the freezing vacuum of space as he voluntarily ejects himself out of an airlock.
In the second before he freezes, this shuttle dumbplomat gently pops; the gathered passengers watch their fellow traveller explode and freeze, then drift into the dark forever. They pause in their certainty of their theory, until a know-all explains what they’ve witnessed: “It’s VFX, guys. Visual effects. It’s a projection. It’s not even a very good one.” Satisfied that makes more sense than what they’ve seen with their very own eyes, and ignoring the pleas of the bewildered crew, more passengers enter the airlock to gently pop and freeze.
A little over a month after this episode was aired in the US, lockdown protestors gathered in over a dozen American states to defy stay-at-home orders during the pandemic of a highly infectious virus, demanding their right to catch a potentially lethal dose of Coronavirus.
Schneider has been left stunned by the parallels to Avenue 5’s airlock scene. “Is that not what's happening now? You've got people saying, ‘End the lockdown!’, especially in America: they're gonna kill themselves. It's credit to Armando and the team of writers, because they’ve become like Nostradamus.
“The sequence is a prediction of what's happening. The incompetence of the people in charge, the bullshitting and pretence they know what they're doing, when they don't; and the madness of the 5G/end the lockdown maniacs who want to go out of the airlock.”
In the non-masked face of this triumph for the Facebook uncle and his memes, as well as these unprecedented times for the use of the word unprecedented, comedy has rarely been more essential. Yet comedy has rarely been in such trouble. Clubs and venues are as closed as those lockdown protestors’ minds, and the Edinburgh Fringe has been cancelled. Forced indoors, comedians are now using digital platforms to reach their audience - a virtual space unlikely to be gatecrashed by a lairy stag do, at least - and Schneider is one of those harnessing social media’s potential to provide live comedy.
“It's a weird thing that's happened to the comedy world and that's one of the reasons I wanted to do Isolated Laughs. We want to raise money for the NHS and you want to do a bit in that way. But also, I knew that for comedians, it's all dried up. It's all gone, overnight.”
Last week marked the debut of Isolated Laughs, the first in a series of live comedy nights running on Amazon Prime Video’s Instagram account, which aims to raise money for the NHS Charities Covid appeal. Russell Kane, Marcus Brigstocke and Rachel Parris, and Ginger Johnson (plus their special guests) performed live from their own homes. But, as Schneider found, performing online is very different to performing in a room with physical feedback.
“I did a bit of research on what a live gig looks like when you can't hear the audience response and there's a skill to it. If you’re a stand up who's worked a lot in clubs and has the timing of a club act where you leave pauses, and you tickle the audience slowly, it's very different online. There you have to go at a rat-a-tat-tat pace and you need the confidence that everything you're saying is going well. You can't keep checking in with the audience like when you're in a club.”
This new performance space has resulted in comics no longer responding to the volume of laughter, but the number of emojis thrown at them: “You can see if there's a good joke - you can see the clap emojis, the crying laughter emojis, and you can build on it. So there are more similarities than we think.”
For Schneider, these comedy nights have brought out the very best qualities of online platforms, so often riven by discord: “Isolated Laughs has the sort of laughter that brings you all together. That's what I love about social media at its best - it brings people together.”
You might be in your own space, screaming with laughter, but this time someone can hear you.