We may think phone-filmed comedy characters are a product of the pandemic, but Alistair Green’s loyal fans know he was a pioneer, screening his homemade videos in cinemas long before we’d heard of Covid.
What Are We Like, Eh? is his latest of a set of cinema shows, which began in 2019. Green emerges on stage to introduce the film – a compilation of his wildly popular video sketches – reflecting on the weirdness of his newfound fame and directing a few digs at Matt Hancock. He jokingly promises the post-film Q&A will be “toxic” and it is a fittingly shambolic conclusion,where few audience members get their questions answered, but many do receive a roasting instead.
Green was one of the first to produce consistent and fastidiously well-observed comedy on a phone. “An inquisitive man”, where Green’s character “rightly or wrongly” plays devil’s advocate, was an early hit, spawning the first of many catchphrases. It was inspired by commentary surrounding a footballer on trial for sexual assault, but the vignette outlives the news cycle. His white-walled flat and minimal use of props have created a distinct aesthetic that’s immediately, recognisably, Alistair Green.
There’s something pleasingly audacious about showing things made on a phone on the big screen and selling out venues in the process. Tonight’s film combines a range of Green’s characters. There’s “Bella and J”, a wealthy older couple who “love the energy” of their trendy new neighbourhood and “Sari”, a woman collecting a takeaway while uncomfortably asserting herself as an expert on Indian culture. There’s a host of characters tragically clinging to their youth: “divorced man dating younger women”, “man in his 40s at music festival”, and Brewdog parody “punk squirrel IPA”.
Weirder notes are scattered among them. In “urinal” we meet the Pub Sociopath, an oddly familiar guy who flips disorientingly between over-friendliness and outright aggression. The mysterious Pie Man appears in “anxiety dream #7”, then there’s fan favourite “spooky story” featuring the creepy Night Goblin, who appears with a dead-eyed stare in an unsuspecting character’s bedroom to tell him a bedtime story he doesn’t want to hear. It’s videos like these that bring home the joy of watching this in a cinema – murmurs of anticipation arise as titles appear on screen and fans even sing along to the Night Goblin’s song.
Green is the sole star, sometimes playing multiple characters per sketch, but even when inhabiting only one, we know exactly how off-screen characters are responding. It’s an impressive and intangible skill, trusting the imagination of his audience as he builds worlds against a plain white backdrop.
The genius of Green’s work is his ability to be utterly original, while making you think: “I’ve met that person”. He rarely goes for the obvious joke, but captures the essence of British people from all walks of life – their mannerisms, insecurities and prejudices. His family mealtime scenes are cut with a wonderful tension, while other sections are sharply poignant.
Some view homemade sketches as merely a way to get seen. For Green, they’re elevated to an artform.