UK standup has a new superstar – and we have Covid (just a little bit) to thank. When Leo Reich was plotting his 2020 Edinburgh fringe debut, it was with a “a slightly template-y, self-pitying, anecdotal show,” he says, “about the various hardships I’ve been through. ‘It’s so hard that three people at school said something mildly homophobic to me,’ was essentially its grand narrative,” he recalls with a cringe. Then the coronavirus struck and Reich, along with countless other debutants, had to wait two years to bring his show to fruition.
The wait was a blessing in disguise. When Literally, Who Cares?! premiered this August, it wasn’t template-y, anecdotal or straightforwardly autobiographical. Instead it was “a parody of the original show I was going to do”, he says; a blistering set of how-real-is-this? comedy depicting the desperate egomania of a confused Gen-Z’er. Clad in clubbing-wear and eye makeup, the 24-year-old crystallised in one hour’s arch, camp comedy the plight of his generation, who are obliged to self-project all across social media and muster opinions about everything – sorry, “do the emotional labour of knowing stuff about things” – while terrified that those opinions, and their carefully curated selves, are hollow within. And all the while, society, the economy and their futures crumble around them.
Like the work of the American acts Kate Berlant, Catherine Cohen and Bo Burnham, all of whom Reich adores, the show doesn’t discuss but embodies the emotional and psychological fallout of Insta culture in all its wild contradictions. Like their work, too, it left audiences wondering whether to pity Reich’s onstage persona or deplore him. “There was this massive range of reactions, with some people going ‘What a funny character parody show’ and ‘God, that character you play on stage is a real cunt.’ And some people were totally the opposite: ‘Oh I’m so sorry that that all definitely happened to you.’”
The truth is somewhere in between. Reich is playing himself on stage, but “the performative, narcissistic, venal, callous version of myself”, as he puts it. And “even if watching it is not like talking to me in person, it’s a truer representation of how I feel than an anecdotal show about my experiences would be.”
So thank goodness for Covid, which gave us the one in lieu of the other? Well, not quite. But “I did feel”, says Reich, “that if I didn’t try as hard as possible [after the two-year break], it would feel like such an anticlimax.” Reich is nothing if not a trier, because “I’m not a natural performer,” he claims – hard though that is to believe. “I get jealous of comedians who are like, ‘I was always the class clown!’ That’s not the angle I come to it from at all. I started doing comedy not because people were like, ‘You’re so funny’, but because I’m a massive comedy fan. And I will try as hard as humanly possible to construct a persona that’s funny so I can do this thing that I love watching.”
His first comedy love, growing up in London, was Simon Amstell. When he saw Amstell’s 2009 show Do Nothing, “there were so many page-one similarities”, he says. “I was a teenager at an all-boys’ school, I was struggling with all of that and anxious the whole time.” Reich went to the City of London school; his father is film producer Allon Reich. Inspired by Amstell, whom he later supported on the 2021 Spirit Hole tour, Leo started visiting hip (now defunct) comedy venue the Invisible Dot. He then followed in many of its star acts’ footsteps to Cambridge, and specifically to its Footlights finishing school for comics. “I’m definitely aware that I had everything going for me, in a structural sense,” says Reich – a privilege that feeds into his supercilious persona on stage.
Pre-Covid, he had brought a pair of sketch shows to Edinburgh as part of the double-act Manhunt, with comedy partner Emmeline Downie, which featured his narcissistic alter ego in embryo. Reich denies any satirical intent with his act: “Not even a single fibre of my being thinks that what I’m doing is important on any level,” he says. Of my suggestion that anatomising a phenomenon in comedy might conceivably have some positive social effect, Reich argues that “that’s quite a self-involved thing to think”. But you’re the king of self-involvement, Leo! “OK,” he admits, “there is a fibre of my being that thinks that, but that fibre of my being is ridiculous.”
He’s not even sure that stage-Leo, the venal version of himself, will ever reappear. “The persona followed what I wanted the show to be about. It matched the content. Hopefully that will be the same for the next show. I’d want to break new ground content-wise – and style-wise – with the next one.” Until then, on the basis that “I definitely prefer writing to performing”, Reich is busy capitalising on his fringe mega-success, working on scripts for other people’s TV shows and, potentially, his own.
“The immediate anxiety,” he says, “once you’re put in a position of ‘this could be your job’, is ‘Let’s lock it in, please, that it’s my job forever!’ Which is impossible to do, but I’m at least trying to lay the groundwork.”