Leo Reich: ‘It’s f***ed, obviously, how many successful comedians are Cambridge grads’

In one of this year’s funniest Edinburgh Fringe shows, 24-year-old stand-up Leo Reich joked about Gen Z’s narcissism and his own privilege. He talks to Isobel Lewis about his onstage persona, the effectiveness of political satire, and the amount of Cambridge grads in the comedy world

Sunday 23 October 2022 06:30 BST
‘Gen Z are very scared people, coming up with opinions in 20 seconds’
‘Gen Z are very scared people, coming up with opinions in 20 seconds’ (Raphael Neal)

Leo Reich knows the typical comedian backstory. There’s the kid who played the class clown growing up. The misfit who used jokes to get through childhood trauma. But Reich was none of these. “I’m not a good entertainer, I don’t think,” he says, sipping on a black coffee in the bar of the Soho Theatre. “I so wish I was one of the people who’s like” – he puts on a low, croaky voice – “‘As soon as I came out of the womb, people were laughing, laughing, laughing, I was so funny’”. But no one ever told him he was funny. Nor did they suggest he should do stand-up. In fact, “I don’t think I made a single person laugh until I was 20.”

But, for Reich, 20 really wasn’t that long ago – and since then, he’s made a lot of people laugh. At 24, he’s leading a pack of Gen Z comedians arriving on the stand-up scene. In August, his show Literally Who Cares!? became one of the biggest hits of the 2022 Edinburgh Fringe, earning him a Best Newcomer nom at the Edinburgh Comedy Awards, and rave reviews from critics. Next week, he plays Hackney’s cavernous EartH, his biggest show to date. To see him live is to witness a man self-obsessed. His is a shtick rooted in solipsism. In lycra and dramatic, Black Swan-esque eye make-up, he speaks of only caring about himself – partly because social media has trained him to, and partly because the world his generation has inherited is a hellfire.

Still, when the world’s burning, you might as well make it funny. Reich sings, reads from his made-up memoir and acts out scenes from a fictional future film script about his life, capturing both his self-absorption and his inner turmoil. He jokes about his privilege, living in a west London flat – the finances of which he says he’ll never explain – and the show being sponsored by Deutsche Bank. Later, he lampoons his nihilistic shallowness by explaining that smoking is “actually worth cutting 10 years off my life if even one passer-by thinks, ‘Maybe he’s French?’”

His rise is perhaps not surprising: Reich grew up in London, is privately educated and a graduate of the Cambridge University Footlights. It’s a path many comedians have walked before him, but Reich’s talent is singular and so was Literally, Who Cares!?. But that showy onstage confidence is a ruse. When we meet, he is self-deprecating and naturally droll, switching to comic voices, pulling faces or yanking his baseball cap down over his face in faux-annoyance. So, is he actually a narcissist? Maybe, but then he thinks most people his age are. He describes his onstage persona as an act of “self-parody” exaggerated for effect, where a core nugget of truth is heavily embellished.

Related: Edinburgh’s Fringe festival returns after COVID break

As a teenager, Reich was “a f***ing massive comedy nerd” who concluded that trying it himself was the best way to befriend the comedians who inspired and influenced him: Simon Amstell (who he supported on tour last year), Stath Lets Flats creator Jamie Demetriou, US comic Kate Berlant. He jokes that it “hasn’t really worked. I have the same amount of friends as I did before.”

He studied English at Cambridge – but Reich only cared about performing with the Footlights, the comedy group that produced everyone from Emma Thompson to Tim Key. In fact, all five of his university choices while studying at the City of London School were based on the prowess of their sketch groups. He laughs, fully aware how “nuts” this sounds. “Because I hated school, I was planning my university time from the age of 15,” he says. “I was like, ‘I’m checking out of whatever this is. I’m just going to focus on the next bit, which will hopefully be better.’ And it was.”

‘I didn’t make a single person laugh until I was 20’ (Raphael Neal)

There has been pushback in recent years against the Footlights-to-stardom pipeline, but comedy is still dominated by privately educated Oxbridge grads like Reich. “I mean, it’s f***ed, obviously, so there’s that,” he says. “Totally f***ed. It’s lovely on a personal level, but it’s also like, ‘oh God, this isn’t great, is it?’” Just last week, fellow Fringe hit Ania Magliano, who was in the Footlights with Reich, was performing her show just before him at the Soho Theatre. For many, the idea that two of the brightest emerging stars in the industry both studied together at the same prestigious university is disappointing, yet not unexpected. Reich’s success reinforces arguments that those from posh backgrounds get the best opportunities. So while he might find it “so crazy” that he and his uni mate have shot up the ranks together, he’s aware that isn’t really the case. “You zoom out and you’re like, I don’t think many people would find this that crazy,” he says. “I think they’d more find it quite annoying. And that’s fair enough.”

Admitting that he had a “good Fringe” feels pretty “c***-y”, Reich says, given the 2022 festival was plagued by small audiences, extortionate rents and a general mood of dissatisfaction. Ticket sales were down a quarter this summer compared to 2019, the last year the Fringe ran at full capacity, meaning more artists than ever lost money. Even someone like Reich, whose entire run sold out and saw shows upgraded to larger venues, says making money back from the Fringe is simply “not gonna happen” for him. In the end, his show broke even. “The thing’s totally f***ed… Cost of living, ticket prices, venue prices, Covid, rent. All of that stuff just snowballed into this thing that meant the Fringe spirit thing… was really on its knees.”

That’s why the Gen Z narcissism that he satirises in his show is undercut with – or perhaps enhanced by – a feeling of existential doom at the state of the world. In one song, he chants at the audience to “stop caring” for ease of mind. It might seem at odds with the idea of a politically conscious Gen Z, but it’s far closer to his own experience. “It’s a half-patronising, half-overpraising thing of Gen Z being [told], ‘These people, they’re gonna save the world,’” he says. “It’s like, well, kind of. No, though. Really, we’re very scared people coming up with opinions in 20 seconds about something and none of the opinions stack up to anything.” Or, as Reich puts it in his show, “I read the most fascinating two-thirds of a headline.”

‘The Edinburgh Fringe spirit thing was really on its knees this year’ (Raphael Neal)

Ultimately, he doesn’t believe in “my power as a comedian to change the world”. “That’s what I find so weird about all these comics who used to be famous doing these opinion shows where they say their beliefs [in] Netflix specials or whatever,” he says, seemingly referencing Ricky Gervais and the like. “The new wave of, ‘I was famous in 2001, here’s what I think about trans people’, that kind of thing. It’s so weird to me because it’s not funny to know what [they] think.”

Reich might not want to claim his work as political, but what does he make of the comedians roasting our chaotic government? A recent appearance by Joe Lycett on Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg went viral after he cheerfully declared in an interview with Liz Truss, “I’m actually very right-wing and I love it. I thought she gave great clear answers.” After years of people saying that satire was dead, that you can’t do political comedy any more, all the comedian had to do was say that he liked Truss’s policies and everyone thought he was a genius. “That’s exactly the thing. That’s a really good example of someone doing good satire, which is not about espousing your specific beliefs as a guru. It’s about revealing the absurdity in the political culture, which is so much funnier. If Joe Lycett had gone on there and done a couple of jokes about how he thinks Labour should win the election, it would have been so boring. He’s a comedian. That’s not his role in the world.”

As for Reich’s role in the world, he wants to write for TV, mostly, and says he’ll probably take a year off before returning to the Fringe. “The dream is to have a writing job and then do the stand-up as a weird extra thing,” he says. If anything, the fact that success in Edinburgh doesn’t automatically convert to stardom is “quite freeing”. “No one’s going, ‘What’s Leo Reich’s going to do now?’ No one has said that.” He pauses and cackles. “Apart from maybe me.”

Leo Reich performs ‘Literally Who Cares?!’ at EartH in Hackney on Friday 28 October

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