Viral Laughter

Will Hislop: ‘Twitter has that weird thing of being both a first draft but quite permanent’

The comedian has become known during lockdown for online videos such as ‘Your aunt at the NHS clap’. He talks to Isobel Lewis about the difference between live and online comedy, ‘extracting poison’ from people, and being the son of a famous father

Monday 08 February 2021 06:31

When Will Hislop remembers the comedy that influenced him as a child, it’s Mitchell and Webb, Ross Noble and his dad’s döppelganger. As a four-year-old, the comedian watched his father, Have I Got News for You’s Ian Hislop, on the telly and struggled to understand how he could also be in his living room, concluding that he had a secret twin.

Now, aged 28, Hislop is a comedian in his own right and has made quite a splash in the world of online comedy. But before the pandemic hit last spring, the Oxford graduate was thriving on the live circuit, performing stand-up and sketches as part of his duo Giants and their Eurodance parody Fjörd, as well as rehearsing a play. Then it all came to a stop. “I think the first six weeks of lockdown, I was just like, ‘F***, I don't really know what I’m meant to be doing really,’” he recalls. 

It was last May when, inspired by the likes of Alistair Green and The Pin, Hislop started producing his own to-camera online sketches. If you’re having a “Where do I know that face from?” moment, chances are your WhatsApp groups were flooded with one of his earliest videos, the incredible “Your aunt at the NHS clap”. Mimicking the passive-aggressive, curtain-twitching smugness of the first lockdown (and, let’s be honest, all subsequent ones), the video was a huge hit for Hislop, and has been retweeted nearly 40,000 times.

Online videos felt like a natural fit for the character-focused comedy Hislop was performing live, but came with the benefit of a larger audience. “When you’re doing live stuff, you have to hit 70, 80 per cent of the room to get the laugh you want. With Twitter, you just put it straight out there and the video can find the audience,” he says. “If people don’t get it, they can just scroll past, whereas [performing live] they’re in front of you, they paid for it, it’s their Friday night.” 

That’s not to say he doesn’t miss gigging. While the response to his videos has been overwhelmingly positive, he says that there’s more of an acceptance in live comedy that a character might be a bit rough around the edges or not in its funniest form yet. By comparison, “Twitter has that weird thing of being both a first draft but quite permanent because you are publishing to lots of people.” 

While the characters Hislop creates are varied, they’re linked in how well observed they are. From the “feminist f*** boy” incorrectly mansplaining how to pronounce Maya Angelou’s name to the desperate-to-be-cool teacher and the private school students trying to hide their wealth, the characters are ridiculous, but their comments always seem believable. Creating characters, Hislop says, is about “extracting a sort of poison” from people, adding: “These characters are the worst elements of what I could be or could have been.”

At a time when comedy is still so overwhelmingly dominated by middle class (often privately educated) white men, Hislop says that there’s a “balancing act” to be done between satirising what you know without making “a dissection of posh boys” his whole shtick. “If [a character is] quite distanced from you, you can get caught up in cliches or stereotypes, but you also don’t want to be too navel-gazey,” he says. But while Oxbridge and private school have long been fertile matter for comedy material (think of the infamous University Challenge sketch from The Young Ones), the more specific form of privilege that comes from a famous parent is harder to pin down.

I ask Hislop if he thinks his dad’s name has helped his career; he chews over his answer. “There are people, maybe they’ll comment, ‘Oh, I only just realised this was Ian Hislop’s son,’” he says. “If I put out something good and people enjoy it, I think they're less likely to mention my dad. But if I put out a piece of s***, which I’m very capable of doing, I’m definitely aware that people say something about [it].” The pressure, he says, is “an added incentive” not to be bad.

With comedy in such a precarious place right now, clubs on the brink of collapse and no word as to whether the Edinburgh Fringe will go ahead in 2021, it’s hard to imagine what the future of the industry will look like. Hislop is hopeful that his internet success will bring new audiences to see him perform live when they can – “melding the two worlds, as it were” – but says that in the future he sees social media being “as much, if not more, of a focus”. His videos may have been born out of unfortunate circumstances, but they’re not going anywhere.

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