Audiences were great, weren't they? Paying good money to sit in a stuffy room listening to random strangers venting about their issues for an hour, or more - absolute stars, the lot of them.
Thankfully, there is still an audience out there, and the ever-resourceful Stuart Goldsmith holds the key. Or the Zoom invite code anyway. The street-schooled stand-up best known for deep chats with fellow performers (on the excellent Comedian's Comedian podcast) is now presiding magisterially over a genuinely innovative format, Stuart Goldsmith's Infinite Sofa. In fact, it's a show you're sort of surprised didn't exist before.
Rather than just cajole several acts into Studio Goldsmith (as we're calling it), he also invites an audience. Donating anything gets you in the hat, then our host throws everyone together in a big Zoom pot; it's a Stu stew. He's getting big names too - Sarah Millican, Dara O Briain, Romesh Ranganathan - plus his favourite newer and weirder acts. The appeal is obvious: do something funny here and you get proper, real-time laughs, while Goldsmith tosses in creative curve balls.
The splendidly sprawling result is a sort of Letterman-style chat show mixed with classic Saturday morning telly, plus live crowdwork: it's like Tiswas crashing into Gogglebox. In short, the Infinite Sofa turns offstage limitations into a positive, in contrast to the hamstrung home versions of certain primetime shows.
Not that Goldsmith isn't missing normal life too, mind you.
So we last did one of these interviews six years ago, in very different circumstances: outside at the Larmer Tree Festival.
Ohhh... it's heartbreaking whenever anyone mentions festivals now.
Doing this via Zoom is very appropriate for your new thing though...
Yeah, I hope so. I don't know what we're on now - week 10? We locked down a week before everyone else because I've got asthma and my son has, so we started taking precautions a bit earlier. Since then I've been trying to dive into the format. I picked Zoom early and I think it's the right one, the most possibilities; then tried to crash into it and learn it and make mistakes.
You had this whole spaceship theme, originally?
The first version of the sofa was a thing called The Escape Pod - we do games, and the punishment is that you get put out of the 'airlock', then come back in. It was a good idea but an administrative nightmare: we discovered on version one that when you kicked someone out of the waiting room they couldn't get back in, so we thought 'right, we need to learn about the settings'.
But every time something like that failed, the mentality was 'this is good data.' Now we've discovered what we call the Virtual Green Room, which is for after the show, it's like a Zoom room but you can walk nearer to people, your audio gets louder.
That's hosted by David Hoare?
Yeah, he's my punching bag and foil.
I suppose most of us have podcasts, so we're all familiar with the idea of connecting to your following, in a real back-and-forth way. I'm not good at social media, but I do have an incredible 'team' - it's not like they're fans, they're kind of co-conspirators.
Because of the nature of the podcast, it's not just a piece of entertainment, it really appeals to people who like ideas. I've been assembling a team of specialists who want to help me do things, so day one it was 'ok, the gig circuit's collapsed, I need money, I've got mouths to feed.'
It's not that I'm negative, but I always assume the worst. My way of dealing with anything is 'what's the worst case? Let's plan to survive that.'
I'm the same - a positive pessimist.
Right - so from day one I thought 'let's imagine this lasts a year.' A lot of people were like 'it'll blow over.' Let's imagine it doesn't - what can I do, what are my assets? I've got the fanbase, the listenership, they're excited about trying stuff.
Pete Dobbing, who's an instrumental figure in my life and the podcast, he said to me years ago, 'your only job, as an artist, a creator, as a podcaster, is to make heroic and interesting mistakes, as fast as possible.'
It's a nice philosophy...
I feel like we've got this pressure cooker situation now, for the duration of the pandemic, everyone's at home, switched on, so we have the opportunity to try a thing, break a thing. I just love that, that's sort of what I've been doing by stealth for the rest of my career.
It's an open playing field, there's no pressure to do things well. I think that's what excited me: the pandemic means the pressure is off, you no longer need to do things perfectly. And that helps eliminate the perfectionism that holds me back all the time. Suddenly, everything's fucked, just tape two things together and see if you can make a show out of it.
So you're talking to me from the current version of Studio Goldsmith, but you've moved rooms a few times on the show.
Every time we do it there's something different. I've just sent myself a reminder email - I sneakily got my phone out when I'm supposed to be focussing on the children - which said 'maybe we try it where no-one donates in advance, and people donate from the off - chuck us a fiver now and you could be on the sofa' - ping ping, they're in.
It's fraught with administrative difficulties, who knows whether you'd get trolled, 'yeah I'll spend £5 to get my dick out on a live show.' That happened - we were trolled by naked, wanking old men. 'Ok, so no-one's allowed in unless we've got their credit card details...'
Hang on, did that really happen?
Yeah, twice - neither of them were as horrific as some of the ones I've heard about in the news. They were the equivalent of flashers, someone barging in and getting their tackle out.
So I'm thinking 'would that work?'... probably not, but let's fucking try it, because one of these things will catch fire. My friend Herbie, he's a street artist, he said in the early testing 'the gold dust is the relationship between the people on the sofa'.
You seem to be revelling in your role, sort of halfway between a chat show host and a gig compere - really in the zone.
My theory is that it's because I retain absolute power. Or not absolute power, but I'm in charge of who speaks when, and I can cut people off. David [Hoare] is also my production assistant, doing stuff in the background. But he's also there so if I run dry, I can flick to David, get him to sing a song - then mute it.
We established early on that I'm a bastard, I can mute and spotlight people as I see fit. Because I have the power to do that, it completely relaxes a lot of the things that ordinarily get in the way of me being my funniest self. I'm so excited about this because I feel like it has changed my voice - I'm a little bitch.
I don't mind if that's the headline! I saw a glint in your eye there.
Wouldn't dream of it...
It's very honest and immediate. I tried to make a TV show where the audience came up with the beginnings of the gags, and the pilot flew, but obviously the producers wanted to rig everything so the pilot would definitely work. But because we're streaming, we're allowed to make mistakes.
I know there are fans out there who would happily watch all three hours of a Mock The Week recording, you never get to see that, but here we can show you the show, the dress rehearsal. I script the show at 11am in the morning, I stream my spreadsheet - it's mostly working out which games to play.
And that's now a show in itself?
Yesterday 50 people watched me script the show, they're in the chat going 'why not this, or this.' It allows it to be their show, with me curating. The bedrock of the show is the un-staged contributions from people in the audience, and the genuine risk. If I throw to someone and they panic, I need to cut away quickly. Or slag them off in a warm way, which I am quite good at doing.
Is that because the power balance has changed? Usually you're high onstage with a mic, now you're clearly at home, saying 'the gigs are gone...'
Well, yes and no. I think that's an interesting insight because, yes, there is something levelling that we're all just a person looking through a screen, everyone knows we're all just in a house, and it's domestic. So there is a sort of levelling of the status, but I retain the status of being in charge.
We're in massively uncharted territory. Even on Twitch, there's lots of gamers, so we can learn from them, and telly, and live stuff, and genuinely pioneer and use new ideas. One idea - a friend of mine is actually a rocket scientist, and said 'could you actually do an infinite show?' Have rolling guests and audience, and hosts, and it goes on for a week.
Well it's getting there already...
Ha - yeah, last night I aimed for an hour-fifteen and we did one-fifty. But you wouldn't want to cut any of it.
And then they're in the green room afterwards?
They're going past midnight - I dip in, but David Hoare has become king of the green room, they're in there playing games and mucking around for hours.
There's a nice community feel around it, which people are missing at the moment.
And they always miss it. I think people always want community. Dara was on the show last night and made a very funny observation about shows like this, 'as soon as the pandemic's over they won't exist anymore...'
I saw that. And you said...?
I said 'shut your whore mouth Dara.' Ha! Honestly, that is true from one perspective, but it's the big lesson of the internet, you put something out into the world that you love, and other people will find it and love it. Having a bit of fun on Zoom, that's now a thing, in the same way that employers will now find it hard to say to their workforce, 'you're not allowed to work from home.'
Similarly the idea that everyone will go back to comedy clubs and stop looking at the internet is bananas. You might go to a comedy club on a Friday, but maybe Thursday 'I'm gonna log in and watch one of those online shows.'
This is probably the first lockdown show where I thought 'ohhh, someone should have done this anyway.'
Sure, I'm pleased to hear that, because it suggests that the idea is good and pure. Just like when you write a perfect little joke - of which I've written about three in my life! - a proper 'take the afternoon off' one.
The mentality of it, for me the internet is the Edinburgh Festival, 24/7. It's all of the things I love about Edinburgh, you stand on the street corner, virtually, an audience comes, and you can have your mind blown by people from all over the world. Here I get to swim around the Edinburgh Festival for the rest of my life - THAT'S ALL I EVER WANTED, SI!
It's true - I've watched people doing Twitch shows to only 11 or 12 people, but actually in Edinburgh, that's a half decent audience.
I remember seeing Jordan Brookes with less than 12 people; his first show. We all walked away - well, some people hated it obviously - but most of us walked away thinking 'I've seen something special and brilliant and unique, and this person has made me a fan for life.' It's exactly like that online, you find some quirky mad thing.
The weird shows are the ones I still go on about, the slightly misguided people who've decided to give it a go.
What happens at the end of your life? You die. No-one gets to keep their money. Even statues crumble. We're just here for a little while, you might as well have some wonderful experiences.
So it's now the morning after an Infinite Sofa: with that live audience, do you and the other acts feel a bit like you would after a proper gig?
Absolutely, 100 percent. The weirdest thing though - and we've all got material about this now - you turn it off and you're alone. My wind-down is 11 stairs up to the living room.
But yes, I definitely treat it as a gig. It feels like one, it definitely fulfils in me the sorts of feelings I get from certain aspects of gigs. I'm not expressing myself the way I would in a tour show, but I'm getting to be the boss more than I am doing a TV warm-up for 600 people.
So it's different and new and strange, but I'm certainly getting my dopamine hits from it, thank you very much. And I get nervous about it in exactly the same way. It's a bit tiring. I was thinking I might have a week off, then I thought 'no, I just want a week off the admin.' If I didn't have a family I would do it literally every night, I'd experiment.
The interaction is great - Sarah Millican taking down that audience member who made the mistake of mentioning her virtuous job.
That was really, really funny. The lovely thing is, when you get a master craftsperson of a comic, you can tell. Phil Ellis reviewing car parks or eating dog food, his Phil Ellisness comes across. Sarah's ability to spin on a dime, from warmth to 'waarrgh!'
Dara, the first thing he said was: 'Stuart, I've made a couple of notes [on the show so far]' - yes! He's ready to contribute. And someone like Elf Lyons, being really playful with this new character. So it is a variety show, a magazine show: it's Going Live, it's TFI Friday, or - the key thing - it's The Muppet Show.
What summed that up for me, with Desiree Burch you went a bit serious and said 'we were talking to Mr Fruit Salad about the consequences...' Like you'd gone full Newsnight on the false beard guy.
I loved that idea, interviewing someone about what it's like to be imaginary during the lockdown. Joz (Norris, aka Mr Fruit Salad) is so good at that - 'I'm sorry, I was watching Shrek on a different window'. He was quite tickled by the concept. It was lovely.
It's nice to get these positives during lockdown. It would have been really easy for someone like you, who's built up a profile and an audience, to just retreat into misery for a few weeks.
I never disagree with anyone telling me I have a profile! But what I do have is a small but very engaged bunch of people who are excited about ideas. And I think anyone can get that by being engaged with the world, the comedy world.
You do have a profile though - I saw an amazing man on your show cut a perfect silhouette of it with scissors...
That's true! He sent it over. In fact, I must print it and put it on the wall behind me...