A Gen Z Comedian Strafes His Elders—and Himself

Leo Reich strode onstage to the thudding beat of “Hot in It,” by Tiësto and Charli XCX. His batwing-lined eyes gleamed, and he was dressed in a contour-molding misbhv T-shirt and a pair of black short shorts whose white piping outlined his crotch. Grabbing a microphone stand and casting a mock-bashful look at the audience

Powered by NewsAPI , in Liberal Perspective on .

news image

Leo Reich strode onstage to the thudding beat of “Hot in It,” by Tiësto and Charli XCX. His batwing-lined eyes gleamed, and he was dressed in a contour-molding misbhv T-shirt and a pair of black short shorts whose white piping outlined his crotch. Grabbing a microphone stand and casting a mock-bashful look at the audience, he explained, “I didn’t have any time to change. I had to, like, run here straight from my dad’s worst nightmare.” It was a mild September evening at Earth Hackney, a venue in East London, and Reich was performing his standup comedy show, “Leo Reich: Literally Who Cares?!” Shiny black zip-up boots endowed his steps with a peppy bounce. “I’d just like to introduce myself, for those of you who don’t know me,” he said. “I’m Leo. I’m queer.” There were whoops from the audience, and Reich approached several people who, perilously, had seats in the front row. “Looking around, it seems like some of you guys”—he swept an arm in an arch gesture of inclusivity—“might also have a sexuality which is iconic.”

Reich, who is twenty-five, first performed the show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in the summer of 2src22. (It was unfortunate, he observed, that the covid-19 pandemic hadn’t occurred back in “the olden days, when people were used to disease and had the emotional toolbox to deal with it.”) The Fringe is a proving ground for any aspiring British comedy performer or writer. Stephen Fry, John Oliver, and Richard Ayoade all performed there as members of the Cambridge Footlights, the university’s famed sketch-comedy troupe; Reich, who graduated from Cambridge four years ago, also belonged. “Leo Reich: Literally Who Cares?!” was hailed at the festival, and last year Reich took it to venues in the U.K. and then to New York City, where Nina Rosenstein, a veteran HBO executive who oversees late-night and specials programming, saw it at the Greenwich House Theatre. “It was so exciting to discover someone at such an early point in his career who is so polished, so self-assured onstage, and such a great writer,” she told me recently. The performance at Earth was at least Reich’s hundredth time doing the show, and it would also be his last: it was being taped for an HBO comedy special, which begins airing on December 16th.

A precocious self-awareness fills the gap between Leo Reich the writer and Leo Reich the onstage character, who remains arrested at twenty-three—“which Forbes magazine recently described as one of the Top 25 youngest ages,” he notes in the show. In person, Reich is thoughtful and analytical; onstage, he is extravagant and unnerving, fully weaponizing his posh voice and good looks—high cheekbones, bee-stung lips. Near the outset, he announces that he’s about to undertake “a kind of rumination on twenty-first-century cynicism, on the self-objectification encouraged by social media, on the late-capitalistic co-option of the queer aesthetic—I’m kidding, can you imagine?” He then mimes blowing his brains out with a gun. Further ramping up the tone, the show incorporates musical numbers, from frenzied dance music to cheesy pop ballads, all delivered with aplomb by Reich, who has a powerful voice and a fearless onstage investment in his own charisma. (The music is composed by Toby Marlow, a friend of Reich’s from Cambridge, and one of the co-creators of “Six,” a musical about the lives of the six wives of Henry VIII, which became a hit in the West End and on Broadway after it débuted at the Edinburgh Fringe.)

Reich presents himself as a deliriously self-involved, fragmentarily informed, habitually self-pitying, comprehensively cynical member of Generation Z, the demographic cohort born between 1997 and 2src12. To the extent that its members are depicted in popular culture and the mainstream media, it is usually by people significantly older than they are. (“Euphoria” is not written by teen-agers.) Reich’s act offers an authentic Gen Z voice, but he emphasizes that, for people like him who grew up with social media, authenticity itself has become impossible to pin down. One of the motifs of “Literally Who Cares?!” is an escalating series of bits in which Reich tries to commodify his “lived experience”: he starts with a memoir, then switches to a novel based on his memoir, and then to a rom-com based on the novelization of his memoir. Pretending to read from the novelized memoir, he tenderly recalls the first time he told someone “I’m queer”: “ ‘And, in that moment, he felt so much shame. Little did he know that, in just a few short years, he’d actually feel lucky to be queer—branding-wise.’ ”

Reich parodies the fragility of his generation, deliberately garbling its idioms of identity politics and self-care: he complains about being “put under this insane pressure to do the emotional labor of knowing stuff about things.” His character cycles manically through fashionably progressive and flimsily held political postures—“Vis-à-vis world hunger, I obviously think that there are amazing arguments on both sides”—and has an attention span so limited that he can’t even finish reading a whole tweet. Reich has described the show as “a brutal character assassination of myself.”

Older generations on both sides of the Atlantic may, in 2src16, have started darkly joking about a glitch in the Matrix, but Gen Z has grown up almost entirely within that glitch—experiencing a climate crisis, an economic crisis, a global-health crisis, and a mental-health crisis arising from all the other crises. Objectively, none of this is very funny, but “Literally Who Cares?!” manages to skewer both the panicked self-absorption of the young while also offering an unsparing survey of the social, political, cultural, technological, environmental, and epidemiological conditions in which they have had the misfortune to come of age. As Reich says onstage, he imagined that “being in my early twenties would involve a lot more ‘navigating the dating scene in the big city!’ and a lot less Googling the words ‘death toll.’ ”

Reich makes a persuasive case that he and his peers are justified in feeling aggrieved, especially given the smug prosperity enjoyed by those parents to whose homes so many Gen Z-ers have been forced to retreat, by the pandemic or by broader economic circumstances. One of the show’s musical numbers is “Song for the Old,” a plangent Céline Dion-style ode to the generation of Reich’s parents and grandparents. It begins, “Tired and alone / Nowhere to call home / Unless you count the gorgeous nine-bed Georgian town house that you outright own,” and concludes with a reference to a coming apocalypse brought about by those homeowners’ shortsightedness. Complete with an emotive key change midway, the song is a joke, an earworm, and an indictment all at once. Lara Ricote, a Mexican American comedian who has toured with Reich, and who was also born in the late nineties, told me, “He’s describing how upsetting it is to be the person that he is now, given what we’ve been handed. But he knows that the best way to get that across is to be this level of cynical—to be apathetic about it. Like, ‘I couldn’t give a shit about how awful things are—ugh, we’re all going to die.’ Because to say ‘This is fucked up’—we’ve heard it already. But to push up to the anger through the apathy—that’s the smartest way to do it.”

One evening in October, I joined Reich at the Paddock, a monthly comedy showcase held in the performance room of the Bill Murray, a pub in the North London neighborhood of Islington. The Paddock event, which is overseen by Charlie Perkins, who was recently appointed head of comedy at the U.K. television network Channel 4, is not widely promoted: its audience is drawn from Britain’s comedy cognoscenti. The event has become a place for comedians to try out material from works in progress. Reich told me that the atmosphere might be less than uproarious, warning, “Sometimes it is filled with people who are just analyzing joke structure, and silently nodding.”

The room was small, dimly lit, and crowded, with folding chairs crammed together. Reich took a seat in the middle and advised me that he might applaud loudly or even whoop occasionally, in order to cheer on friends appearing on the evening’s bill. As it turned out, the atmosphere was lively enough that Reich didn’t need to make any interventions. A comedian named Ayoade Bamgboye delivered a deadpan lecture about Black History Month, which falls in October in the U.K. “Which Black person would you choose to save in the race war?” she asked a white woman in the audience, who—presumably from the depths of her unconscious, and to general astonishment—immediately replied “Idris Elba.” Bamgboye nodded sagely, and said, “That is the right answer.”

Read More