By Kat Mokrynski
“The tech is theoretically good. It’s just the people in charge of it and the money behind it.”
Tech and comedy. Two worlds that don’t usually collide, except for a joke or two about Elon Musk or Google. But comedian Alex Kealy is ready to change that with Winner Takes All, his solo show about Silicon Valley, tech monopolies, and advertising. Recently, I had the chance to interview Alex Kealy about Winner Takes All. We discussed his own interest in technology, what he hopes audiences take away from the show, and what it’s like to be on tour!
So how did you first get involved in comedy?
Alex: So I started at university when I was about 20. One of the reasons I did start is that one of my best friends started at the same time at the same university, Ivo Graham, who’s a fantastic comedian, and he gave me the idea. And now, more than fifteen years after that, we just started a podcast together this week!
So what inspired your current show, Winner Takes All?
Alex: So it’s about Silicon Valley, big tech companies . . . There’s a joke in the show that I make where I say it’s inspired by a breakup, which is a bit of fun – It’s not really true. It’s a way of getting into the slightly less tech-heavy material for some bits of the show. In general, these companies are really powerful and important and at the moment they don’t feel very accountable. We’re in a situation where a lot of complex tech stuff is quite important for how society is organized. And yet, often a lot of the people in government whose job it is to regulate are either in the pockets of those companies or might be well-meaning but frankly, a little bit doddery to be regulating how cryptocurrency works when they are seventy years older than that piece of technology. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Do you feel like Winner Takes All is a way of you encouraging people to take accountability, like a form of activism?
Alex: I think activism would be strong. I’m being paid by an audience to entertain them first and foremost, so I’m trying to make people laugh, primarily. Worth thinking about a few things, I suppose, and if people can think about a few things in a sort of different light. But one of the points I make in the show is the element that the amount that you can do personally is limited. You can do a few things, like there are more ethical consumption choices you can make. And you can obviously choose not to engage with social media. But I’m in a tricky position right now where my show is like, “Boo, social media is bad!” Obviously, one of the only ways I can market the show is social media. And in some ways, it’s good, because it is a sort of peer-to-peer or grassroots mechanism of marketing – You’re not relying on gatekeepers. And that’s actually really great. I’ve really come around to that. But the show is really about how the technology is not the problem – It’s the kind of advertising, that business model that these companies have either chosen to or been allowed to adopt using shoddy regulation. So the tech is theoretically good. It’s just the people in charge of it and the money behind it.
So what was the creative process like for creating Winner Takes All?
Alex: Stymied by the pandemic a little bit! I had the idea for doing a show about this in like October 2019, with the aim of taking a show to the Fringe in 2020. And then obviously, that didn’t happen. So then when the Fringe sort of restarted in 2021, I did a WIP, short run, and then did a full run in 2022. And now we’re touring. It’s been a long process. The actual process of doing it . . . A lot of previews. Satire shows, shows like this, the one thing that’s hard about making them is that comedians are often doing short sets to try out little bits, with the hope they can fit in an hour. Whereas sometimes there’ll be a bit that you think will work in an hour, but it bombs in a five-minute set. And of course, my joke about A Clockwork Orange, and like pop-ups on The Independent website is not going to work in a seven-minute new material set, when an audience just wants to know who you are and have a bit of fun with it.
Alex: It’s difficult to A/B test or prove something’s good when it’s a bit weird, and so I suppose that’s what longer previews are for. But yeah, I read a lot of books in autumn of 2019 and in that first year of the pandemic – I read about fifteen books about big tech. But in reality, an hour is quite a short amount of time in comedy, so the amount of material, there’s a very small fraction of what I’ve read that I’ve managed to be able to put in. [Laughs] There’s not really space in that medium. But yeah, that was the process – A lot of reading and then a lot of previewing when we were allowed back out of our houses again.
Do you have any recommendations for things to read if people are trying to get into big tech?
Alex: The one that’s great is Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism book. She writes beautifully, but I think the book could have been 40%, shorter – Maybe the footnotes could have been longer because I think she repeats her point occasionally. And it can be at times hard going, but other bits of it are written very beautifully and powerfully about these companies destroying the enlightenment, liberal thought of a rational mind that can make decisions for itself, where at the moment online advertising is deliberately trying to overcome your rationality and make you buy stuff that you don’t need. But a shorter book than Zuboff’s one is Julia Bell’s Radical Attention. It was one of the last books I read and when I read it, I was like, “Oh, I could have just read this book!”
Alex: It summarizes loads of other stuff from other books. And a lot of the juiciest stuff that I’ve read in other things she’d also selected and I was like, “Oh, yeah, this is the whole thing in like 100 pages and written beautifully, and sort of personally.” So I’d really recommend Julia Bell’s Radical Attention.
Had you been into tech before? Or was it something that you were recently inspired to do? You mentioned the breakup, did you break up with somebody and immediately go, “Technology!”? [Laughs]
Alex: Yeah! [Laughs] Well, it’s a joke about an ex who works at a big tech company, but I want to clarify that that’s me using that as a structural device in the show to allow me to talk about multiple things. So yeah, I’ve not really got a tech background at all. I would say the show is more of an economics and society show because I don’t have much insight into the tech itself. I don’t have a computer science background or programming background or anything like that. I studied history at university, with politics, and economics, and society. That’s the thing that’s interesting about these companies to me about these business models . . . The point that she [Bell] makes in this book is that we basically just allow them to have a huge amount of knowledge about us, which equals money and power. In any other situation, we would say, “Well, these companies should have to pay us a fee for our data if they’re going to use it. We’re creating revenue for them.” In any other field of human business, like if a company is getting a bunch of oil off a bit of land, you would have to pay the landowner for access to that oil, and that would make sense. Whereas here it’s like, “Facebook should pay me every time I’ve liked a band on there because that’s giving Facebook more data to advertise back.” That sounds bonkers, but it’s just the same.
What is it about satire in general that you think makes people so interested in it and wanting to come back to it?
Alex: Well, I hope that your question is correct. I want to believe that’s true. I don’t know whether people are always interested in satire – I’d like that to be the case. I suppose in the UK, and also in America, at about the same time, we had these big political moments, which really supercharged partisan divides. And I think that made it quite hard to do satire, because I think those votes, be it Trump or Brexit, really personalized politics in everyday people. It morally charged things in a way that made it quite aggro. The benefit is you say Brexit or Trump, you can relate something in the room really quickly. But equally, people start shutting down. If you’re saying something that might be against what they believe, people take it much more personally. I think the referendum was so much worse for that. If you were doing material about the Tories or Labour in the 90s and Noughties, even if you voted Labour, and someone was like, “This Labour government fuckup!” you might be like, “Yeah, I voted Labour, but they did fuck that up, and that’s not my fault! I voted Labour for good reasons, and it’s annoying that these particular politicians screwed that.” Whereas with the referendum, if you’re like “Brexit’s a disaster!” If you’re an audience member that voted Brexit, that feels like a much more personal attack on you, because it’s like, “Well, that is a thing that I voted for.” It’s a thing I think about a lot, about why satire was hard or toxic in the last few years. So I think the thing I’ve liked about this show is no one’s walking in the door being like, “I voted for Amazon.”
Alex: “Well, I voted for Google, and why the fuck is this posh child gonna tell me that I’m an idiot?” That’s a nice change for the show.
I don’t know, now people can say if they voted Elon Musk as CEO!
Alex: [Laughs] That’s true!
So what has it been like seeing audience reactions?
Alex: It’s been great. It’s been fun! It’s always so exciting. I do a lot of club comedy, and I love club comedy, but it is just really exciting when you are there for an hour yourself. You’re the promoter and act. I’ve got no one to impress or stress about apart from the audience in front of me, rather than worrying if there’s some booker smoking a cigar at the back of the room, deciding whether or not I ever get to work again in comedy. Instead, I just get to focus on making the people in front of me laugh and having a connection with them. And that’s great. It’s such a privilege.
What do you hope audiences take away from the show?
Alex: As I say, a gag per minute!
Alex: It’s a very mathematical way of thinking about it, but I’m very keen on like, “Did you laugh a lot?” I was reflecting on this the other day, it’s funny that basically, the entire message of the show is essentially that advertising is bad, which is something that Bill Hicks said about 30 years ago! [Laughs] But that’s the root of the problem with big tech in my view.
What is a question that you wish you were asked about the show? And how would you answer it?
Alex: Let me look at some books!
Open to a random page!
Alex: Well, a fun fact that I like from reading these things is this notion that in terms of advertising, the thing that’s bad about social media is advertising because it makes those companies want to keep your services for longer than you might rationally desire. An example that would be deliberate how much more we’ve got in the way of cliffhangers and Netflix autoplay. One book about tech addiction that I was reading suggests that you should always watch any streaming show from ten minutes into the episode to ten minutes into the next so that the cliffhanger will have been resolved and you have no immediate ticking dial pressure to just watch the next episode. So all shows should be ten to ten rather than zero to zero when you watch them.
Interesting! So I guess the question would be a fun fact that you’ve learned from researching?
Alex: [Laughs] You’re correct, you got me!
Sharing fun facts is always fun! It’s not something you tend to think of. And how would you describe Winner Takes All in one word?
Alex: Let’s try and take funny as read, and let’s go . . . Can I go smart? I hope smart. What’s likable? Is that a likable thing to say? That sounds like an unlikable thing to say! [Laughs]
[Laughs] I don’t know!
Alex: One syllable was probably an error. I feel like I could have encoded more complex information.
I’ve had people do hyphenated words.
Alex: Yeah, I’ll suddenly start speaking German and I’ll say that there’s a complex, polysyllabic, multiple-word, hyperperfusion.
Thank you to Alex for the fun interview and to Julian Hall for arranging it!
Alex Kealy: Winner Takes All will be touring the UK from 27 March to 27 April with stops in London (27 March), Edinburgh (3 April), Bath (13 April), Belfast (19 April), Maidenhead (21 April), Reading (23 April), and Bristol (27 April). For more information and to see tour dates, you can click here.
Alex has also recently started a podcast with fellow comedian Ivo Graham called Gig Pigs. Each Thursday, the pair bring a guest to see a live musical performance and then have a discussion about what they’ve seen. So far, guests have included Rose Matafeo, Emma Sidi, Phil Wang, and Celya AB! The latest episode can be found here.