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Comics Solving Problems – The Free Festival

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writers: Steve N Allen and Erich McElroy

The topical news quiz is a bit of a British staple with long-running television panel shows including Have I Got News for You and Mock the Week sitting alongside fondly remembered spoofs such as The Day Today. As part of The Free Festival broadcasting Edinburgh shows in lieu of the annual Scottish gathering, Steve N. Allen and Erich McElroy stream their twice-weekly news show to their YouTube channel.

Following an early series under lockdown conditions and their Edinburgh live show, series two, now called Comics Solving Problems, broadcasts live at 9pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays from their respective homes, where the formally dressed Allen and McElroy spend 45-minutes satirising the big issues of the week while responding to viewer comments as the show unfolds.

Two episodes in the first week establish a format that pays homage to the well-known news comedy titans, a series of headlines to be mocked, graphics, sketches and witty banter between the hosts. But Allen and McElory add their own spin with a issue-based structure that positions highly topical events as a problem to be solved covering themes as diverse as wearing masks, obesity, exam results, fake earthquakes, coronavirus vaccines and, the satirical gift that keeps on giving, Trump.

Long-term comedy partners used to the limitations of video calling platforms, the hosts rarely talk over one another, maintaining their naturel rapport while leaving space for each other to comment and contribute without any of the multi-microphone burbling that usually accompanies live streams. Allen’s background in radio is particularly noticeable in the smooth delivery and segue between topics in a show that is carefully structured but leaves enough room for in-the-moment reactions.

These are particularly useful in Episode Two where a partial sound problem is pointed out in the audience chat and rectified in under 5-minutes allowing the presenters to joke about the perils of live theatre. Having taken a brief hiatus between series, the first edition felt a little more formal in both structure and delivery, but by the second episode Allen and McElroy had relaxed into their roles, taking setbacks in their stride, having meta discussions with the audience about the creation of skits and being unexpectedly drawn into some plumbing chat.

The humour itself is gently mocking rather than vicious or biting, but drawing on stories as silly as diamond face masks, a stuntman proposing while on fire and whether Kamala Harris’ husband will be known as the Second Lady, the creators clearly spend plenty of time researching serious and silly stories in the UK and US to give their show breadth, while the problem-solving idea largely works as a motor for each segment.

Whether or not you find this laugh-out-loud hilarious or lightly amusing, the show’s biggest asset is Allen and McElroy who are genial company for 45-minutes and clearly love delivering the show to its engaged audience. In yet another year of dramatic events, human behaviour is still as eccentric as ever and with the big news panel shows off-air, this socially distant Edinburgh Festival live stream is an enjoyable replacement.

Runs here while The Free Festival runs here until 30 August 2020

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