If I were a betting woman, I’d put money on Mo Gilligan blowing up in the United States in the next couple years. He oozes charisma nearly as much as he actually perspires onstage. He clearly appeals to the British audience he’s addressing in his first Netflix special, Mo Gilligan: Momentum, by cashing in on familiar childhood experiences, but is accessible enough that success in the United States is all but inevitable.
Despite the obvious Britishisms—shrimp cocktail crisps, a “bruv” thrown in to punctuate a sentence, the whole damn accent—Gilligan’s style actually feels closer to the broadness of mainstream American comedy. He doesn’t exactly do classic crowdwork (there are no “Where are you from?”-type questions, thankfully), but phrases nearly everything in the second person, making each experience sound universal in nature. And sure, maybe you didn’t have a school bully much like his, but Gilligan is so emotive and funny that you can picture the classroom confrontation going down just the way he describes it. His physicality is perhaps his strongest asset, with his slow-mo dance after dissing a teacher proving a particular highpoint.
On the other hand, the band onstage is one of the most divisive parts of the set. Comedy and music have always been bedfellows—Flight of the Conchords, Bo Burnham, Bill Bailey, etc.—but the combination is not necessarily fool-proof. Many of the previously mentioned acts work because music is a central piece of the comedians’ bits. They’re behind the piano or the guitar most of the time, frequently using their instruments as a means of expression. For Gilligan, though, the band sits behind him superfluously until he needs them to set the scene—a nightclub, a drunken family wedding, you name it—or serve as the backing track for an impromptu song. The latter works far better; after all, Gilligan’s rendition of UK garage music or a Rastafarian nursery rhyme make a lot more sense with a band supporting him.
However, situations like the staredown between a child asking for money and a disgruntled mother in bed are often funnier when you just see the comedian up there sweating on their own. If we wanted a scene with tense horror music as a kid plucks up the courage to ask for a couple pounds, we’d turn on some sitcom. The beauty of stand-up comedy is that the individual is up there commanding the audience in what may be one of the most nerve-wracking forms of entertainment. Conveying the scenario solo shows much more confidence and results in a bigger comedic pay-off. It’s an odd situation, considering how much self-assuredness he projects during the set.
The English comedian has yet to perfect his craft, and he certainly doesn’t need to rely upon a backing band that ends up being more of a gimmick than a strength. However, when he taps into his raw talent and potential, Gilligan gains unstoppable momentum.
Clare Martin writes about comedy, music and more for Paste.