After every Edinburgh Fringe, there is a blame game played about how the experience was awful and the Fringe is deteriorating. Usually, this revolves around the spiralling cost of accommodation and/or the physical and/or organisational chaos. But, for performers, mostly it’s the cost of the venue hire and/or the accommodation.
For beginners, here is a simple guide.
The locals blame the Council or the number of performers; the performers blame the venues and the Fringe Office; the venues blame the Council and the University (who temporarily rent a lot of buildings to venues); the Council blames the Fringe as an overall event and tries to appear to support the ratepayers; the Fringe Office tries to hide; the landlords, the shops, the Council and the University take the money gratefully.
The last time Mark Borkowski – legendary UK PR guru and master of the publicity stunt – appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe as a performer was 15 years ago with his Sons of Barnum show. This year, he’s back for five days (17th-21st August at Assembly, George Square) with an autobiographical show: False Teeth in a Pork Pie: How to Unleash Your Inner Crazy.
So I talked to him via Zoom at his home in Gloucestershire.
JOHN: What is the “inner crazy”?
MARK: It’s about not suppressing the idea that something is a totally loopy thing to do. We are told now there are so many rules you can’t break that we don’t even start looking at really disruptive thoughts which might change our lives.
JOHN: Why are you crazily taking another show to Edinburgh?
MARK: It’s 40 years of the Assembly and it was really important to me. Back then, it was about building a network. I slept on a journalist’s floor – Nigel Reynolds. And it was because everybody went to the Fringe. Every arts journalist of any repute went there and I saw the importance of making a network. That’s what my show this year is about, really. It has lessons for people to think about serendipity and adventure.
We don’t talk enough about how important it is to connect. Everything is promoted through technology now. Zoom. WhatsApp.
In this show I felt I could remind people about the importance of the physical moment of bumping into somebody in Edinburgh and making a relationship.
I will NEVER have a bad word to say about Edinburgh because Edinburgh is different. We are all this inner chimp inside of us: the caveman. We are all fired-up by feeding, fucking and fighting that Steve Peters, in The Chimp Paradox, wrote about. We’ve gotta make the effort.
So I thought Forty years! It would be an interesting point to juxtapose 40 years ago when I publicised and produced a show and lost a lot of money and saw failure… and learning from all that failure.
JOHN: So it’s good to fail at the Edinburgh Fringe?
MARK: Learning from failure in Edinburgh is a fantastic lesson. You learn about money; you learn about what’s good and bad; you see other things that are good; you learn from other people; and it’s a massive classroom. If you allow it to be. Reminding people about the elemental power of Edinburgh is partly why I wanted to go again.
I’ve been stuck, because of Covid, not enjoying culture for two years. So I wanna get that huge fix again. I want to be reminded that there are lunatics in Edinburgh. There are crazy people doing stuff – and I don’t mean the over-promoted stuff. The big arena/massive venue stuff is not the real Edinburgh Fringe.
JOHN: What is?
MARK: Some sweaty, horrible place that probably doesn’t quite pass fire or safety regulations but you’ll probably see something bonkers there. The act might not become Michael McIntyre or find its way onto Britain’s Got Talent – well, maybe it will as a freak – but it’s something to remind ourselves and re-plug-in.
In many ways, I see this as an experiment. My last show 15 years ago – Sons of Barnum – was an experiment to see if I had a book, maybe inspired by you a bit. And this time I want to see if there’s room for an autobiography of lunatics or ‘disruptors’ I’ve met.
If people buy into that, then maybe I will set about writing a book about it as well.
Let’s see if a younger audience – and it WILL be a younger audience in Edinburgh this year – will they buy into my mantra. If they do buy into my mantra, then there’s a hope I can do more. I am using Edinburgh as an experiment and that is what the Fringe used to be about.
JOHN: Surely An Autobiography About a Bunch of Showbiz Lunatics must be a commercial book?
MARK: Well, you have to strike the right balance. Publishers want the juicy stuff and I wouldn’t ever give away stuff that was entrusted to me. There would be stuff they would want me to focus on that I’m not interested in talking about.
JOHN: You can’t libel dead people.
MARK: Yeah, but their families are still there and, if their families don’t know the stories, what right have I got to tell the story of someone who didn’t want it to be told? There’s responsibility in memory which you have as a professional. You were paid; you had a trusted relationship. Some people I fell out with, but that’s no reason to do anything. If you seek revenge, prepare to dig two graves.
JOHN: You could write a real tell-all book that’s only published after your death. You’ll be dead and all the relevant people will be dead.
MARK: But your motivation when you’re alive should remain when you’re in your grave.
JOHN: When you are running a successful PR company, presumably to make money you have to have boring clients despite the fact your passion is to have mad clients.
MARK: It’s a balance. I always had and always will have an ear open to somebody with a mad idea.
JOHN: Have you ever actually turned down a client because they were going to be too boring?
MARK: Oh, loads. In the early days, I did turn down half a million quid. I just felt it would dry me up.
JOHN: It says here you’re “the last of the old school publicists”. How are the new publicists different?
MARK: Influencers. Influencer relations. It’s more using tech. Young people just won’t pick up the phone.
“Well, I texted him”…
“Well, pick up the fucking phone and talk to them!”
People THINK they want to be a publicist, want to be a storyteller… but they just don’t pick up the phone!
JOHN: Surely they can FaceTime rather than pick up the audio phone?
MARK: Same difference. I’m talking about the fact they would rather deal with an issue in a 3-line text. That is bizarre to me.
The other day, a tech journalist said to me that he could never get to meet people but finally he met this PR person for coffee and, afterwards, she called him up and said:
“I really enjoyed that. Can I ask a favour?… Would you say you met two of my friends?… Our boss is pushing us to go out all the time to meet people. We don’t really want to do that. So, if you could just say you ‘met’ them, my boss will be off their backs.”
I thought how terribly sad that was. To have a metric, a box ticked. I’m not anti-tech, but I just think we’re losing something.
I’m sick and tired of people who rely on everything from apps. To be guided around a city, to date, to shag. They probably even use WhatsApp to get their drugs.
I think there is something important about the connection of meeting people.
JOHN: We are talking on Zoom. You are in the West Country; I am in London. Does this count as meeting me?
MARK: Yes and no. It’s the best thing we can do until we get back to the idea of me coming back to London five days a week… No, it’s not the same… But, if you can’t have a ten minute conversation about an issue, hearing the tone of voice and so on, what’s the point? What do you KNOW about that person from a text?
JOHN: PR is just advertising face-to-face…?
MARK: There was a horrible time in the 2000s where ad agencies did see PR as an extension of advertising.
JOHN: Isn’t it?
MARK: It’s a communication practice to be sure, but… PR is a many-headed hydra. You cut one off and there’s another one that grows on in a different way. PR is a subtler craft of using influencers and social media and building content and a network.
JOHN: What’s the point of paying for PR at the Edinburgh Fringe? Acts can do it themselves.
MARK: Well some people go up and have a punt and they’re not very professional. They don’t understand the story or how to run a stunt, so it just becomes a bit of a noise.
JOHN: Your show False Teeth in a Pork Pie is only on for five days…
MARK: A five-day experiment.
JOHN: And after that?
MARK: I genuinely don’t know. I’m following my own mantra: Just see what happens. If it works, maybe I’ll travel it around, come to London with it. There’s a smattering of names in it. The Marlon Brando moment with Tony Kaye… My madness in Swindon… How I escaped being arrested… Stuff about Charles Hawtrey when I had to look after him… and just the joy of bonkers people, really.
They think differently; they look at things differently. I would never have met them if I hadn’t started my venture partly in Edinburgh and trusted in getting lost.
Serendipity is that event or that person you just bump into. That’s the joy of the Edinburgh Fringe.
The late Malcolm Hardee outside his childhood home
Alas no attempt was made to link the fact that the Award and the dead-but-impossible-to-forget comic Malcolm Hardee himself are both late.
Normally, there are three Malcolm Hardee Awards but, with no Fringe last year, with Covid still stalking the land and with staggeringly fewer shows at the Fringe this year, it’s a miracle there was any award at all.
As for the lesser Fringe awards… There were no Edinburgh Comedy (aka Perrier) Awards at all this year. And the eponymous TV channel did not attempt to award any prize for ‘DAVE’s Best Joke of the Fringe 2021’.
Fittingly, then, the winner of the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award this year was Will Mars, who announced his own ‘(Some Guy Called) DAVE Joke of the Fringe 2021’.
A cunning stunt indeed.
The TV channel’s annual prize is awarded after multiple allegedly top comedy industry professionals assiduously scout for jokes to nominate a shortlist and the final winner is decided by an allegedly carefully supervised public vote.
This year, Will Mars just got together a few gags from people’s shows and then wandered up the Royal Mile in Edinburgh trying to find anyone called Dave who would pick a winner from the bunch.
Surprisingly, finding someone called Dave turned out to be almost as difficult as picking a winner.
The chosen winning joke was Masai Graham’s:
“I thought the word ‘Caesarean’ began with the letter ‘S’ but, when I looked in the dictionary, it was in the ‘C’ section.”
The shortlist of other jokes – inexplicably Caesar-centric – which Will had got together included:
Adele Cliff: “The Roman emperor’s wife hates playing hide and seek because wherever she goes Julius Caesar.”
Ben Clover: “Getting a caesarian is dangerous in Russia. If they open you up and find a little girl, they open her up to see if there’s another.”
Ivor Dembina: “My therapist told me, ‘A problem shared, is a hundred quid’.”
Sameer Katz: “I think Chewbacca is French because he understands English but refuses to speak it.”
Leo Kearse: “Marvin Gaye used to keep a sheep in my vineyard. He’d herd it through the grapevine.”
Will Mars’ own: “My grandparents were married for forty years, but everything took longer back then.”
Tom Mayhew: “Me and my ex were into role play. I’d pretend to be James Bond and she’d pretend she still loved me.”
Rich Pulsford: “I don’t know what you call a small spillage from a pen but I have an inkling.”
The trophy for the one-off 2021 Award itself was designed and crafted by mad inventor John Ward, who has designed and made all the previous trophies.
But you can’t just knock-off a Malcolm Hardee Award in a minute or two. Oh no. Oh my dear me, no. Quality counts.
You need raw materials and then you have to decide what the fuck to do with them…
Once you have ’em, you have to shape ’em and craft ’em…
Then, if you’re talented like John Ward, you have to tart ’em up into a final trophy…
John Ward (he’s the one on the right) with the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award 2021
John Ward told me: “It’s basically Malcolm’s bonce, with real imitation hair, plus the specs mounted on an ‘H’ shaped base for Hardee.
“I used a BAFTA type theme but tried to take the piss out of it with the silver (on the right) symbolising the bland year and half it’s been with Covid and the golden ray of laughter (on the left) is pure (if that’s a suitable word) Malcolm with a hearty grin.”
“With real imitation hair?” I asked. “From where?”
“From a fabric shop I patronise for such things…”
“Such things?” I asked.
“I use it to make wigs and I buy it by the yard as you never know when you might run out of the hairy stuff…” replied John.
Here is a reminder of John Ward.
Here is Will Mars’ typically non-promotional speech accepting the 2021 Cunning Stunt Award…
The Edinburgh Fringe – or what passes for the Fringe in this let’s-hope-it’s-almost-over-Covid-pandemic netherworld – finishes this coming weekend. It started on 6th August.
The former Sir Gideon Vein with a very personal look…
I have not been up there but, when I chatted to performer Tony Green aka Sir Gideon Vein for a blog posted a fortnight ago, I mentioned that he might like to give his view of what it is like this year. He lives in Edinburgh for a lot of the year.
I have just received his highly-personal account…
I say ‘highly-personal’… That is exactly what I asked him for but, in other words, if you are an act who is mentioned, don’t send the hit-men to shoot ME…
The Duke of Wellington had developed a pointed head
A couple of weeks ago, ‘The Duke of Wellington’ had a cone placed upon his head. It seemed to herald the beginning of The Fringe (albeit a severely pared-down version). Although Queen Victoria’s statue at the top end of Leith Walk where the down and outs invariably assemble is frequently treated to a cone.
Anyway, as I mentioned to you, there has been practically no-one flyering up here – only the occasional one around the St Giles area giving out flyers for their own shows.
I went to see Walshy’s (formerly a homeless geezer whose face tells the story) show (A Number of Stand-Ups) in Niddry Street.
It turned out to be in the back annexe of a basement. No distancing and about sixty people (a capacity audience) crammed into one small oblong room about 20ft by 9ft with some wearing masks, some not.
There was no way I felt I could go in especially with a partner (not actually with me) who is totally vulnerable as regards this bloody virus.
So I walked along to The Canons’ Gait in the Canongate to see PBH’s Show (I’ve known him for years)… It turned out to be his night off. The compere was a woman called Kate Smurthwaite who opened with a stream of extraneous expletives.
I see the objective here but personally don’t feel it is necessary.
Kate Smurthswaite’s own one-woman show
Not that she actually said this but it could just as well have been something like: “Right, so Jack and Jill went up the fucking hill to fetch a fucking pail of water…”
I certainly have no objection to so-called ‘bad language’ – far from it – just the way it is used… e.g. When Malcolm Hardee used the ‘Fuck’ it was necessary AND funny in a lighthearted way – but this is a different arena.
Then there was a bit about about her ‘bush’ and pubic hair removal, then onto asking the audience intrusive questions (par for the course these days it would seem) e.g. “And what do you do for a living…?”
I was not asked – a pity perhaps.
Although the Oxbridge-educated Kate, who was formerly an investment banker in London and Japan, is a deeply politically-motivated comic as well as an activist and teacher, she didn’t touch on politics in her opener. Perhaps she was saving the political stuff for her midnight chat show.
I later saw her on the internet clashing with Laurence Fox – this was a TV link-up.
So the Chat Show would indeed have the potential for an explosive midnight hour and it is, by the way, the only midnight show at the Fringe.
The first comic on was a very young Norwegian bloke called Thor. He was alright, I suppose, and not unlikeable but nothing there really for someone like me – also asking the audience personal questions and explaining the problems he’d encountered regarding his ethnicity.
His English was actually better than many English people’s. Early days for him though.
It started to look a bit packed and there were no precautions or any distancing so I left early which may have been a pity.
Critic Kate Copstick went there last week and gave the night she went a 5-star review and later I believe Kate Smurthwaite’s own show was also highly commended.
A couple of days ago I saw a bloke – ‘Edinburgh Fringe Favourite’ Robert Inston – doing a one-man show about Jack the Ripper – a subject I know a fair bit about.
He attempted to portray five characters all of whom were closely associated with the Whitechapel Murders. This was in the large basement (so it was possible to sit far back) called Maggie’s Chamber at The Three Sisters in the Cowgate.
I appreciated his effort but, as he said, he is used to performing as women.
The trouble was (for me) ALL of the characters were portrayed in an overtly camp manner (fair enough with Queen Victoria) and his depiction of Walter Sickert (about whom crime writer Patricia Cornwell has a definite bee in her bonnet) as a nasty homosexual bitch hardly tied up with what is actually known about the man who was allegedly born with a malformed penis but who was married a couple of times (to women).
‘Leather Apron’ (John Pizer) was depicted as a fey gay (or that was the impression given).
An opportunity missed I thought.
Some people put as little as a penny in the collection bucket. The audience nevertheless were very well behaved throughout. My partner fell asleep (a large area and we were able to sit at the back).
Few posters at the Fringe in 2021
It sort of reminded me of a production of Dorian Gray (merit-wise) that I saw up here a few years ago. Oscar Wilde would have taken out a lawsuit – to call it lacking in subtlety would be a gross understatement.
The board with the posters at the end of the Cowgate is virtually the same board ALL over town. I haven’t seen Daniel Sloss or Craig Hill and somehow can’t imagine I ever will. The former I know got good reviews up here a few years ago.
In Hill Square (Hill Place), off Nicholson Street, there is a marquee with a raised platform. The venue is called The Space. On stage there were about six or seven young English girls by the sound of them singing pop songs a cappella, often with interpolation. It was Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive I heard. No disrespect to them, but hardly my bag. They had a reasonable audience.
It is a pity I couldn’t have said something nice about a show. The Free Fringe is hit and miss as expected. And this year there was not exactly a great deal to choose from…
The a cappella girls got a reasonable audience in Hill Square…
Machete Hetty demonstrates a fascinating narrative in her kitchen with her useful household utensils
SUNDAY 16th AUGUST
In the afternoon, I had tea with Machete Hetty in Leith. She had been going to stage her first Edinburgh Fringe show this year, but was outmanoeuvred by the coronavirus.
“You have never told me how you got your nickname ‘Machete’,” I said.
She told me.
I have told her to forget the show she had intended to stage this year and instead to stage this story at the Edinburgh Fringe next year – if the coronavirus allows.
It is a cracker of a narrative; she is a mesmeric natural storyteller; and, with the correct title, it would have them queueing round the block.
If I may be allowed to review the show before it has even been written, let alone staged, let me say: “Jesus Christ!”
Back in the old routine: Leith Walk dug up again, August 2020
Leith Walk is being dug up yet again for the tram extension. Clearly aiming to get commissioned as a long-running sitcom.
Edinburgh without the Fringe, not surprisingly, feels like Edinburgh off-season with just a few tourists (because of the coronavirus).
Just normal Edinburgh, in other words. There are always some tourists any time of year.
I have been coming to Edinburgh almost every single year since I was (literally) an embryo.
No overly-busy pavements this August; no Fringe show posters. So visually different.
Theatres have not had time to open. Cinemas, as in London, are open but look dead.
Bristo Square with the Teviot building across the emptiness
No Fringe events that I can see. (And I bought an Evening News yesterday – nothing.)
The Potterrow student shop and Dome in Bristo Square are closed (no students). The Teviot (the Gilded Balloon during the Fringe) was open but I didn’t go in. Bristo Square was empty save for a few skateboarders.
George Square was looking rural, green and tranquil.
Lots of people were sitting outside pubs and eateries last night, but they were locals or a dribble of tourists.
Lost Fringe advertising opportunities on the North Bridge…
The rebuilding of what was the St James Centre at the top of Leith Walk is STILL going on – this must have been going on for at least the last 3, maybe 4, years!
And the nearby North Bridge is being repaired. Apparently it fell down around 100 years and killed five people. I only repeat what I have been told. It has temporary wooden and plastic walls on both sides of the bridge ideal for Fringe posters (probably intentionally intended by the Council to get money in).
Because of COVID-19, I can hide missing teeth
MONDAY 17th AUGUST
I got home at 0130 after the flight from Edinburgh into London Gatwick. Very tired.
In the morning, I got a dental appointment – a cap had come off a dead tooth in Edinburgh on Saturday.
Rather than re-cap it, the dentist cut off the top and kept my plate (which I first got when I was about 16) until Wednesday. So I am now toothless at the front on the top.
It could be worse.
But, because of the coronavirus, I can justifiably wear a mask whenever I am out.
TUESDAY 18th AUGUST
In my local paper, the Borehamwood Times, columnist Paul Welsh wrote:
I was sad to read the death of 1960s pop star Wayne Fontana, who I saw in concert several times and who in later life was a character. I especially liked his 1967 hit Pamela Pamela.
Pamela Pamela was a hit in the Sixties. There is an online video of him performing it in 1985.
The phrase “who in later life was a character” drew my attention. I wanted to know more.
Apparently, according to Wikipedia, in 2005, he fought off bankruptcy but was arrested after police were called by bailiffs who went to his home in Glossop, Derbyshire. He poured petrol onto the bonnet of a bailiff’s car and set it alight with the bailiff still inside.
Wayne Fontana as Lady Justice (Photo: Rui Vieira/PA Wire)
He was remanded in custody on 25 May 2007. He later appeared at Derby Crown Court dressed as Lady Justice, complete with a sword, scales, crown, cape and dark glasses, and claiming “justice is blind”. He dismissed his lawyers.
On 10 November 2007, he was sentenced to 11 months for setting fire to the car but was released because he had already served the equivalent of the term, having been held under the Mental Health Act 1983.
Now THERE is a man I would have liked to meet.
Also the judge.
11 months sounds rather a light sentence for setting fire to a car with a person inside it… English justice at its most random.
Wayne Fontana’s group was called The Mindbenders.
Oh! The joy of having a full set of gnashers!
WEDNESDAY 19th AUGUST
I got my plate back from the dentist with the extra tooth on it. It fitted perfectly but was slightly uncomfortable. Well, my gums were not used to it.
I got a 49p McFlurry (ice cream) at the local McDonald’s. This is part of Chancellor ‘Dishy Rishi’ Sunak’s half price meals scheme Monday-Friday, to re-stimulate the UK economy after the economic shock of the coronavirus.
At Euston station, there was a loudspeaker announcement:
“Will Inspector Sands please go to the Control Room.”
I was sitting by an exit and looked around. None of the station staff seemed to be panicking. Nor running fast. I am still alive.
“Will Inspector Sands please go to the Control Room” means that there is a major incident in the building. They want to alert staff, but they don’t want to panic members of the public.
It comes, originally, from theatres, where sand was used to put out fires. It meant the building was on fire. But now it is used more generally in public buildings. Nowadays it is perhaps more likely to be a terrorist attack than a fire.
The announcement went round on a tape loop for about 2 minutes – a long time – then stopped. The only other time I have heard it was on a platform at Stratford station for maybe 20 seconds where, at the end, without explanation, it was followed by: “The test is now over”.
Adam Wilder, entrepreneurial big hitter and hugger
THURSDAY 20th AUGUST
At lunchtime, I chatted to Adam Wilder (formerly Adam Taffler) for a future blog.
He greeted me with a large hug.
A big hug.
A big, big hug.
Honestly! Theatrical types versus coronavirus distancing!
What on earth is one to do?
But NHS bureaucracy is even worse.
Bits of a terribly confusing time-travelling letter from the NHS
I got a letter today (20th August) from the Kidney Man sent to my GP with a cc to me.
It was a bit confusing at first until I realised it was written on 7th July, allegedly signed (no signature) and verified by the Kidney Man on 12th August and printed-out & sent to me on 17th August.
It referred to my medical symptoms and mentioned future treatment which is now in the past. I have received at least three letters written after this one but sent before this one.
There is nothing like keeping up-to-date and this was etc etc etc…
The NHS is staffed by well-meaning, hard-working people, but all bureaucracies are incompetent and the larger the bureaucracy the larger the incompetence.
What would Archimedes have made of all this?
FRIDAY 21st AUGUST
It is a good thing Greece is known for its mathematical geniuses.
A local Greek restaurant is offering 15% off all food and drink Monday-Wednesday.
‘Dishy’ Rishi’s deal is 50% off food (but not alcoholic drink or spirits) Monday-Wednesday during August.
It would take Archimedes, Euclid and Pythagoras to figure out which offer is better value, taking alcoholic imbibement into account. As I don’t drink alcohol or spirits, the 15% deal would be worse than ‘Dishy’ Rishi’s deal.
A visual equivalent of trying to edit my words
SATURDAY 22nd AUGUST
On Thursday, I had a chat with performer Jo Burke for her upcoming series of online podcasts. I should perhaps have warned her that, although I am quite good interviewing people, I am appalling as an interviewee. I witter and wander off the subject. It sounds not too bad if you are talking to me but, combined with a speech pattern that elides words leaving no gaps, it is a nightmare – sometimes an impossibility – to edit. She discovered this today.
Well, serious self-analysis always goes down well with the Awards judges.
My last blog here was about a conversation I had with a chum at St Pancras station in London.
I also started pontificating to her about how to write a one-hour comedy show for the Edinburgh Fringe. I think she glazed over internally but disguised it well. After all, she is a performer.
I am not a performer. So what do I know?
Ignore what follows if you have better ideas.
And, like all generalities, there are exceptions.
But – hey! – this is my blog and, just for the helluvit, this is what I think…
Go write your own blog if you disagree.
The only near-certainty if you follow any advice of mine or any advice of any kind or no advice of any kind is that you will probably lose money at the Fringe…
Expanding a good 20-minute stage act where you meander from one anecdote to another via cleverly obscuring the fact that none of the bits really fit together but you have ‘seamlessly’ Sellotaped over the gaps with clever links… That doesn’t work in a 55-ish minute show at the Edinburgh Fringe (or anywhere else).
You have to write a single unitary show.
BIT OF ADVICE 1
I think all Edinburgh shows need a single relentless theme and 100% should be about that one single theme with a single developing narrative strand.
People talk about the ‘dead dad’ story you should drop in about 35-40 minutes into the duration of a 55-ish minute show.
The theory of the Dead Dad is that a show can have wonderfully funny stories but, after about 30-35 mins, the audience settles into the rhythm of the performance and they still laugh but ‘sameness’ fatigue sets in, even though they’re still laughing.
An unexpected shock at around 35/40 minutes into a 55 min narrative show pulls the carpet from under the audience’s expectations and shocks them into being 100% attentive again. If you can suddenly mention that your dad died last week, that should do it. But anything unexpected and different.
They are shocked – when it’s successful – into total silence. Of course, in a comedy show, you then have to be a good enough performer to get them back in the last 10 minutes to finish with a climactic laughter fest/orgasm. Then they go out happy and smiling having been on the thrill of a rollercoaster.
BIT OF ADVICE 2
Write an elevator pitch for your own show. For your eyes only. Eight words saying what your show is specifically about. Not generally. No generality. One specific subject.
Anything that doesn’t fit that succinct 8-word description, chuck it out.
It doesn’t matter how clever or funny it is. If it doesn’t fit the description, chuck it out. You can use it in a future show but NOT this show. However funny, however clever, however well-written it is… if it doesn’t fit into your 8-word description of your own show’s specific subject, it will interrupt the flow of the single narrative thread and it will be a distraction to the audience’s attention/involvement in your narrative.
A good show is a good show because of what you DO NOT include.
There used to be an ad on television, the selling line of which was:
“It’s the fish John West reject that make John West the best”
Follow the fish principle!
But without the smell.
A good show is a good show because of what you DO NOT include, even more than what you include.
BIT OF ADVICE 3
Ask yourself why you alone can do this specific show and no-one else can.
If you can do a show on a general subject, then so can I – so can anyone else.
If you can’t be original, at least be personal.
Why can you alone do this specific show and no-one else can?
Make it personal.
No-one reads autobiographies for facts.
They want to be voyeurs on another person’s life. Either because they think: That’s just like me. Or they want to experience something they have never and will never experience.
People want to hear about people not ideas.
Or they want to hear about ideas via a narrative involving people whose lives and minds they can become involved with.
No-one except an academic reads books or watches movies or watches comedy shows for abstract facts. That ain’t a show, it’s a lecture. Go perform at Speaker’s Corner in London, not on a comedy stage in Edinburgh.
If you talk about facts illustrated by specific human stories – ideally your own – people will be interested.
Pretty much the same events happen to everyone. But how the events interact with a specific person is unique.
Ordinary people read books/watch shows for emotional and psychological voyeurism. They want to identify with other people.
BIT OF ADVICE 4
This goes back to concentrating the audience’s minds with a single narrative plot.
The ‘one’ plot is allegedly… A hero (or heroine) sets out on a quest to find something. Things happen along the way. The hero (or heroine) finds the thing (good or bad) – it may be a truth or a revelation.
It is a search for a specific Holy Grail.
In the case of a one hour Fringe show, everything along the way has to progress the journey. No jolly side anecdotes unrelated to the quest. Everything must be relevant to your 8-word definition of the quest.
The Grail – the climax of the show – is a single specific thing.
When you start writing the show, you have to know what the very end is. Otherwise you will inevitably waffle.
What is the last paragraph, the last sentence of the show?
Anyone can do a show about the quest for an idea.
What is the specific show only you can write and perform about that quest that I or 2,000 other people cannot do?
The comedy scene there is not a good one in which to polish your craft. The open mike opportunities are sparse and, unlike London or even San Francisco, the only audiences at these events are other comedians and that is no way to judge if your comedy has a broad appeal.
When I had been doing comedy for seven years I had already been elevated to paying gigs and could improve by listening to the reaction I got from larger more diverse audiences
In Singapore, they have only two outlets.
Umar Rana runs Masala and he always has international headliners. He is very good at employing locals, but his shows are only once a week and he cannot have the same person week after week. That means there is little opportunity to practice your craft with a real audience. There are too many comedians and too few slots to fill.
The Merry Lion began two years ago and is not as established. I was very interested to see if it had improved. It had been a very basic room with few comforts or amenities when I last performed there.
The result of this paucity of opportunity – only two outlets – is that the ‘big’ names here are not that effective in the larger international scene.
Here they are local headliners; in European venues throughout the world they are mediocre at best.
Comedians in Singapore who feel they have an edge want to go to the Edinburgh Fringe to get reviews and make an international name for themselves.
I find that appalling because they do not understand the true nature of what the Edinburgh Fringe has become.
It will cost them an inordinate amount of money. The cost of getting a show listed and advertising it – even if they are part of the Free Fringe or Free Festival – is very high.
They will be paying twice as much for food and three times as much for lodging as they would anywhere else in the world. The reviews they receive for the most part will be by amateur reviewers hired for no pay by the reviewing outlets who do not understand the challenges of doing comedy in your second language.
They may very well fill the house in Edinburgh (although I have my doubts about that) but, when they launch their career internationally, it founders because they are simply not sharpor experienced enough.
And that is not because they are not funny.
It is because, despite what people think, it takes years and years to polish a set so it has universal appeal.
I have been doing this for 16 years and I have a natural talent for comedy. Yet, I am still far from there… and I have had plenty of opportunities to practice and to work on my delivery.
People in this part of Asia do not have those outlets.
Furthermore, standup comedy has become a business. You have to have a name that people recognize if you are to be booked at the major clubs who make a profit from their shows.
That becomes a Catch-22 situation because you cannot get that name unless you have the opportunity to perform and those chances are given to people who are already established.
I always tell comedians that they have to truly love doing what we do for its own sake. This is easy enough for me to say because I am on a pension and only have myself to support. If you have a family and expensive tastes, I do not know what to advise. It is true that money can get you pretty far in the field but then even kids with rich daddies (and I see far too many of them on the scene) grind to a halt.
Stand up comedy has changed my own life for the better. I am not sure even now if this is an individual thing because my previous life was such an unflushed toilet or something I can say will happen to anyone who devotes himself to it.
Here is an extract from his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake…
We went back to Edinburgh the next year – back to The Hole in The Ground – and this time Circuit had three tents. They loved a tent. They had a big one in the middle, with a small one on one side and a medium one on the other. Like Daddy Tent, Mummy Tent and Little Baby Tent. You could pay to see one show and hear all three as the shows were running simultaneously.
We were in the Daddy Tent. Emma Thompson was in the little one with ‘The Emma Thompson Band’. And, in the medium one, was this American creature called Eric Bogosian. He later starred in Oliver Stone’s movie Talk Radio. I never got on with him. He was a prima donna. He upset everyone. He upset Emma Thompson. She was in tears and I boldly told him to leave her alone.
All the arguments and artistic friction came about because of the clash of noise.
What we tried to arrange was to perform all our noisy bits at the same time and all our quiet bits at the same time, so the audiences wouldn’t get too distracted. But Eric was having none of it. One part of his show had Heavy Metal music – very loud – in our quiet bit. His show was called Funhouse – An Anarchistic Romp Through The American Way of Life. So, I thought, well at least he’s a bit of an anarchist. He’ll like a laugh, won’t he?
Our show that year started with me entering on a tractor. I tried to leap over ten toy cars but, of course, the tractor went off the ramp and squashed the cars. Good opening. We had persuaded the manager of a local garden centre to lend us the tractor for free and we advertised his business. He was a typical dour Scot and was in the audience with his family the night I decided to visit Eric Bogosian.
We had had about six days of Eric’s Heavy Metal music coming through into our show, so I decided to go and see Eric in his tent. During a performance.
It came to the part of our show where Eric was making a hell of a row with his heavy metal tape. I screamed at our audience to make myself heard above the noise:
“Look, we’ll go and see Eric. All of us. He’ll like it. He’s a bit of a laugh. He’s an anarchist.”
I jumped on the tractor, naked. The stages were flat. So I drove out of our tent on the tractor and straight in to his tent and onto his stage. Our audience followed behind the tractor.
“Hello, Eric!” I said.
He was swaying backwards and forwards, ‘air-guitaring’ with a broom handle in his hands and he was going “Brrrrrmmmmmm!” to this AC/DC track that was coming out of the loudspeakers. Very witty, I presume.
When he saw me in the nude on the tractor followed by all our audience, he stopped performing and flopped in a chair that was at the back of the stage. We all filed past, then came out of his tent and back into our own and thought no more about it.
After about two minutes, I heard the sound of a tractor being smashed up with a sledge-hammer. Then I heard, round the back, all the dressing-rooms being smashed up. Then he came running in. By this time, Martin Soan was naked and I had clothes on. Eric saw Martin and thought it was me. So he hit Martin and knocked him over and then ran out screaming. Martin got up and carried on, because we’ve had worse than that.
“For successful classroom teaching, your students need to be engaged and active learners. In this book, there is practical advice that is grounded in the realities of teaching in today’s classrooms on how to be an inspirational teacher and produce highly motivated students.”
Despite at least three attempts to get Amazon.co.uk to correct the description, they seem to be incapable of doing so.
On the other hand, I suspect Malcolm (who drowned in 2005) would approve the surreal description with a hearty “Oy Oy! Fuck it!”
First-timer Michael Livesley, Half The Man in a comedy show at The Free Sisters about how he lost half his body weight and much else, emailed me, saying:
“The first night went well. No idea what to expect but my hope is to emerge from the Fringe battle-hardened and ready for the next chapter next year.”
Doyenne of comedy critics Kate Copstick released the first of her Slaughtered podcasts at this year’s Fringe…
The original President Obonjo cast a pod
…In it, she interviewed controversial man-of-the-moment President Obonjo (Goodbye Mr President at the Voodoo Rooms) and she revealed that a BBC Studios executive – not unconnected with ripping-off President Obonjo – speaking in his official role as a BBC Studios producer – told her: “Live comedy isn’t as important as it thinks it is”.
More of this in a future blog.
Meanwhile, blonde bombshell (she will hate that) and social/sexual campaigner Samantha Pressdee – according to the aforementioned Kate Copstick, “almost certainly the most uninhibitedly entertaining proponent of female empowerment you will see” contacted me to say: “The recruitment campaign for the Barmy Army has started.”
Samantha’s dossier aims “to ignite potential”
When I saw the last of the London previews for Samantha’s Fringe show Covered (directed by award-winning Phil Nichol), she gave me a ‘Dossier’ aimed to “ignite potential in the 1 in 4 people who will experience mental health issues.”
Now, at the just-started Fringe, Samantha tells me: “On my second night, I am proud to say every audience member signed up and received their copy of Uncovered: The Dossier.
Tony Slattery and Samantha Pressdee bonding in Edinburgh
“I also met my hero Tony Slattery. He is so inspiring. I told him, “I’m bipolar too,” and he replied: Nice to meet you both.
“He was even more lovely in person than he is online which is VERY lovely. He gave me loads of cuddles and his email address. I hope to get him involved in my Pulling It Togetherproject. I am also adopting him as an uncle.”
The gaffer-taped Fringe shoes
She continued: “I brought 13 pairs of shoes to Edinburgh (none of them sensible). So it was not as big a tragedy as it might have been that I broke one shoe on arrival at my venue’s press launch (PQA Venues @ Riddle’s Court).
“You cannot,” she says, “even tell that it is now secured thanks to the magic of gaffer tape.”
The preview of her show which I saw in London was preceded by a video which included – blink and you miss it – a clip of her yolk-covered appearance in the annual Russian Egg Roulette Championships at the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards show.
Until 2017, this show took place annually around midnight on the final Friday of the Fringe in the Ballroom of The Counting House (programmed by the Laughing Horse Free Festival).
Bizarrely – and surely a coincidence, given that the Malcolm Hardee Awards ended in 2017 – I hear that there has been a sudden change of schedule at midnight on the final Friday of this year’s Fringe with an un-named potentially two-hour show being shoe-horned into the Counting House Ballroom.
The Edinburgh Fringe is always full of surprises and there are another three weeks to go…
First of all, think of it not from your viewpoint but from the viewpoint of the punters and the reviewers.
In my opinion, you should have a title which starts in the first half of the alphabet.
ZEBRA JOKES FOR FOLKS may seem like a good title, but punters looking through the Fringe Programme start at the front and work through looking for attractive shows. So they go A-B-C-D-E etc etc.
By the time they get to M or N, after literally hundreds of shows, they are starting to skim the listings, their eyes are glazing over and the time slots they want to fill-up already have multiple shows vying for their attention. By the time they get to Z, they probably wish they had never had the idea of going to the Edinburgh Fringe in the first place..
For this reason, the late Malcolm Hardee used to start his titles with Aaaaargh!… increasing the length of the Aaaaaaaarghs year-by-year to out-manoeuvre copycats.
He was almost always first in the Fringe Programme’s comedy section listings.
In Edinburgh in August, you are not the only show in town…
Don’t go for Aaaaaaargghh! The market for it is already full. But I suggest you have a first word which starts with a letter between A and M.
Using the title A ZEBRA SHOW probably will not work because A and THE tend to be ignored by the Programme’s alphabetical listers.
Also, in my opinion, you should have your name in the title because, ultimately, the reason you are performing at the Edinburgh Fringe is to sell yourself and awareness of yourself to punters and to the media – NOT primarily the show.
Jonathan Ross first became famous on the Channel 4 show THE LAST RESORT WITH JONATHAN ROSS.
No-one knew who the fuck Jonathan Ross was when it started (not the punters; not TV industry people) but, because the show was good, they inevitably got to know his name. Every time the show was mentioned or printed, his name was publicised because it was in the title.
Another important thing is DO NOT BE TOO CLEVER with a title. Achieving impact is more important than being seen to be clever-clever. The more clever a title is, very often the more confusing, obscure and – when glimpsed for 1½ seconds on a flyer or in the very cluttered listings page in the Programme – possibly the more incomprehensible it is – especially to people from the US, Oz, Europe etc. The dividing line between being intriguing and confusing & annoying is narrow.
Your self-explanatory title has to stand out without an image
You only have 1 to 1½ seconds at very most for the title to register in people’s brains as they skim through listings, see your flyer among many or see your poster among many 15 feet away across a street.
KISS – Keep It Simple, Sucker.
The other thing to remember is that, in lists of “Today’s Shows” – either in The Scotsman newspaper or on a board at the venue or elsewhere – the punters only see the title in isolation – they may well NOT have read your 40 carefully-crafted words in the Fringe Programme. So your sole sales pitch to the punters who have never heard of you and who have no idea what your show is about is the title.
My inclination would be to figure out what TYPE of comedy show it is going to be.
Then figure out three words which make that obvious.
Then make them jolly and attractive (no easy feat).
And mix your name in there somehow.
I know that, when the Fringe Programme deadline comes, you will almost certainly have very little idea what is actually going to be in your show. But is it satire? Quick fire gags? Stories? Autobiographical? Physical comedy? Gay? Variety? Sketch? Surreal? Rude? Clean? Cutting-edge? Clowny? Family?
As a punter, if I see a general show title from a performer I have not seen, I have no idea what the show is like. It could be any of the above categories. If it is in a simple Daily Listing in a paper, in a magazine or on a board, there is not even a flyer or poster image. Just the title.
So the title on its own has to tell the punters – or at least hint – what TYPE of comedy show it will be.
Someone like Jimmy Carr does not need to do this. Because people know what to expect. They know who Jimmy Carr is and they know he is not a comedy magician or a juggler or a drag act.
Janey Godley is unusual in that her name will bring in punters
Someone like Janey Godley can get away with titles using puns on her name because she has a big existing audience in Edinburgh. So For Godley’s Sake! will work for her. The word GODLEY will get in her dependable audience.
But, the punters probably have no idea who you are – it is your first Fringe show. Remember that, defying expectations, a large percentage of your audience is likely to be local NOT from London. All the Fringe Office research I have ever seen seems to confirm this.
Another bonus to a clearly-defined title is that the title – as well as helping the punters know roughly what your show is about – will actually concentrate your own mind on exactlywhat the show is about and will stop you whizzing off in all sorts of irrelevant directions. Everything in the show should relate directly to the title.
And don’t use meaningless words – every word has to actually mean something. This is more important in the text rather than the title, but…
“Hilarious” and “rib-tickling” mean bugger-all.
Your show is in the Comedy section fer feck’s sake. Every show can say it is “hilarious”. What is your show’s Unique Selling Proposition? Why is it better and more interesting that the other zillions of comedy shows yelling for attention?
Do not even THINK about being zany!
Meaningless words like “wacky” and “zany” are actually suicidal. If any experienced reviewer sees those words in the description, it screams “18-year-old University student wankers who think they are funny and want to be famous and fêted”. It is like people putting up signs saying: “You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps”.
These “wacky” and “zany” shows are almost guaranteed to be laughter disasters. I would personally avoid like the plague seeing any show describing itself as “wacky” or “zany” and I would be more likely to go see a comedy show calling itself “Satanic” than one claiming it is “hilarious”.
In my opinion.
But that don’t mean a thing.
The other vitally important factor to bear in mind is the oft-repeated refrain from William Goldman’s book Adventures in The Screen Trade – “Nobody KNOWS anything”.
However experienced or knowledgable anyone is, they don’t KNOW what will work.
You have to ultimately go on your gut instinct, have self-confidence and ignore any advice you think is wrong.
Don’t forget you can probably change the name of your show either until you submit it or until the final deadline for the Fringe Programme (both have been the case in past years) or until some arbitrary date that the Fringe Office may conjure up.
Because, just as this may be your first year at the Fringe, so it is for a lot of the people working for the Fringe Office, many of whom change from year to year.
Richard Herring had to splurge out his ‘O’
There was one inglorious year – 2012 – when a completely barking mad person was in charge of the printed Programme. I blogged about it at the time – here and here and elsewhere.
2012 was the year poor Richard Herring had his show asterisked TALKING C*CK despite the fact that the origin of the word ‘cock’ in that phrase is not sexual (it comes from ‘cock & bull story’) and despite the fact that his original show TALKING COCK had been printed in the Fringe Programme with impunity ten years before, in 2002.
In 2009, I staged a show which the Fringe Programme had happily printed as AAAAAAAAAARRGHHH! IT’S BOLLOCK RELIEF! – THE MALCOLM HARDEE AWARD SHOW. They would never have allowed that in 2012 and that had nothing to do with changing public taste but with individual stupidity in the Fringe Office.
Never assume anyoneanywhere in Edinburgh in August is sensible.
2012 was the year the title STUART GOLDSMITH: PRICK was UNacceptable by the Fringe Office but the title STUART GOLDSMITH: PR!CK was totally acceptable (with an exclamation mark replacing the I)… and Australian comedian Jon Bennett intended to perform his first Edinburgh Fringe show: PRETENDING THINGS ARE A COCK.
The show’s title had been printed in full without any problem in the brochures for the Adelaide Fringe, the Edmonton International Fringe, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the Montreal Fringe and the Vancouver International Fringe. But the Edinburgh Fringe Office that year insisted the word COCK had to be changed to C*CK.
Mindless Fringe Office censored the word but not the image
To make matters even more ludicrous, the word had to be printed C*CK in the Programme listings, but the image for the show (also printed in the Programme) had the word COCK rising erect from a man’s groin.
The same Programme happily printed the show title MOLLY WOBBLY’S TIT FACTORY, a show by KUNT AND THE GANG and Reginald D Hunter’s show WORK IN PROGRESS…AND NIGGA while banning another comedian’s show title because it included three dollar signs in a row – $$$ – which, it was claimed, did not fit ‘the Fringe’s house style’.
Always assume that everyone in Edinburgh in August is on some hallucinogenic drug or has a severe personality disorder. This assumption has served me well.
Never assume anything at the Fringe is easy or anyone is sane.
Most importantly, do remember that the title of your show is all about self-promotion, not necessarily about the show itself.
One template which I do recommend for any Edinburgh Fringe show title is:
AAAAAAARGH! I LISTENED TO JOHN FLEMING AND THAT IS WHY I, (INSERT YOUR NAME HERE), HAVE THIS CRAP TITLE FOR MY (INSERT YOUR GENRE HERE) COMEDY SHOW.