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Why audiences do not need to laugh for a live comedy show to be successful

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Dumbing-down will never be an option for intelligent, increasingly-prestigious comedy commentators like us

This evening, I recorded the latest weekly Grouchy Club Podcast with comedy critic Kate Copstick.

We were possibly going to talk about the art of writing but, as usual, we got sidetracked. So we ended up talking, among other things, about great new UK comedy acts we had seen, the time when Copstick played Carnegie Hall, the abstract joy of listening to foreign-language comedy, why UK audiences laugh, why Chinese audiences do not necessarily react, why Copstick describes me as “the goldfish of comedy” and the death of US theatre producer Calvin Wynter.

We also talked about why audiences do not need to laugh for a comedy show to be successful. Here is a tiny part of that conversation:


JOHN
You can do a 60-minute comedy show and, if it’s intellectually stimulating and fascinating, it doesn’t really need three-laughs-a-minute.

COPSTICK
I think one of the things that comics need to remember is that the show is for the audience. If the audience are loving it quietly, that’s fine. Out-Loud laughter is really for the comic – to reassure him or her that they’re doing tremendously well and that the audience absolutely adore them and are hanging on their every word.

Some comics will say: Oh! Smiling’s no use to me… Well, I (the audience) am not here for you. I am here for me. I have paid money to sit and enjoy this show however I choose to enjoy this show.

JOHN
But it is difficult to react to an audience that you can’t ‘read’ – and you can’t read them very easily if they don’t laugh.

COPSTICK
Well, you should be able to – if you’re a professional performer.


The full 36-minute podcast is available HERE.

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“The gendered experience of sexist humour”- New research shows how audiences react to comic Lewis Schaffer

Lewis Schaffer: creating a cult

Lewis Schaffer – a sign of the Thames

London-based American comic Lewis Schaffer puts himself about a bit… Well, he puts himself about a LOT in London. The Independent newspaper recently called him a “London institution”.

Week in/week out, he has been performing five days every week for quite a while now.

Every Monday for the last five years, he has hosted his half hour Resonance FM show Nunhead American Radio with Lewis Schaffer.

Every Tuesday and Wednesday for almost five years, he has been performing his hour-long (or longer) Lewis Schaffer is Free Until Famous show (currently at the Rancho Grill in Mayfair).

Every Thursday, he turns up to perform a spot at the Monkey Business comedy club in Kentish Town.

And, every Sunday for almost two years, he has performed his hour-long Lewis Schaffer: American in London show at the Leicester Square Theatre.

Now he seems to be cornering the market in being analysed by university students.

Liam Lonergan meets a man with answers

Liam Lonergan got First in Schaffer Studies

In February, my blog carried extracts from academic Liam Lonergan’s interview with Lewis Schaffer for his (Liam’s) BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth

In April, Liam got a 1st for his thesis. I posted part of it.

Then, last Friday, Rose Ives got a 1st in her Sociology BA course at Goldsmiths College. She has been following Lewis around and observing audiences at his gigs for perhaps two years. Below, with her permission, is an extract from her academic piece which examines how audiences react to Lewis Schaffer’s performances.


Rose and Lewis Schaffer in Edinburgh yesterday afternoon

Rose reacts to Lewis Schaffer at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013

From the three pieces of ethnographic data I collected in the field, comparing and contrasting and thematically analysing the three methods of data collection, four key themes emerged.

AWARENESS

When watching the reactions to the six jokes selected, the women in the audience looked around at whoever they were with (this occurred in couples and non-couples) before they performed any of the gestures I had codes for on the Joke Sheet. This did not happen with the male members of the audience who mostly maintained eye contact throughout and laughed openly without looking around.

If the men did look around at other audience members it was whilst laughing or to signal an inside joke. The women looked around at other audience members with caution as though they were seeking approval. When asked about this in the ethnographic interviews, many were surprised that they had done such a thing. They did not deny that they had done it (not in the way they denied the gestures described in Denial of negative reactions) but they offered no explanation for their own actions, although some offered an almost psychological explanation for it, dissociating themselves from the action in the process.

One woman in her late twenties answered me when I asked her about why she looked around before not laughing at a joke about having sex with a transsexual: “I thought it was fucking hilarious but I’m not about to go making a fool of myself and have everyone think I’m some woman who loves dirty cock jokes.”

SEPARATING JOKE FROM COMEDIAN

Lewis Schaffer performing in London last night

Lewis Schaffer performing for no reason without his shirt on

The data from which this theme emerged were the ethnographic interviews I conducted after the show and during the intervals.

The men I spoke to, and this was across all ages and regardless of whether I interviewed them in a couple or as single, spoke about the joke and comedian as a “He” – the joke was “his joke”, their opinion on the show was “he is funny”, “he is crazy” – whilst the women at the show, again this was across all ages but particularly prevalent amongst women under 30 years old, spoke about the jokes, the material and the comedy as a whole as an “it.”

One woman who was in her early twenties and with a group of female friends of a similar age said: “It was certainly interesting. I’ve not seen much stand-up like this, it was funny. He’s sweet. (Referring to the comedian)” and this is a good representation of the shorter conversations I had as some people were eager to leave the venue after the show ended.

The men in the audience talked about the comedian as though he were a friend and therefore spoke about the jokes with forgiveness, as though it were friendly banter in the form of “Informal comedy”(Mulkay, 1988) whereas the women in interviews, many of which were couples with the men, were reluctant to engage personally with the comedian as if to do so would be condoning the sexist jokes.

Most women avoided critical engagement with the jokes when directly asked and used measured terms such as “perhaps you’re right” and “maybe it was because…” whilst the men interpreted my questions as an invitation to critique or praise the comedian in absolute terms – “He’s a pro (professional)”, “He’s a good guy” – which highlights a great contrast in the gendered experience of sexist humour.

DENIAL OF NEGATIVE REACTIONS

Lewis Schaffer on stage in London this week

Lewis Schaffer performing for no reason with his jacket on

If the Approval section was the first step in the process of reacting negatively to a joke, the second stage was the gestures that I had coded on the Joke Sheet.

When reacting to jokes concerning the comedian personally – self-deprecating jokes about the comedian’s age or appearance – the women in the audience covered their mouths whilst laughing (this is one of the symbols on the Joke Sheet) as though they didn’t want to be seen laughing at the comedian. This gesture doubled as embarrassment, especially when coupled with looking away from the stage (also a symbol on the Joke Sheet).

The most interesting aspect of the reaction patterns that came from the Joke Sheets were the explanations that followed in the ethnographic interviews.

When I repeated the jokes I saw them react negatively towards, they denied that they had reacted in such a way, brushing off any words such as “sexist”, “offensive” or “taboo” with laughter and changed the words to “dirty” or “naughty” to articulate their thoughts. This showed how they were both embarrassed and ashamed of the sexist material as well as being embarrassed and ashamed of their reaction to it. This also approves the results of the humour and context work by Gray and Ford (2012).

THE PERSONAL TOUCH

Lewis Schaffer, shoeless man

Comedian Lewis Schaffer, not performing, with his shoes off

Although the focus throughout this research has been the consumption not the production of the comedy, it would do the data an injustice not to discuss the patterns of techniques the comedian uses and their effect on how the women in the audience perform their gender roles.

As a known friend of the comedian, the main obstacle of the interview process was attempting to get the participants to stop asking me questions about Lewis Schaffer. Both men and women (although the majority were women) asked me if many of the jokes he had made about himself were true – if he really was living in a council flat, if he really was a divorcee etc.

“The ironist insincerely states something he does not mean, but through the manner of his statement, rather through its formulation or it’s delivery, or both, he is able to encode and counter proposition its real meaning, which may be interpreted by the attentive listener.” (Nash 1985:52) or, as the comedian Lewis Schaffer explained it, “All jokes are opinion with deniability. If people actually thought I had sex with a horse they wouldn’t be too happy about it. As it happens, I’m not allowed within 50ft of a stable or Camilla Parker-Bowles.”

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Juliette Burton on what it’s like to sing at Scotland’s T in The Park rock festival

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)

Comedy performer turned rock chick Juliette

Comedy performer turned rock chick Juliette

The annual T in The Park is Scotland’s equivalent of the Glastonbury music festival.

This year, the acts included Snoop Dogg, Paloma Faith, Killers, Mumford & Sons, The Proclaimers, Dizzee Rascal, Stereophonics, Travis and comedy performer Juliette Burton, who is staging a show at the Edinburgh Fringe titled When I Grow Up.

In it, she recounts how, this year, she tried to be all the things she dreamt of being when she was a child – including a baker, an artist, a Muppet and a pop star.

Performing yesterday at T in The Park was her “research” for being a rock star. She sang one song – Dreamers (When I Grow Up) – which is on sale for charity now and online as a music video later this week.

“What was it like yesterday?” I asked her.

“Unusually,” she told me, “there was no rain. But it got so dusty I am still sneezing dried mud out of my nose. I thought I had got a tan but when I had a shower this morning I realised it was just dust.”

“I’ve been to Glastonbury a few times,” I said, “but never to T in The Park. It’s much the same I imagine?”

Juliette about to go on stage

Juliette about to go on stage

“Well,” said Juliette, “there were the obligatory sightings of men and women peeing in public. That was expected. But there was an unusual fashion I hadn’t realised existed where young women wear hot pants cut so high that their bottoms hang out. I played ‘spot the arse’ which was a fun game. Sometimes it wasn’t bare cheeks I spotted but arses of a different kind – young men. I learned a lot about how to spot people on different types of recreational drugs.

“Then there were the tanked-up teens who decided to play volleyball in the middle of the crowd dressed as Monty Python-esque characters. There were some other excellent costumes around: the panto horse, the superheroes, the men dressed as bananas and a guy with a hoodie that just said CUNT on it. I was not sure whether he was advertising it or wanted to find some or he just wanted to let people know he was one.”

“So it was a different audience to the normal comedy show audience you’re used to?” I asked.

“Yes,” agreed Juliette. “Normally my audience keep their shirts on. There are usually far fewer nipples on display at a comedy show.”

“Were you more nervous?” I asked.

“I was trying to cope with the nerves by not thinking about it until it happened,” replied Juliette. “Which is a great coping strategy… until it happens. Before going on stage I was more of a bundle of nerves than I’ve been in a long while. I felt physically sick. I was worried I’d not be able to pogo in the shoes I’d chosen, worried I’d forget the words and worried about being bottled by the crowd.”

“So it was much scarier?” I asked.

Juliette on screen and on stage yesterday

Juliette on screen and (tiny on the right) on stage yesterday

“Terrifying,” said Juliette. “My comedy isn’t stand-up exactly – and stand-up is terrifying for much the same reason as T in the Park was terrifying – the crowd. But a comedy crowd – especially during the Edinburgh Fringe – comes to see a show because they love comedy. They want to watch a show you’ve put your heart and soul into creating.

“The crowd at yesterday’s T in the Park gig was not there to appreciate the fact I wrote a pop song to realise my childhood dream of being a pop star. They were there for the beer. They were mainly men, already pissed and enjoying themselves.

“I’ve never taken drugs – because I’ve already had a psychosis and nowadays I like to get my highs from laughter. So some of the young men may have also been on something else. It was a music a music festival after all. I don’t know about that. But I do know they were loud and a little aggressive. And they just wanted more beer.

“Even the compere of the show said they were the toughest crowd they’d ever had and the crowd was terrifying because they weren’t listening. So seeing that crowd before I went on was absolutely the scariest thing. I mean, what if they bottled me? Or chucked pints of pee at me?”

“So how did it go?” I asked.

Juliette fending off marriage proposals yesterday

Juliette had to fend off marriage proposals from front row

“Actually,” said Juliette, “it was frickin’ awesome. I owe a lot of that to the amazing comperes – Ben and Rufus. They introduced me in a way that meant the crowd (even that crowd) would warm to me – We want you to go crazy for this lady. Imagine she’s Rhianna and Beyoncé’s love child! – and they said they’d give free beer to my biggest fans…

“So, with that sort of introduction and bribery, I was lucky. Some of those guys, though, took the biggest fan thing really seriously. I got proposed to mid-song by two of the guys in the front row.

“I was told by the lovely team backstage that another thing in my favour was the fact most of the guys in the audience were ‘laaaaaads’ who, when they see a woman, just revert to Animal mode. And that’s Animal from The Muppets. They just end up shouting WOMAN! WOMAN! in their minds. The fact I wore a sparkly dress also meant they were distracted by something shiny.

“So lots of different tactics meant I didn’t get bottled. If they had been preparing pints of warm liquid excreted from their bodies especially for me, they kept them reserved for another band later on – maybe The Killers or David Guetta… I hope it was the latter because The Killers were fantastic.”

“And afterwards,” I asked, “you felt what?”

Not everyone in the audience was a lad

It looks like not everyone in the audience yesterday was a lad

“I imagine,” replied Juliette, “that will be how it is for the first performance of my actual show at the Fringe in the Gilded Balloon – terror and then fun. That’s why performing is amazing – it’s real life. A mix of the best and the worst. Maybe the preview reviewers might get their nipples out too… I don’t know.

“After the show yesterday I was so high – on life, not whatever those guys in the front row had been taking. I wanted to do it all again. I don’t know… Maybe I will get the chance again one day.

Juliette foregrounded by either arms or legs

Juliette foregrounded by either arms or legs

“Emotionally, my inner tweenager was overjoyed – I’d just realised a childhood ambition. All those days I had dreamed of singing a song to adoring fans, wearing a cool dress; all those days I had fantasised about it in my bedroom at home and drew little pictures of myself performing on stage – putting those pictures in a little homemade magazine inspired by such intellectual publications as Bliss magazine – I was NOT a cool little girl.

“And then finally, yesterday, I had realised that little uncool girl’s dream. It felt brilliant. But not as good as I imagine the first show at the Fringe will feel – That has been fewer years gestating but I think I care about it in the long term far more.”

“How does yesterday fit into your Fringe show?” I asked.

Juliette is torn between Gonzo and Jimmy Carr

Juliette wants to recreate T in the Park orgasm

“The pop star section is at the end of the show,” explained Juliette, “and there will be proof of all that I’ve done in all this mad research on video and in photo form throughout the show on a Powerpoint. I don’t want to give too much away, but the pop star bit is a big climax of the show. Much like the orgasm I had walking off stage at T in the Park yesterday. It’s meant to be euphoric, life-affirming and uplifting.

“What did you think when you woke up this morning?” I asked.

Did that really happen?” said Juliette. “Followed, right now as I’m talking to you, by thinking: Seriously – anything can happen. We can make anything happen if we want it to – and if we work hard enough for it.

“Did you video yesterday’s performance for YouTube?

“Yes, some kind fellow performers filmed it for me. And I did a little introduction to camera afterwards to explain it. I’ll be editing that in the next day or two and get it online. And, if I can do a plug…”

“Yes you can,” I said.

The downloadable Dreamers song

Downloadable Dreamers from iTunes, Spotify & Amazon

“Anyone can buy the song I performed yesterday from iTunes, Spotify and Amazon – Just search for Dreamers (When I Grow Up).

“All the money raised until the end of the Fringe is going to Children in Need.

“As is all the money raised from auctioning off the When I Grow Up Dreambook – which is being signed by all kinds of exciting people – already including Janey Godley, Robin Ince, Stewart Lee and more. They’re all writing in it what they wanted to be as a child and what they do now. It will be on eBay during or just after the Fringe.”

“And when is the pop video you shot for the song – which I blogged about – going online?”

“Hopefully later this week.”

“So,” I asked, “what you have learned from all this is…?”

“That I think the Fringe might actually be a more restful time than this past week,” laughed Juliette. “And it would be a terrible waste of a life if we didn’t do something we at least enjoy, right?”

YOU CAN SEE A VIDEO OF JULIETTE’S PERFORMANCE HERE:

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Canadian comedian Graham Clark – the man who takes on the Olympic Games

Graham Clark is not worried by the toughest gig in London

When I chatted to Comedy Cafe owner Noel Faulkner recently, he mentioned that Canadian comic Graham Clark was coming over to the UK to play one show only for one night only at the Comedy Cafe and it is this Friday.

I had tea with Graham yesterday afternoon, admirably and surprisingly not just awake but lively after flying over from Vancouver.

“You have the worst possible date for a gig,” I told him. “Clashing with the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympic Games on TV.”

“Yeah,” he laughed. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I had a gig the night the Vancouver Winter Olympics started in 2010.”

“So you’ve already experienced what London’s next few weeks are going to be like?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I know what a nightmare it becomes. The rich people are really excited about it, because they’re the ones who’re gonna see lots of things and then everybody else gets screwed because the traffic’s messed up. They sell it as the brotherhood of man and a great coming-together of the world, but it’s really just a good time for rich people and everybody else has to put up with it. Getting everywhere in Vancouver was a nightmare and all the comedy clubs were kaput.”

“There’s no comedy ‘circuit’ in Canada, is there?” I asked.

“Not like there is here in Britain,” Graham explained. “Because it’s such a gigantic country. There’s mini-circuits within the Provinces, but it’s not like here or the US because you would spend so much money going from city to city on a plane – or driving – that you’d never make any real money. There’s a small fringe festival circuit, but not like here.”

“Have you thought about playing the Edinburgh Fringe over here?” I asked.

“Sometimes,” Graham said, “But you just hear stories that it costs a fortune.”

“A couple of hours ago,” I said, “someone told me one of the major agencies this year was unusually honest to a new act they manage. They told her that, if she sells out every seat at every performance of her show at the Fringe this year, she will end up only owing them £9,000.”

Graham laughed.

“So what’s it like being a comedian in Canada?” I asked. “You’re a second rate American.”

“It’s tough,” Graham said. “Really tough.”

“And do the audiences react to material the same in the States and Canada?” I asked.

“In the States, the crowds are more lively,” Graham said. “They go nuts. They clap and shout and hoot and holler. And, as a comedian, that’s great. Even the best Canadian audiences are very sedate. The worst American audiences are still more lively than the best Canadian audiences.”

“American comics,” I said, “sometimes complain that British audiences sit there thinking That’s very funny but don’t laugh.”

“It’s the same in Canada,” said Graham.

“Did you start your weekly podcast to break into a wider market?” I asked. “You saw it as a pilot for a radio show?”

“No,” said Graham. “There isn’t really a place for that in Canada. We pitched it loosely to CBC; but maybe it’s too much in its infancy.”

“And you continue the podcast because…?”

“Because, in Canada, everyone does everything,” Graham explained. “There are people in Britain who just do stand-up. It blows my mind that you could just be one thing. In Canada, you have to be doing stand-up, writing on a TV show or, if something comes up, you act in something or you produce your own shows or do podcasts – and that’s just to make the rent. That’s not piling up riches.

“In Canada, there’s not even that much money in TV. In the last couple of years, I’ve worked on a couple of sitcoms and a panel show and a daily news humour show: but none of them paid very well. There’s only one Canadian comic I know who can fill auditoriums – Russell Peters.”

“So you are exploring all avenues,” I said.

“Yeah,” Graham agreed. “I put a DVD directly online, because that’s the new…

“What Louis C.K. does,” I said.

“Yeah. But it works surprisingly well, even in a smaller microcosm like Canada; it’s easier for people to access.”

“So do you reckon comics have to leave Canada to make it big at all?”

“Yeah. And the whole time you’re working in Canada, that’s hanging over your head. Everybody moves to the States or to Britain.”

“So you, too, have to move?” I suggested.

“Yeah. It’s possible.”

“You thinking about it?”

“Every time I pay the rent,” Graham laughed.

“To the States or Britain?” I asked.

“It costs a lot more to move to the States,” he said, “and I have an Irish passport – my family’s from Antrim – so that makes it very easy to work over here.”

“Would you describe your act as more gag-based or story-based?” I asked.

“More story-based, I guess,” Graham replied, then paused. “I’ve written gags for other people but, for myself, doing lots of one-liners never works: it always comes out sounding too ‘finished’. I don’t have that Jimmy Carr type of delivery where you do accept from him that he is performing written one-liners. People want my delivery to be like it just fell out of my head. If it seems too polished, people don’t accept it from me, which is weird.

“When Jimmy Carr goes on stage, you kinda know he is the character ‘Jimmy Carr’. It’s the same thing in America with Rodney Dangerfield or Steven Wright.

“You identify them as a specific character, so they can talk in one-liners; it doesn’t bother you. But some people – like Louis C.K. – talk naturally in paragraphs or in stories. I don’t know if I would accept Louis C.K delivering one-liners, even though that’s what he used to do: shorter jokes.”

“So,” I said, “in your own audience’s view, you just come onstage and chat to them.”

“Yeah,” Graham mused, “I’ve tried a bunch of ways but that’s the way that flows the best for me: to have an idea and push it out on stage.”

“People have to believe it’s…” I started.

“…organic,” Graham said. “Yeah. With me, if it’s too ‘written’, it’s gonna sound that way. I’ve tried different styles of jokes – linked and stories and short and one-liners and dirty and clean – and the one thing that seems to work the best with me is when it just seems to be running off the top of my head.”

“Traditional comics with strings of short gags,” I suggested, “seem to be a dying breed. It’s mostly stories at the Edinburgh Fringe now.”

“Though, oddly, I feel my jokes are getting shorter,” Graham told me. “When I started out, they tended to be longer and have more detail, but now maybe I’m better at editing and want to get to the point faster. The British comics we see who come over to Canada have big, long stories.”

“Does that go down well?”

“It does,” said Graham, “but you could never develop that in Canada because, in the clubs, you need to turn over the laughs faster because nobody’s paying attention.

“In Britain, a whole 5-minute routine can be one story. You’d really have to be very confident to do that in Canada, because people don’t have the attention. They want jokes every 30 seconds. If you’re not delivering that on a Friday night, then they’re gonna drift. We have to be more gag-based than the British.”

As Graham and I parted – he was off to do a radio interview to publicise his show – he said to me: “That was a good interview you did with Noel Faulkner.”

“Well,” I said. “Noel’s like me: he’s got to that age where he doesn’t care – He’ll just say what he thinks.”

“I wish I could get to that stage,” Graham said. “I still worry.”

Twenty minutes later, I got a text message from Neale at the Comedy Cafe, telling me that Graham’s show on Friday – up against the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games on TV – had sold out.

Maybe Graham Clark does not need to worry.

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What you can learn from Disney, Alton Towers and UK TV host Jonathan Ross

Jonathan Ross and his wife Jane Goldman at the BAFTAs

Many moons ago, I spent two weeks – or was it four? – at the Alton Towers pleasure park where Granada was producing a children’s TV show.

At the time, Alton Towers was run by businessman John Broom, who had looked at research done by the Walt Disney corporation on how people perceived their leisure parks.

The key realisation John Broom got from this research was that the two things which visitors most vividly remembered were the very first image they saw as they stepped out of their cars in the car park – because that was what they thought-of as the start of their ‘adventure’ – and the last image they saw when they left the amusement park.

The Alton Towers car park had previously been in a nondescript area but, after reading this research, John Broom moved it so that the first view which visitors had when they parked and stepped out of their cars was the Alton Towers stately home on the other side of a shining lake. The same image was used on Alton Towers’ video and print marketing.

Research showed visitor satisfaction for the experience of the whole amusement park increased after the car park had been moved.

It sounds obvious – the first and last scenes in anything – a visit to an amusement park, a movie, a stage show, a meeting with a stranger – they are always likely to be the two things with most impact.

Image is everything.

But, though obvious, it is oft forgot.

Jonathan Ross once told me that, even when he was a penniless starting-off TV researcher, although he could not easily afford them, he always wore Armani suits. He dressed to impress.

People tell me I should not dress so shabbily.

Alas, I don’t care.

I should know better.

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Answers to nine common questions asked by innocent first-time performers at the Edinburgh Fringe

Next Wednesday is the deadline for the reduced-rate entries in this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Programme. Until next Wednesday, the cost is £295.20p. After that, it goes up to £393.60p. So, in a spirit of altruism and pomposity, I thought I’d give my personal opinion on nine Things You Need to Know About the Edinburgh Fringe…

1. HOW MUCH DOES ACCOMMODATION COST?

You know the phrase “an arm and a leg”?

If you think you can get anything as cheap as that, you are having an idle fantasy or you are taking hallucinogenic drugs far stronger than you should if you want to stand upright on a stage.

And, if you haven’t been up, you have no idea. The Edinburgh Fringe is unimaginably large and sprawling. It is the biggest arts festival in the world; Edinburgh is a relatively small city. Last year, there were 21,148 performers in Edinburgh simply for the Fringe. That is just performers. Then you have the back-stage, administrative, media and service industry people and the audiences themselves.

Last year, there were 40,254 performances of 2,453 shows in 259 venues. And that’s just the Fringe. Simultaneously, you have the separate official Edinburgh Festival, the Military Tattoo, the Art Festival, the Book Festival and the Television Festival. Any one of those would be a major event on its own in any other city. In Edinburgh, they are happening simultaneously. Plus there are endless other events and street theatre on a massive scale. And just normal meandering tourists. Last year, at the Fringe alone, there were around two million bums-on-seats for shows. No-one knows exact figures for sure because of the increasingly large PBH Free Fringe and Laughing Horse Free Festival numbers.

It is a simple case of Thatcherite market-led supply and demand. The demand for accommodation is enormous; the supply is severely limited.

Someone I know who is friends with an estate agent in Edinburgh was told – this is true – that one rule of thumb they use for calculating rental rates for flats during the Fringe is to ask the owner: “How much is your annual mortgage?” That then becomes a fair amount to charge someone for the month of August.

I had relatives and friends in Edinburgh until three years ago. Now I have to pay. It’s horrendous.

The phrase to bear in mind with everything connected to the Edinburgh Fringe is “like lambs to the slaughter”.

But, like the mud at Glastonbury, it is addictive.

2. SHALL I GO UP FOR JUST ONE WEEK?

No.

The first (half) week is dead and tickets are half-price or two-for-one. You will get low audiences and even less money. If you do get audiences, they will fall off a cliff on the first Tuesday, when the half-price deals end.

The second week is usually almost equally dead.

The third week perks up a little.

The final week is buzzing.

But, if you have not been there since the very beginning and only go up for the last week, you will have generated no word of mouth about your show, no momentum and no review quotes to put on your posters and flyers. And you will be wiped off the face of Edinburgh awareness by a tsunami of other shows which have all these things.

That is if you even get a review, which is highly unlikely.

Whenever a foolhardy Fringe virgin asks my advice, I also tell him/her:

“You have to go up for three consecutive years”

The first year, you will be lost and ignored. The second year you will, with luck, know how to play the system. The third year, reviewers and audience will think you are a regular and you may get noticed.

I know one act who has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe three times. Great act. Wonderful. Got 4-star reviews every time. But, because he/she could not afford to go up every year, there was no momentum building from year to year. He/she, in effect, had to start from scratch each year as an unknown.

Remember that it is not just audiences but reviewers who have a high turnover. The punter and reviewer who saw your show two years ago is probably not in town/ not reviewing this year.

3. CAN I RELAX ON THE PUBLICITY FRONT BECAUSE MY VENUE’S PRESS OFFICE AND THE FRINGE’S PRESS OFFICE WILL HANDLE ALL MY MEDIA PUBLICITY?

You have no idea how it works.

No they won’t.

The venue’s press office is not there to specifically publicise your show. They publicise the venue and act as a central contact point. They will try to be even-handed, but they have lots of other shows. They cannot do constant hands-on publicity for you.

Same thing with the Fringe Office. They are a central contact point. Keep them informed. But they are too busy to do the impossible and publicise your show. Last year, they were dealing with 40,254 performances of 2,453 shows in 259 venues. And with 21,148 self-obsessed and wildly disorganised – possibly mentally unstable – performers. This year, the numbers will probably be higher.

The Samaritans are the ones to ask for help in Edinburgh.

4. DOES MY VENUE’S STAFF KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING?

No.

Trust me.

No.

Most only arrived a week ago, some are Australian and the ones who are not have little experience of anything outside their friends’ kitchens. They probably had no sleep last night and are certainly only at the Fringe to drink, take drugs and, with luck, get laid by well-proportioned members of the opposite sex. Or, in some cases, the same sex.

Trust me.

With help and advice, they could organise a piss-up at the Fringe but not in a brewery.

5. HOW MUCH MONEY MIGHT I MAKE?

Are you mad?

You have to assume a 100% loss on your investment. Even if people make a profit, they usually calculate that by ignoring accommodation costs and the amount of money they would have made anyway if they had not gone up to Edinburgh.

6. I HAVE A PROMOTER AND/OR PRO AGENT. HE WILL LOOK AFTER MY INTERESTS, RIGHT?

He might do. And you might win the EuroLottery. Or he might try to screw you rigid.

One thing to look out for is an agent/manager/promoter’s expenses.

One performer I know went up with a well-known promoter who was looking after seven shows that year. He quite reasonably deducted the cost of his own accommodation and transport. But, instead of dividing the total costs by seven and spreading that cost between all seven shows, he deducted 100% of the cost from each show’s profits, thus getting back 700% of his total costs.

Another thing to look out for is agents, promoters or managers who take their percentage off the gross, not off net receipts. They should be taking their percentage off the genuine profit – the net receipts after deduction of genuine overheads and expenses. If they take their percentage off the gross receipts before deduction of overheads and expenses, you are being severely disadvantaged.

Alright. They are fucking you.

If your show makes £100 but costs £90 to stage, then the profit is £10. If the promoter/agent takes 10% of that net profit, then he gets £1 and you get £9.

If your show makes £100 and the promoter/agent takes 10% off that gross profit and the show cost £90 to put on, then he gets £10 and you get zero.

And, in both those examples, the show made exactly the same amount of money.

And let’s not even get into the games which can be played with the point at which they add in or deduct VAT.

7. IT’S MY FIRST EDINBURGH. WILL I GET FINANCIALLY SCREWED BY UNSCRUPULOUS PEOPLE?

Yes.

8. WILL IT RAIN?

Yes.

9. SHOULD I GO BACK AGAIN NEXT YEAR?

Yes.

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Myths, dangers and curses of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

(This blog appeared on Chortlethe UK comedy industry website)

I went to the Edinburgh Fringe Roadshow in London on Saturday and a couple of people asked my advice because they have decided to perform on the Fringe for the first time this year. Then, on Monday morning, a non-performer who appeared briefly as a guest at last year’s Fringe e-mailed me about the possibility of staging a full show throughout this year’s Fringe in August. On Tuesday morning, an established comedy act phoned me about returning to the Fringe after a gap of several years. And, yesterday afternoon, I got Skyped by someone who lives in mainland Europe about coming to the UK and playing the Fringe for the first time.

On Saturday, I asked about the long-and-widely-quoted statistics that the average Fringe show audience comprises six people and the average Fringe-goer is only in the city for three days. The Fringe Office told me both were urban myths.

Fringe Chief Executive Kath Mainland, in fact, told me that 50% of Fringe audiences come from Edinburgh (ie the EH postcodes). And that does not include the large numbers of Glaswegians who commute to Edinburgh Fringe shows. If true, it would mean that over half the audience is coming from lowland Scotland and performers should perhaps tailor their shows more towards Scots audiences if they want to get bums on seats.

Like all Fringe statistics, of course, even that one should be treated with a pinch of salt. The only way of knowing who goes to the Fringe is if punters buy tickets in advance and give their postcodes. The vast numbers who buy tickets with cash at the venue on the day don’t do that. And all Fringe statistics are mightily skewed by the fact no-one does nor can know how many punters attend the increasing number of free shows – let alone where they come from.

So, as always, performing at the Fringe is like juggling spaghetti in the dark and, when you get there, like standing in a cold shower tearing up £50 notes. This year, the uncertainties are even greater – not because of the recession but because of the rapidly changing nature of the Fringe – especially the crumbling of the box office for middle-ranking comedy shows. It happened last year and is likely to happen even moreso this year.

There are two types of show at the Fringe.

There are the traditional shows where audiences pay for tickets. And the free shows put on by the original PBH Free Fringe and the separate Laughing Horse Free Festival.

On Saturday, the gloriously entertaining Peter Buckley Hill of the PBH Free Fringe (a notable former Malcolm Hardee Award nominee) said he has had an 85% increase in applications for the PBH Free Fringe this year.

This is not surprising.

Paid-for show tickets are usually around £10 each – that means £20 if you are a couple and, if you see three shows in one day (which is not uncommon), that is going to set you back £60. For that amount of money and with limited time and vast numbers of shows on offer, you want to make sure you are not throwing your money away. So you pay to see ‘safe’ acts you have seen on TV or, at least, very long-established Biggish Name acts with a known track record.

People used to go to the Fringe and ‘take a punt’ on a show which sounded like it might be good… though it might be shit. That was what the Fringe was about. The excitement of the unexpected and the chance of stumbling on future stars.

What is increasingly happening now is that audiences are prepared to pay for the TV names they know. And they are prepared to take a risk by visiting several free shows. But excellent, experienced comedy acts playing paid-for venues who have not had TV exposure are seeing their audiences fall year-on-year. I know of at least three top-notch comedians who are not going to the Fringe this year because the potential on the paid-for Fringe in major venues is increasingly risky – they will still make a profit but the profit-to-hassle ratio has changed – and they cannot be seen to play free shows because it would lower their professional reputation with reviewers and the media.

It can cost £7,500+ to stage a good comedy show in a major venue at the Fringe.

The Fringe is alive and well for Fringe-goers who want to take a free punt with a high risk of seeing shit… and for Fringe-goers who want to pay to see re-heated TV acts of known quality. But the Fringe is increasingly difficult to financially justify for excellent, experienced live comedians with no TV exposure.

Another factor this year will be the death of the Fringe in the new town.

Edinburgh is two cities – the ‘new town’ (Georgian) and the ‘old town’ (medieval).

With the move this year (for at least three years) of the major Assembly venue from George Street in the new town to George Square in the old town, all the Big Four venues will now be clustered around Bristo Square, George Square and the Cowgate.

People may decide to go to a specific show in the new town, but the four places where punters will come to vaguely sit down and only then decide which show to see will be the Pleasance Courtyard, the Udderbelly Pasture in Bristo Square, the Pleasance Dome in Bristo Square and the George Square gardens which will have, I understand, two new Assembly venues in them. So street flyerers will get more passing trade and bums-on-seats potential in or near Bristo Square/George Square/Cowgate (as well as in the traditional maelstrom of the High Street on the Royal Mile). If someone flyers in the new town near a venue, they will be flyering in isolation and not picking up other shows’ punters.

This August will be particularly interesting to see and particularly uncertain for performers, yet the lure of the Fringe is still almost irresistible. There is that 85% increase in people applying to perform at PBH Free Fringe venues.

Uncertainty is almost an aphrodisiac for performers, but the financial repercussions are incalculable and go on and on.

What will happen next year when the end of the London Olympics overlaps with the beginning of the Edinburgh Fringe? Who knows?

For years, I have tried to find someone who can juggle cooked spaghetti for one minute and have always been unable to find anyone. But I have blind faith success may be possible. In that respect, I suppose I am much like Fringe performers going to Edinburgh.

The Fringe is an ongoing Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.

(NOTE TO READERS IN THE USA: The British English phrase “bums-on-seats” means something more financially sustainable than it does in American English)

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