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Edinburgh Fringe Day 5: How to win a Fringe comedy award – make ‘em cry

Humdinger of a black eye caused by falling while sober…

Shows I saw today included the always wildly inventive and surreal Cheekykita with Somewhere in The Ether which opens with her inside a duvet.

Nai Bowen is Brave! (she is one half of comedy duo TittyBarHaHa) includes a stunningly good song about suicide and she performed it with a humdinger of a black eye caused by falling onto the cobbles of Edinburgh when she was sober…

The secret of many successful comedy shows

In Jane Hill’s show Cow, about middle age, the audience was encouraged to call her either ‘a cow’ or ‘lovely’. She was lovely. Though, like a magician revealing secrets of the Magician’s Code, she revealed the secret format of many successful comedy shows at the Fringe – which is that you include a ‘dead dad’ section at about 40 minutes into the show. Laughter + tears goes a good way to getting you a Fringe comedy nomination.

This does not have to be a story about an actual specific dead dad, but requires the revelation of some true, traumatic and unexpected autobiographical anecdote to pull the emotional carpet from under the audience’s metaphorical feet. Having done that, you then uplift them for the climax.

Tonight, I also saw Mother’s Ruin, a bizarrely potential cult-like cabaret celebration of gin at the Gilded Balloon’s smart new Rose Theatre venue in Edinburgh’s New Town.

“as if I had entered some secret society of which I was not a member"

I had entered a secret society of which I was not a member

With Mother’s Ruin, it felt as if I had entered some secret society of which I was not a member. Admittedly, I don’t drink, which is a drawback. But three talented Australians sang songs about and told the history of gin to a large, jam-packed audience who seemed to know all the more obscure songs and whooped, cheered and clapped. It was like being in an Evangelical church.

The Edinburgh Fringe, too, has its devout pseudo-religious aspect and it is a truth universally acknowledged that religion has started more wars than comedians have had self-doubts.

This morning, I picked up a wee blue book listing the Free Fringe Festival shows.

The cover says it is the ULTIMATE GUIDE TO THE FREE FRINGE FESTIVAL.

About ten minutes later, I was handed the wee blue book listing shows in PBH’s Free Fringe.

Free-for-all? Light the blue touch paper and stand well back.

As Edinburgh Fringe regulars will know, there is PBH’s Free Fringe… and there is the Laughing Horse Free Festival which split off from the Free Fringe and woe betide anyone who mentions the words ‘Free Fringe’ when they actually mean Free Festival. The two words are guarded by PBH with almost religious zeal.

So I can only imagine the wrath which may descend on the upstarts who have risked printing a new blue booklet with the words ‘Free Fringe’ on it.

Light the blue touch paper and stand well back. Blood may flow among the dangerous cobbles of Auld Reekie.

Though not in the final week.

Would it be too late to nominate a comedy tampon?

Sarah Morgan-Paul contacted me asking if a show which started on Monday 21st August and only ran for a week could be eligible for an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award nomination. She said that, in the show, she performs in a 5’4” tall giant tampon costume. The show is called Tales From a Tampon.

The short-list for the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards is decided at noon on 21st August and the opening the tampon show is not until 2045 that night but, as the Malcolm Hardee Award winning baby last year was nominated AFTER we had announced the short-list, I guess we have to accept that Tales From a Tampon can be nominated.

The high-cost back of Lewis Schaffer’s flyer

Dreams of award nominations are also swirling round inside the head of Lewis Schaffer who, I was honoured to see, has used a photo I took of him last year on the back of his flyer.

An invoice and a letter from my lawyer will be winging its way to him after the Fringe ends.

He has visions of (the Prize formerly known as) Perrier success because his show this year – Unopened Letters From My Mother – has the Jane Hill defined potential for laughter and tears.

As mentioned in this blog a month ago, the concept is that, each day, he will genuinely open-up a different letter from his mother. She sent him 23 letters from the US to his new home in the UK between 2000 and her death in 2011 and he never opened them. He does not know why.

“You’re doing your third show tonight,” I said. “I heard you cried in your first two.”

The genuinely unopened letters from Lewis Schaffer’s mother

“I cried a little bit in my first one,” Lewis admitted. “She wrote in the letter that she thought I was probably going to be a good father. That was in 2001. One of my sons was about a couple of months old. To me, the letters are full-on scary and sad. But funny for the audience. I am trying my best to open them in order. The next one was written in November 2001. That’s after the World Trade Centre attacks. But people don’t believe the letters are real.”

“Well,” I said, “you’re a comic. Comics lie for a living. The more likely what a comic says, the more likely he (or she) has made it up. If what is said is so ridiculous it can’t possibly be true, the more likely it is to be totally true.”

“Exactly,” said Lewis Schaffer.

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“This is one of the best shows I have seen in 30 years of going to the Fringe”

Performing at the Edinburgh Fringe

So what did I see at the Edinburgh Fringe yesterday?

Alice Fraser: Savage
Everything you expect a confessional Fringe comedy show to be. Laughs and tears and death and sincerity.

Cheekykita & Mr Dinner: Dead Ghost Star
Everything you expect a surreal Fringe show to be. Laughs and large white spheroid heads and things you crack open to wave about.

Richard Gadd: Waiting For Gaddot
Everything you expect a Richard Gadd Fringe show to be. Funny, surreal and he uses a baseball bat to smash things. I will be interested to see how ‘proper’ reviewers attempt to describe this show, as it cannot be described without ruining the basic premise. But the clue is in the title. It is a solo show with Richard Gadd, Ed Aczel, Ricky Grover, Ian Smith and Ben Target. I have seen this idea done before but never written with such detail. And Samuel Beckett was not angling for a TV comedy series. The audience was very happy. I was with the audience.

Al Porter strikes camp in Edinburgh

The son of Max Headroom & Leslie Crowther

Al Porter: Al Porter Is Yours
The only people standing between (amazingly only 22-year-old) Al Porter and massive mainstream TV success are Alan Carr and Graham Norton. Camp and camp Irishmen are seen as a one-per-TV-channel niche. But calling Al Porter gay and Irish is a bit like calling the bombing of Hiroshima a slight popping sound. He is like the bastard son of Max Headroom and Leslie Crowther on speed spewing out what, in the past, would have been called filth to an adoring audience. Strangely old-fashioned and thoroughly modern. There must have been 4-5 laughs per minute for a whole hour with shrieks and belly-laughs from women, men, young, old, straight and gay. He appealed to them all.

Lindsay Sharman: The Madame Magenta Big Live Podcast Show Extravaganza
(Not in the Fringe Programme and not a podcast.) This charisma-fuelled show allegedly tells the true story of Christianity and is hosted in character as OTT-turbaned Madame Magenta. But just sit back and enjoy a comedy character romp from a lover of the English language who I suspect may end up a successful novelist (she has already written two). The audience yesterday afternoon included five Norwegians only two of whom, by the look of it, could speak English. The two who understood English laughed like Norwegian maelstroms (ie more actively than drains). The other three looked stunned, as well they might. I loved it.

It might be a Silly Musical but is not a Cinnamon one

This man was married in Disney World

Laurence Owen: Cinemusical
This show directly precedes Lindsay Sharman’s at the Voodoo Rooms. Laurence Owen is Lindsay’s husband. They married this year in Disney World.

Cinemusical is one man singing comic songs about the movies. But the phrase ‘comic songs’ is nowhere near a realistic description of these brilliantly composed and lyriced multi-layered showstoppers.

He had a room full to overflowing yesterday – his first show. So the word-of-mouth must have got around about his songs and his performance before he even arrived. As much as anything is certain (which nothing is) Laurence Owen is a sure-fire cert for success in the show business. Either writing musicals for London’s West End or Broadway or (with less personal fame but more money) Hollywood. Cinemusical, as performed by Laurence Owen, is one of the best shows I have seen in 30 years of going to the Fringe.

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After weird comedy, what is next?

Martin Soan in my home

Martin Soan at my home in Borehamwood

“The first time you performed at the Edinburgh Fringe was in the 1970s?” I asked Martin Soan when he came round to help me with something in my home.

“I first went up there in 1971,” he told me. “It was different then. I only remember one street performer.”

“What was he doing?” I asked.

“I’ll give you three guesses.”

“Juggling.”

“No.”

“Fire-eating.”

“No.”

“Buggering budgerigars.”

“No.”

“What?”

“He was playing the bagpipes. There was a leaflet listing the Fringe shows. I think there were only about half a dozen shows. There was a room above a pub with the Cambridge Footlights in. There was an experimental dance piece. There was some sort of classic play.”

“Why did you go up in the first place?”

“Because I knew one of the dancers in the experimental dance piece.”

“The lure of sex.”

“Always. I went up there in 1971, but then I didn’t go up for another 12 or 15 years with The Greatest Show on Legs.”

“How has the Fringe changed?” I asked. “It’s just got commercialised, hasn’t it?”

‘Everybody knows how it’s changed,” said Martin. “That’s an old story.”

“You could make it up,” I said. “Did you know they used to sell fish in The Grassmarket? And whales. That’s why it’s the shape it is.”

Part of the Grassmarket in Edinburgh - once a seething mass of whale meat (Photograph by Kim Traynor

The Grassmarket in Edinburgh – once a thriving whale market (Photograph by Kim Traynor)

“Is that right?” asked Martin.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s a little-known known fact about Edinburgh.”

“Whales?” asked Martin.

“Imagine the shape of The Grassmarket,” I told him. “That’s whale-sized and whale-shaped, isn’t it?… The Gaelic work for ‘whale’ is ‘graas’ – It’s from the Norwegian. Graas. So it became the Graasmarket, where people bought bits of whale.”

“Really?”

“It was always a showbiz area,” I explained. “They used to sing songs in The Grassmarket. Whale Meat Again. That first got popular there.”

“I don’t know,” said Martin. “It’s like asking someone if they’re a vegetarian, then giving them meat but secretly it’s made out of soya or something like that. It’s very weird.”

“It’s not post-modern,” I suggested. “It’s post-weird.”

“That’s the thing,” said Martin. “Where do we go now with comedy if the weird has become the norm? What can be slightly off-kilter from that? I like a good stand-up. I like a good variety act. I like a good weird act. But there’s lots of them now. There’s lots of weird acts.”

Michael Brunström as Mary Quant

Michael Brunström as a whaling Mary Quant

Michael Brunström is weird in a good way,” I said. “I saw him the other day. He was dressed in a toga, impersonating the 1960s designer Mary Quant in what was supposed to be the true story of her whaling trip and it seemed to me that he was speaking in a slight German accent. It was weird. He is weird.”

“You can see the influences coming through now,” said Martin.

“Of Mary Quant?” I asked.

“No,” said Martin. “But it’s rippling through the comedy circuit. I have now seen three people wearing a saucepan on their head banging it with a stick.”

“Who started that?” I asked. “Spike Milligan?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” replied Martin. “But I think, on this round, the first person I saw do it was Cheekykita – maybe with a crash helmet on. Now there are loads of people banging their heads.”

“It could,” I said, “be Johnny Sorrow’s influence with the Bob Blackman Appreciation Society.”

“It is difficult to know where you go from weird,” said Martin.

“You must have a lot of original acts approaching you to appear at Pull The Other One,” I said. (Martin runs a monthly comedy variety show.)

“I’m trying to get back to true variety,” Martin told me. “I would love to put on stage people who don’t normally go on stage but who are brilliant performers. But it takes a lot of diplomacy. I really want to book – and have tried to book but failed – one of those guys who sells knives at stations.

“They sell kitchen equipment and stuff like that. They normally have one of those little Beyoncé mics and an assistant and they have a whole box of cucumbers, tomatoes and onions and their patter is: The time you waste finely-chopping onions, ladies! Just buy one of these Acme vegetable choppers. you take off the blades like this. You wash it like this. Then you get your onion. Bang! Bang! Bang! Finely chopped! Not only will I give you that and attachments for beautifully, artistically-sliced cucumbers but you can even core a cauliflower!

A cauliflower could lead to comedy

A cauliflower could lead to comedy

“I would love to get one of those guys up on stage during a show. If you just put them in a different situation, like a comedy club, they would ham it up even more. So I’m thinking about that.”

“And you could share the profit on knife sales,” I suggested.

“Yeah,” said Martin unenthusiastically.

“Or,” I suggested. “you could sell yourself to a shopping channel. They have all these embarrassed-looking out-of-work actors selling things for two hours in dull sets. Instead, they could have a surreal comedy show that sells things.”

“I am,” said Martin, “thinking opera singers and quartets at Pull The Other One.”

“I am,” I told him, “thinking opera singers on shopping channels selling vegetable cutters.”

“If,” he continued, “you think of your average comedy evening, one stand-up makes the audience laugh and the others don’t.  I want to do shadow shows and UV theatre, but good ones.”

“I’m sure,” I said, “that audiences at comedy clubs are getting tired of five stand-up acts in a row and, if they’re young male acts, they’re all talking about wanking because that’s all they know. There should be a ban on wanking references in comedy clubs. And there could be an untapped audience for people selling kitchen knives.”

There is a video on YouTube of Bob Blackman singing Mule Train while hitting himself on the head with a metal tray.

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“Women are idiotic, shambolic, funny and stupid,” says foolish British comic

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

Martin Soan (right) won 2013 International Jesters Tournament

In May, Martin (right) won the 2013 International Jesters Tournament at Muncaster Castle in Cumbria

In May this year, comedian Martin Soan became the official court fool of Muncaster Castle in Cumbria. His payment is as much beer as he can drink.

“They’ll go broke buying that amount of beer,” I told him yesterday.

“I thought they were going to deliver free beer to me for the year,” Martin told me, “but, no, it’s only when I’m at the castle.”

“When are you going up next?” I asked.

“I’m going up for a Halllowe’en special, but the major thing is me compering the International Jesters Tournament in May next year.”

“And that’s when you get usurped as a fool?” I asked.

“I do,” said Martin.

“Did you get a trophy when you won?” I asked.

“I got a commemorative bowl,” said Martin. “carved out of the tree Tom Fool used to sit in. And I get to wear the Tom Fool coat. There’s actually a portrait of Thomas Skelton in the castle.”

“He was the origin of the word tomfoolery?” I asked.

The original Tom Fool of Muncaster Castle

Muncaster Castle original Thomas Skelton

“Yes,” said Martin. “He was an eccentric who used to sit in a tree outside Muncaster Castle. Lords and ladies used to come by and, if he didn’t get on with them, he used to send them the wrong way and they used to get in trouble in the marshes and quicksands of the River Esk.

“He was well-loved by the Penningtons, who owned Muncaster Castle, and he was a very clever man. In the end, he managed their estates. He was a very eccentric man who wore a very eccentric cloak – very Harlequin-like – and had a slightly hunched-back and looked very, very like Mr Punch.

“Whether Charles Dickens based Mr Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop on Punchinello or on Thomas Skelton, no-one is quite sure.”

“Was it a surprise to win the competition this year?” I asked Martin.

“I had done it twice before, but I did it on condition that I didn’t win.”

“Why didn’t you want to win?”

“Because it means you have to go off immediately afterwards, leave the castle and the absolutely stunning countryside and go to a TV studio in Carlisle to be interviewed. The competition finishes at about six in the evening and I didn’t want to leave behind all that beautiful countryside and beer and miss the rest of the evening.

“This year, because I’d done it twice before, I didn’t think to say again I don’t want to win. And what happened was there was a tie for between me and this girl from Australia.”

“She,” I asked, “had come over specially to take part in the competition?”

Martin Soan got high with B.A.

Martin Soan sees no need to use costume

“Yeah,” said Martin. “This year, two guys came over from the US with costumes and everything, keen to win. They pay a small fortune to compete, what with costumes and travel and accommodation and everything. It’s glamorous to them. The Penningtons are a ‘real’ English family who have lived in a ‘real’ castle for centuries and it’s where Tom Fool lived. In America and Australia there are societies devoted to Tom Fool. They spend thousands of pounds on costumes and learning the skills.

“So they come over here to compete and I haven’t even bothered to put on a costume and I can’t juggle and I tie with this girl from Australia and that’s when it got out of control because it had been decided that, in the event of a tie, the casting vote would go to this little girl who is aged about eight. So I was looking at her trying to mime Pick the Australian girl! Pick the Australian girl! but she chose me to win.

“So I had to go off to Carlisle and do the interview and miss-out on the evening but, after that was done and dusted, I decided I was going to take the role seriously and try and change it a little and get less traditional Tom Fools involved. I’m putting a lot of effort into trying to get a woman to win next year. There’s never been a woman fool for Muncaster Castle.”

“Surely,” I said, “court jesters and court fools were men not women?”

“But now,” said Martin, “times are changing and women are just as idiotic, shambolic, funny and stupid as men can be.”

“Well,” I said, “I’ve got the headline for my blog there, then…”

Martin ignored me.

“I’ve got two women lined up – Cheekykita and Lindsay Sharman – for next year’s Tom Fool competition,” he continued.

“And presumably,” I said, “Tom Fool was not a straight comic: he was not standing there telling jokes like a stand-up. He was a genuine eccentric. He wasn’t a jester: he was a local loony who sat in a tree.”

“Also,” said Martin, “he manipulated the aristocracy into trusting him, because he was a very intelligent man. He ended up managing the estate really well and made a success of the castle.”

“So he wasn’t even necessarily a loony,” I said. “He might just have been a man who liked surreal pranks.”

“Yes,” agreed Martin. “I think we’ve corrupted what fools were about and have this image of men going around waving bladders with bells on the end of their hats. Tom Fool and his cloak were nothing like that.”

“You were telling me the other week,” I said, “that you think the majority of the really interesting, bizarre new comedy acts at the moment are women…”

Lindsay Sharman

Potential Tom Fool Lindsay Sharman

“Absolutely,” said Martin. “Yeah. We’re coming across more women who are free and open-minded about their comedy… That’s why there are so many women performing at Pull The Other One (Martin & Vivienne Soan’s London comedy club).

“But it’s unbelievable. Talking to Cheekykita and Lindsay Sharman and all the rest, women still find it hard to get comedy club gigs. Unbelievable! There are still a lot of clubs that are only booking male stand-ups. Or booking just stand-ups.

“The big agencies just deal in stand-ups, not variety acts. They’ve got absolutely no concept of what’s actually happening out there. Although maybe they’re right for themselves. All they’re after is training people to go on television and you’re not going to get surreal, madcap people presenting programmes for the general public. But there’s definitely more interesting acts around at the moment who are women. Definitely.”

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