Tomorrow night is the final of the So You Think You’re Funny? talent show for new comedy acts in the Gilded Balloon, one of the ‘Big Four’ venues at the Edinburgh Fringe. In past years, the contest has ‘discovered’ acts including Johnny Vegas, Dylan Moran, Peter Kay and Lee Mack – and it is now in its 25th year.
Jason Cook will be compering tomorrow night; celebrity judge will be Ruby Wax; and also on the judging panel, as always, will be Gilded Balloon boss Karen Koren.
“Ben Elton and all those alternative comics had started in the early 1980s,” Karen told me yesterday. “By 1988, when we began So You Think You’re Funny?, Saturday Live had been on TV but my idea was to find new comedians because they were few and far between – or, at least, scattered – in Scotland. That’s how it started.”
The ‘Big Four’ venues at the Fringe are, it is usually said, run by English men who went to public school.
“I am not English,” Karen told me,” I’m definitely not a man and I didn’t go to public school. Well, I went to a private school, but I wasn’t boarding or anything. It wasn’t posh!”
In fact, Karen was born in Norway but brought up in Edinburgh; and Anthony Alderson who now runs the Pleasance venue was born into a Scottish family.
Another ‘fact’ which is always said or assumed is that all the Big Four owners are based in London and swan up to Edinburgh in August to make money at the Fringe then return South.
“I live and work here all the year round,” Karen points out. Her Gilded Balloon company produces stage and occasionally TV shows in Scotland.
When the Gilded Balloon started in 1986 Karen focussed, from the beginning, on comedy… well, from even before the beginning.
“I had actually started staging comedy in 1985 at McNally’s,” she told me, “a place I was a director of and all these wonderful new alternative comedians were there. Christopher Richardson at the Pleasance and William Burdett-Coutts at Assembly were doing comedy to subsidise their theatre shows, but I focussed on comedy.
“At that time, there weren’t loads and loads of comics, but there was a great camaraderie. Everyone helped each other. It wasn’t the struggling business it is now where everyone wants to be stars. Today there’s not the same support mechanism we had in those days.
“Comedy at the Fringe had started properly in the early 1980s, really with Steve Frost and his wife Janet Prince. They wanted places to perform in Edinburgh. Janet and I started Late ‘n’ Live together, but she lived in London and I kept going with it.”
When I first came to see comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe in the mid-to-late 1980s, Late ‘n’ Live was the one late-night show. Comics used to go there after their own shows finished to drink and watch – and sometimes heckle – other comics.
“Late ‘n’ Live has been rough this year,” Karen told me yesterday.
“Financially or physically?” I asked.
“The audiences have been very, very…” she started. “Well, I made a TV programme called The Late ‘n’ Live Guide to Comedy and maybe audiences now think they can misbehave dreadfully. We’re going to have to shake them into shape. We’ve had a couple of rough nights.”
“Is it like that thing,” I asked, “with Malcolm Hardee’s club The Tunnel, where its reputation fed on itself?”
“That’s right,” said Karen. “Late n Live has always been fairly rowdy, but in a good-natured way. But now, in the Recession, maybe people are a wee bit more desperate… people are not doing so well financially or whatever… so maybe they’re just a bit ‘hungrier’ and want to ‘make’ things happen.”
“Do you think the comics are precipitating the behaviour?” I asked.
“No,” she said immediately. “Not at all. Though I think if you put a comic on who doesn’t know Late ‘n’ Live… well, there was an American comic who went on and talked about not being able to use Scottish money in England and he was saying it as a joke but the minute you touch on that kind of subject in Scotland… Ooh! Oooh! Ooooh!… and the audience reacted and he only did five minutes. He walked off. Though he came back and did very well but… The problem is we have to put on comics who are challenged by the audience in order to make it work, but…”
“Lots of changes over the years,” I said.
“I expanded from one small theatre to 14 in the heyday of our building in the Cowgate,” said Karen. “And then we were up in Teviot one year before the fire which burned down our old building. So now we are in Bristo Square.
“I did have another venue called The Counting House at the beginning of the 1990s. I named it The Counting House because that’s where they counted the money above the Peartree pub and that was around the time I gave up my full-time position as the PA to the Norwegian Consul-General in Edinburgh. Before that, I had taken my holidays in August to coincide with the Fringe.”
“Oh,” I said, “I didn’t know you had had the Counting House. That’s where I’m doing the Malcolm Hardee Awards Show in Friday.”
In Edinburgh, promotion is everything.
Karen, of course, knew Malcolm from the 1980s onwards and he appeared many times on Gilded Balloon stages.
“We all still think about him today,” Karen told me, “though I loved him better when he was sober than when he was drunk. But I nearly always did what he asked me at the Gilded Balloon, that was the odd thing.”
“He must have been ‘challenging’ to put on,” I suggested.
“But always entertaining,” Karen said. “The last time he was on, he just took it upon himself to go on Late ‘n’ Live speccy-eyed and glaked-looking and then just took off his clothes. And there he was with the biggest bollocks in showbusiness.”
“And that was the act?” I asked.
“Well,” said Karen, “a pint of beer might have been involved. I actually found some film of that recently – the last time he was on stage here – when we were making The Late n Live Guide to Comedy… and I wanted them to use it on the TV series, but they wouldn’t.”
“Because it was in bad taste?” I asked.
“Well,” Karen said, shrugging her shoulders, “they screened footage of Scott Capurro pissing on the stage and, although there was a big ‘X’ over his baby elephant trunk, you could see the glistening pee well enough.”
“Censorship is a variable art,” I said.
“Yes,” laughed Karen. “At least Malcolm never peed on stage.”
“Well, perhaps not in Edinburgh.” I said. “I once saw him go to the back of the stage at the Albany Empire in Deptford and pee during a show.”
“Well, that’s OK,” said Karen. “He had his back to the audience… With Malcolm, it wasn’t just about his appendage, it was about what he did. He always gave people a chance. I listened to him when he told me about the young Jerry Sadowitz – Oh – go on – Give him a chance! – and I did and that was something I always did do with Malcolm. He did play all the Big Three venues, as they then were, and he invented the Aaaaaaaaaaarghhh! at the beginning of show titles so he would get the first listing in the Fringe Programme. And he had the art of being noticed with publicity stunts – writing a review of his own show and getting it published by The Scotsman and all that. We all do still think about him today. Never forgotten.”
Karen Koren talks about Malcolm Hardee in this video made by the Gilded Balloon which opens with The Greatest Show on Legs, currently performing in Edinburgh (with Bob Slayer replacing the late Malcolm) for the first time in over 30 years: