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Perhaps the true spirit of the Edinburgh Fringe is not dead: comedy, anarchy and loose genitalia over the weekend

The Assembly Hall on The Mound

So, on Saturday, I went to see Australian comic John Robertson’s show The Old Whore, at the Assembly Hall venue on The Mound at the Edinburgh Fringe, but I only saw half of it.

It was a hot, sweaty and humid night and the room high up in Assembly Hall was like a sweat box. So John decided halfway through to take the show and the audience outside into the cool mid-evening air.

His narrative – the show is a fascinating, full-throttle dissection of his very odd family – soon   merged into a fully-fledged outdoor event involving passing pedestrians, rickshaw drivers, people in double decker buses and, with the audience sitting on the pavement, a virtual recreation of the galley sequence from Ben-Hur. Every time a significant number of people was spotted coming up the slope, the audience were under instructions from John to mime as if they were, en masse, rowing an invisible Roman galley on the pavement.

The admirable Assembly staff did not complain; they just came out on the pavement with the audience, donning dayglo safety jackets and made sure passing pedestrians and the traffic were not obstructed. They also laughed a lot and enjoyed John’s seat-of-your-pants show.

Topless entertainment at its best at the Edinburgh Fringe

It ended, suitably, with John taking off his shirt and getting his entire audience to stand up so he could be crowd-surfed with his audience carrying him halfway down the Mound and then addressing them standing on the top of the railings.

When this sort of thing happens, it makes you think maybe the spirit of the Fringe is not dead and the pay-to-enter festival has not been taken over by bland comedy clones only intent on finding TV producers to impress. There was a smell of sought-for anarchy in the air.

I did find it a little suspicious, though, when John told me he had done this once before – on a similarly sweaty night.

Is John Robertson (left) schmoozing me?

“Yeah,” John told me, out of breath after his crowd surf. “It was the night reviewers from The Scotsman and The List were in. They ended up doing a review of the bit where we went outside instead of the show itself and this is a structurally sound narrative. It’s a really carefully-crafted monologue. So it made me a little unhappy they reviewed the going-outside bit. But, when a crowd is having a hard time because of the heat, I will take them outside and do whatever.”

Could he have reckoned there was a greater chance of me writing a blog – and a longer blog – if he went outside again. Who knows? Who cares? When in doubt, go with what makes a good story.

John Robertson in The Dark Room in Edinburgh

John is also performing a separate show, The Dark Room, as part of the Alternative Fringe/Laughing Horse Free Festival at Bob Slayer’s Hive venue. Bob is a wonderful publicist and so is John. So the two together are quite something.

The Dark Room – which I saw yesterday – is basically a video game, which John created, but performed as a live interactive show in Edinburgh. He put the original game on YouTube and, he says, “it went viral in February. Variety and Wired did feature articles on it and Kotaku covered it – they’re a big multi-platform video gaming anime thing.”

John Robertson after his Hive show yesterday

Comedian Brendon Burns has been coming daily to John’s shows at the Hive to play The Dark Room. And, John tells me, “Ron Gilbert, from LucasArts, who created the first two Monkey Island games played it. Ian Livingstone, co-creator of Fighting Fantasy and Games Workshop also came to play – and lost – and that was terrific.

“Here is a man who is responsible for people like me not getting laid in high school because we were indulging in his wonderful imagination, his wonderful flights of fantasy… and he turned up to play my game and lost! And he knew exactly what he was doing; we thought in a faintly similar way, though his games were made to be fun and my game was made to be fun to watch.”

John Robertson may do very well from The Dark Room because, as I say, like Bob Slayer, he knows how to promote and knows how to insert himself into situations which may get him publicity.

Bob Slayer (left) and John Robertson talk seriously (not)

So when, in the Hive bar after yesterday’s Dark Room show, hard-drinking and frequently drunk Bob Slayer ordered only a Coca Cola and I switched my iPhone audio recorder on, John leapt in as Bob’s interrogator and interlocutor – some people will do anything to get mentioned in this blog.

There was much talk of the fact that Bob had ordered a Coca Cola from the bar, but we will join the conversation at the point at which I said: “I enjoyed the wanking Jeff Leach story.”

“I didn’t enjoy wanking off Jeff Leach,” said Bob wearily.

“Yes you did,” said John.

“Jeff Leach was on stage at Espionage,” said Bob. “It’s not for me to assess another comedian’s performance, but the audience all hated him. So he turned his back on them and decided to talk to one man in the booth, off-mike.

“After about five minutes of this, I was sent on to go and pull him off and, unfortunately, that’s exactly what I did. I misunderstood them.”

“And did the crowd go wild?” asked John.

“Well,” said Bob, “I sold tickets for my show this morning on the back of wanking in a man’s wife’s face last night.”

Bob Slayer gets carried away during his storytelling spree

“In a man’s wife’s face?” I asked. “Don’t forget this is being recorded.”

“Well, she’s coming today,” Bob said with no sense of knowingness.

“Would you like to re-phrase that?” I asked.

“Today she is visiting his show,” suggested John.

“To be more precise,” said Bob. “I was wanking Jeff and Jeff was wanking me. There was a lot of coming and going. Well, there was no going. That was the whole point: he wouldn’t go so I had to make him come.”

“So you began to jerk the jerk?” John asked.

“You know how I won’t back down?” Bob asked me. “Well, we were playing that Who’s going to back down first? game and nobody was backing down.”

“Are we saying through the pants?” asked John.

“No,” said Bob.

“You put your hand in the pants?” asked John.

“No,” said Bob.

“You took him out of the pants?” asked John.

“The pants were down,” said Bob.

“The pants were down,” said John.

“Yes,” said Bob.

“The little Leach in full view?” asked John.

“The little Leach and big Bob.”

“Not too much detail,” I suggested.

“Was there engorging involved?” asked John.

“I don’t think there was any engorging going on,” said Bob. “Certainly not on my part: I’d had a bottle of Jagermeister.”

“So you were wanking this…” started John.

“Pulling a flaccid member,” corrected Bob.

“It didn’t leave a bad taste in your mouth?” I asked.

“No,” said Bob, “The man’s wife on the other hand…”

“And, faced with this chunky comedian porn, the crowd responded with…?” asked John.

“They seemed to quite like it,” said Bob. “I wouldn’t say all of them did, but the point is I sold some tickets today off the back of it, so some people liked it, therefore it’s entertainment and it should be done on a regular basis….” Bob paused and thought for a couple of seconds. “I’m never doing it again,” he added.”I’m disgusted with this hand. It’s the one I dislocated as well. We had already fallen out.”

Bob Slayer holds his hand, if not his head, high yesterday

He held his right hand up so I could photograph it. One of his fingers is missing a joint.

“You look like Dave Allen there,” I said. “Jeremy Beadle built an entire career based on this.”

“What?” asked Bob, “Pretending to be Dave Allen?”

“No,” I said, “you know he had…”

“…a shrunken hand,” said Bob. “Yes.”

James Doohan,” said John.

“Who?” I asked.

“Scotty, from Star Trek,” said John.

“Oh?” said Bob.

“Only four digits on one hand,” said John. “One of his fingers was shot off in the War…. And you know Radar from M*A*S*H?”

“Him too?” I asked, incredulous.

“He’s got a deformed left hand,” said John. “He’s always holding a clipboard.”

“Is any of this true?” I asked.

“Yes, it is,” said John.

“Mickey Mouse – three fingers,” I said.

“What you’re saying,” said Bob, holding up his hand, “is that people with deformed hands are genii.”

“Genii?” asked John.

“I think genii is the plural of genius,” said Bob.

“I don’t think Mickey Mouse is a genius,” I said. “and I am going to have to transcribe all this.”

“You may regret it,” Bob said.

“We may all regret it,” I said.

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