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Edinburgh’s PBH Free Fringe restricts performers’ freedom to put on a show

The Greatest Show on Legs performing in their prime (Photograph by Matthew Hardy)

At the Edinburgh Fringe in 2008, the much-respected comedian Peter Buckley Hill was nominated for a Malcolm Hardee Award for his creation and sustenance of the PBH Free Fringe.

Last week, I blogged that the late Malcolm Hardee’s friend Martin Soan was likely to revive their act The Greatest Show on Legs at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe for a one-week run. The show was to involve two other former GSOL performers. Last night, I went with my eternally-un-named friend (who is not in the comedy business) to see Malcolm Hardee Award winning Lewis Schaffer’s ongoing London comedy show Free Until Famous.

I heard there that the planned Greatest Show On Legs’ performances in Edinburgh have, in all probability, been scuppered by Peter Buckley Hill (oft known as PBH).

In my blog in January this year, Peter wrote that the PBH Free Fringe “is a model for the liberation of performers from the chains imposed on them by others”.

“This guy Peter Buckley Hill,” Lewis Schaffer explained to my eternally-un-named friend late last night, “originated the idea of a festival where people are charged nothing to get in, but donate money at the door at the end of the show. It’s basically indoor busking. He didn’t invent anything new, he just put it into a room. It’s a great idea. And a promoter called Alex Petty did the same thing and called his shows the Laughing Horse Free Festival.

“And that,” Lewis explained, “is a good thing, because it means more free shows for more free comics, rather than just having one guy to go to. It’s like somebody opening up a food centre giving food to starving people and somebody says, Good idea – I’ll do the same thing across town. You wouldn’t say, Oh, this guy’s being evil because he’s copied the idea of doing a free food bank! The Fringe idea is indoor busking. But Peter Buckley Hill thinks Alex Petty is doing an evil thing.”

“There are all sorts of stories,” I explained to my eternally-un-named friend. “Some are probably untrue and urban myths but it’s like a one-sided vendetta. If any PBH Free Fringe act applies to perform or does perform at a Laughing Horse Free Festival venue, PBH bans them from appearing on the Free Fringe again. If he knows you have applied to both the Free Fringe and the Free Festival for a venue, you are barred from performing at the Free Fringe venue because you have had the audacity to approach the Free Festival. The legend goes that, if you appear at a Free Festival venue, PBH un-friends you on Facebook, though we still seem to be Facebook Friends. I have a nasty feeling this may change.”

In the case of the Greatest Show on Legs, one of the performers (who does not want to be named) is booked to appear in a show on the PBH Free Fringe this year. The Greatest Show on Legs had been invited to perform at Bob Slayer’s venue The Hive, which comes under the umbrella of the Laughing Horse Free Festival. When this was mentioned to PBH, it turned out (no surprise) he had a problem with it, but said there would be no problem if the Greatest Show on Legs performed, instead, at a PBH Free Fringe venue.

The rule of thumb is… If you apply to or perform at a Laughing Horse Free Festival venue, you are barred from the PBH Free Fringe. The reverse is not the case. The Laughing Horse Free Festival puts no restrictions on performers applying to both free events, nor on people who have performed for the PBH Free Fringe.

There was a story at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe about a PBH Free Fringe venue which was next to a Laughing Horse Free Festival venue in the same narrow street. The latter venue was a little tucked-away and less-well signposted at the front. If any punter or passer-by asked anyone flyering outside the PBH Free Fringe venue, the flyerer had to say they had never heard of the Laughing Horse Free Fringe venue and did not know where it was. I can only presume this was an urban myth and was a totally untrue story, but I heard it repeated widely. Such stories are fertilised by the one-sided vendetta.

“It is outrageous,” Martin Soan told me last night. “PBH seems to believe that, if anyone performs anywhere else, then they’re not allowed to perform at his places. It could destroy young people’s careers because it can come across as intimidating or bullying though, of course, I am sure it’s not intended that way. Imagine if you’re a young act, just starting out. We never believed there was a career for us when we started. But nowadays there is a career path in it. Suddenly someone turns round and says: Ah, you’re not going to perform here if you go off and do a show somewhere else. That is detrimental to people’s careers. It’s restriction of trade. Not a good way of nursing young talent; it is restricting talent’s ability to perform where they want.”

“It’s also preventing an actual show from happening?” said my eternally un-named friend.

“You could have someone else in the show,” I suggested to Martin.

“Yes, but that’s not the point, is it?” he replied.

“Someone Martin wanted in the show and who wanted to appear in the show has been intimidated into not appearing in the show,” my eternally un-named friend said.

“You’ve hit the nail on the head,” said Martin.

“And the show will probably not happen because of that?” I asked.

“It’s just nuts,” Martin said. “I’m not going to lose sleep over it. But what I’m angry about is this PBH character. Who does he think he is? He said, No, you can’t go and perform at The Hive because it’s part of the Free Festival, but the Legs can perform on the Free Fringe. So he was prepared to poach an act. He was just being bloody obstinate and horrible, if you ask me.”

“Would you perform as part of the Free Fringe?” I asked.

“Not now. No I fucking well would not now. On principle. I have banned and barred myself from performing on the Free Fringe. I don’t know what the distinction is between barred and banned but I have done both to myself.”

“If,” I suggested, “if one of the Big Four venues told someone who was doing a show for them that they could not go and perform as a member of a comedy team at a Free Fringe venue because performing at a free venue would undermine the box office for their performance at the Big Four paid venue, I could see that they might have a point. But PBH would be outraged and up-in-arms about the restrictive practices of the dictatorial Big venue throttling freedom of performance.

“In this case – and lots of other cases – what you have is the PBH Free Fringe saying anyone who dares to perform at the other free festival in town is barred from performing at the PBH Free Fringe. While claiming that free performance shows are somehow liberating to the performer. It’s like Communism coming along and saying We will give people freedom and you end up with a dictatorship by the one-Party state.”

“It’s like The Bridge on the River Kwai,” said Lewis Schaffer. “Alec Guinness did a good thing by keeping the men occupied to build the bridge. He saved the lives of his own men. He was a good man. But, somewhere along the line, he forgot what his purpose was. He fell in love with the bridge and forgot about the men and about the War. At the end of the film, he’d forgotten what the purpose of the bridge was. And it’s the same with Peter Buckley Hill. He’s forgotten what the purpose of the Free Fringe was: to widen the opportunities for performers. The Free Fringe is not for him; it’s for other people and the more people who put on more free shows, the better it is for Comedy.”

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Why it is impossible to libel the Edinburgh Fringe

Last March, I wrote a So It Goes blog here headed:

ANSWERS TO NINE COMMON QUESTIONS ASKED BY INNOCENT FIRST-TIME PERFORMERS AT THE EDINBURGH FRINGE

As it is again that time of year when performers – especially comics – start thinking about arranging shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, last week I sent the same piece (with figures updated) to the UK edition of the Huffington Post, which occasionally prints pieces by me and which did not exist until summer last year.

Lazy of me, I know, but the advice is still relevant and, I think, helpful and true.

Imagine my bemusement when my piece appeared under the headline:

ANSWERS TO SEVEN COMMON QUESTIONS ASKED BY INNOCENT FIRST-TIME PERFORMERS AT THE EDINBURGH FRINGE

“Mmmm… That’s interesting,” I thought. “I wonder why they have cut two out?”

It did not matter particularly, but it bemused me.

The missing questions and answers were:

____________________

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.

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

Yes.

____________________

I have not asked the Huffington Post why they chopped these two questions and answers out. It would seem churlish. And I suspect it may prove counter-productive to even mention it here. But I reckon it’s worth a blog.

I suspect it might have been an attempt to avoid a potential libel problem misunderstood by a Huffington Post sub-editor who thought that there is a single venue-organising company which, I claimed, is incompetent.

I did not because there is not.

There is a common misunderstanding by people who have never performed there that the Edinburgh Fringe is actually organised. It is not.

It is an open festival. You, I or Fred Bloggs and his performing caterpillars can perform there under the banner of the “Edinburgh Fringe” if we feel like it. There is no quality or quantity control.

“The Edinburgh Fringe” is what people call it and there an Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society which plays a central role. But, basically, they print the Programme for the event and publicise the event in general. They do not organise the shows or the venues in any way.

If you pay to have your show listed with 40 words in the Fringe’s printed Programme and 100 words online, then (provided there is nothing illegal in the wording) details of the show and its performances will appear and you are performing “in the Fringe”. And there is a central box office system, although many venues also run their own box offices.

The Fringe Office will advise and help to an extent, but you are on your own as a performer. You have to find a venue, probably pay for the venue, arrange posters, flyers, publicity and all the rest yourself.

That is one of the joys of the Edinburgh Fringe.

No central body actually ‘organises’ it in any way.

Last year, the Fringe had 21,192 performers appearing in 2,542 shows (41,689 performances) at 258 venues with 855 registered journalists reviewing/reporting on them, 974 ‘arts industry professionals’ (TV scouts, agents, producers, bookers etc) and an estimated 1,877,119 people attended Fringe shows during the three-and-a-bit weeks of the festival. The non-profit-taking Fringe Society itself had an income of £3,161,601 last year to organise the generalities. Someone somehow calculated that, in 2010, the Fringe event pumped £142 million into Edinburgh’s economy.

But it is anarchy.

In the best sense of the word.

The Edinburgh Fringe is full of opportunities, dreams, nightmares, testosterone, adrenaline, drink, drugs, out-of-control egos, showbiz shysters and con men (and women). It is full of people out to make their reputations, to make a buck out of performers and to shaft each other in all meanings of the phrase. To repeat one of my answers which the Huffington Post cut out… and it ain’t libel, it’s life… it’s a fact, indeed a racing certainty…

____________________

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

Yes.

____________________

And to repeat one of my answers which they did run:

7. SHOULD I GO BACK FOR A SECOND AND THIRD YEAR?

Yes.

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Nina Conti’s amazingly intelligent new film on Ken Campbell and on herself

(This blog was later published on the Chortle comedy industry website and by the Huffington Post)

I have always been a bit wary of ventriloquists. What’s with the talking-to-yourself bit? Ventriloquists are a bit like glove puppet performers. They are surely self-obsessed loonies.

But, then, maybe all performers are.

My wariness of glove puppet performers was never helped by stories of Basil Brush‘s drinking habits and Rod Hull and Emu’s antics off-stage… nor by the wonderful Muppet Show performers staying in character when they walked around ATV’s Elstree building. You would get into a lift to find two grown men with puppets on their arms, conversing to each other through the puppets and in the puppets’ voices.

Always a tad unsettling.

But I like eccentric and interesting people. And self-obsession, though it can sometimes be wearisome to sit through, can be fascinating.

Ventriloquist Nina Conti‘s documentary Her Master’s Voice – she wrote, produced and directed it – mentions Friedrich Schiller, who referred to the “watcher at the gates of the mind”, which can stifle creativity.

To be unconventional – to be creatively original – often means being criticised, which no-one much likes. So, in most people, Schiller’s ‘watcher’ tends to dismiss original creative ideas out of hand to avoid rejection.

The people who can ignore their ‘watcher’, though, can be genuinely original creatives.

I only encountered that extraordinarily influential connoisseur of eccentricity and ringmaster of alternative theatrical eventism Ken Campbell a few times. He was around the TV series Tiswas when I worked on it; he attended a movie scriptwriting talk I attended; and I once went with comedian Malcolm Hardee to see one of Ken’s fascinatingly rambling shows at the National Theatre in London. Malcolm admired Ken greatly, but found the show too rambling for his taste and he needed a cigarette, so we left during the interval and never came back. I would have stayed.

As its climax, the recent Fortean Times UnConvention screened Her Master’s Voice, Nina Conti’s wonderfully quirky new love-letter documentary to Ken Campbell.

Films are, by their nature, superficial.

In a novel, you can get inside someone’s mind.

In a film, you only see the externals of a person and you can only get some semblance of psychological depth and what someone thinks if they actually spell it out in words. One of the few films to get round this problem was Klute, in which the central character talked, at key points, to a psychiatrist.

Another way of pulling the same trick, of course, would be to have as the central character a ventriloquist who talks to their doll.

That is what Nina Conti very successfully does in this film.

Ken Campbell inspired Nina to become a vent by simply giving her a Teach Yourself Ventriloquism kit and, as he did with so many other performers, continued to inspire and advise her throughout his life.

Ken’s life was, it is said in the film, about “playing God with other people” – a phrase that might also be used to describe the mentality of a ventriloquist.

But, after ten years as a successful comedian/vent, Nina decided to give up ventriloquism and was summoning up the courage to tell Ken about this when she heard of his death via Facebook. She inherited his vent dolls and, with her own Monkey doll and six of Ken’s “bereaved puppets” she went to the Vent Haven International Ventriloquist Convention in Kentucky – bizarrely held in a fairly dreary model by a freeway.

The result is an absolutely amazingly insightful, highly intelligent and surprisingly emotional look at ventriloquists and at Nina herself. She is able to externalise her thoughts by talking to the vent dolls on screen… there is a genuinely shocking and insightful revelation in the movie about the ‘birth’ of her doll Monkey.

Ken Campbell believed that “creativity and insanity are almost the same thing” and the doll “gives us access to the insanity of the ventriloquator” while Nina says she thought she was bland as a person but the birth of Monkey gave her “an extra dimension”.

When psychologists and psychoanalysts meet vents, they must feel as if Christmas has come early and, interestingly, the book which Nina takes to read while on her trip to the Convention is Problems of the Self by Bernard Williams.

This is an astonishingly successful film with three possible endings, all of them on-screen. Nina manages to turn the ultimate ending into a happy one but, before that there is another possible ‘out’. When I left the screening, three people were still crying and highly emotionally upset over (I presume) that earlier ending.

Which well they might be.

This is an extraordinarily successful documentary.

Her Master’s Voice.

Watching someone talk to themselves has never been so interesting.

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Nine more innocent questions posed by first-time Edinburgh Fringe comedians

A while ago, I blogged Answers to nine common questions asked by innocent first-time performers at the Edinburgh Fringe.

As the Fringe is only a fortnight away – and as I could not bloody think of anything else to blog about today – I felt compelled to answer nine more mythical questions posed by comedians:

1. IF THERE ARE ONLY TWO PEOPLE IN THE AUDIENCE, SHOULD I CANCEL THE SHOW?

No. Even if there is only one person in the audience, perform the show. You do not know who is in the audience (particularly at the Free Fringe and the Free Festival where there are no comp tickets). I have blogged before about an Edinburgh Fringe show performed in the early 1990s by then-unknown comedian Charlie Chuck. There were only four people in the audience. He performed the show. Two of the audience members were preparing an upcoming BBC TV series The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer and, as a direct result, Charlie Chuck was cast as ‘Uncle Peter’ in the series.

2. BUT IF I GET LOW AUDIENCES, I AM A FAILURE, SURELY?

Very possibly, sunshine, but not necessarily. In reality, it means you are an average Edinburgh Fringe performer. Unless you are on TV, you will not get full audiences unless there is astonishing word-of-mouth about your show. Scots comedian Kevin Bridges could not fill a matchbox, even in Scotland. He appeared on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow on BBC1. After that, he was filling auditoriums the size of Bono’s ego. What is important at the Edinburgh Fringe is not the size of the audience but the quality of the audience. It is not How Many? but Who? which is important. And don’t call me Shirley.

3. BUT I AM GOING TO THE FRINGE TO GET SEEN BY AUDIENCES, AREN’T I?

No you are not. You are going to the Edinburgh Fringe to lose money. A comic whose name I have tragically forgotten, so cannot credit, likened it to standing in a cold shower tearing up £50 notes. You may have sold your grandmother into sexual slavery to afford this trip to the Fringe, but you are not in Edinburgh to perform shows to ordinary people. If you wanted to do that, you could have gone to the Camden Fringe or down the local pub on a Friday night. You are going to Edinburgh, the biggest arts festival in the world, to get seen by critics and, with luck, by radio and TV people, all of whom can boost your career. If you can create good word-of-mouth among the small audiences who do see your shows at the Fringe, then that may attract a few of the influential people.

4. I AM A COMEDIAN. AUDIENCES ARE NOT LAUGHING ALL THE WAY THROUGH MY SHOW. WHY?

Well, probably because you have a shit show, so tweak it or consider a career working at a call centre in Glasgow. There are some comics who should reconsider their lifestyle and bank balances. On the other hand, most comics are insanely insecure for very little reason. I have sat through many a show where the comedian thinks the audience did not like part of the show because it did not get enough laughs but I know for sure, because I was in the audience, that the punters enjoyed the show tremendously. They were just mesmerised in rapt attention during the quiet but important bits.

5. BUT WHY DON’T AUDIENCES LAUGH AT EVERY LINE?

Possibly because a good comedy script is not 100% laugh-at-every-line. Not over a whole hour. If you think your show is that funny you are either deluded, on cocaine or have a serious psychological problem (not that the last is any drawback in comedy). Watching a man take 10 seconds to jump off a cliff 66 times in a row is not exciting; it exhausts and bores the viewer after a while. What is exciting is a rollercoaster. A build-up followed by an adrenaline rush. Excitement followed by relief followed by excitement followed by relief followed by a climax. Note I never mentioned sex. An hour-long show is about pacing. If you remove the build-up before the punch-line, you will lose the laughter on the punch-line. And I still did not mention sex. Of course, the highly-experienced comic can get three subsidiary titters in the build-up followed by a big belly-laugh on the punch-line. Even (billed in alphabetical order) the brilliant Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine, who mostly deal in one-liners, have pacing where their audiences can relax amid the laughs. Just like sex, in my experience.

6. SHOULD I WORRY IF I DO NOT GET REVIEWS?

Yes, but it is largely a matter of luck. I always tell people they have to play the Edinburgh Fringe on three consecutive years. The first year, no-one will notice you are there. The second year, you have some idea of how the Fringe works. The third year, people will think you are an Edinburgh institution and the media will pay some attention to you. You have to go for three consecutive years. If you miss a year, when you return, you are, in effect, re-starting at Year One. It is not just audiences but critics who change year-by-year. Critics reviewing shows at the Fringe may not have been doing it two years ago.

7. I ONLY HAVE 30 MINUTES OF GOOD MATERIAL. WAS I WRONG TO ATTEMPT TO DO A 60-MINUTE SHOW?

Yes. You are an idiot. You should have delayed your trip to the Fringe and gone next year. Going before you are fully ready is never a good idea. Yes, go up and play a few gigs on other people’s shows. Yes, go up as part of a three or four person show. But, if you are doing your first solo 60-minute show and you have anything less than 80 minutes of good material, you risk rapid ego-destruction.

8. IF I GET REVIEWS, ARE THE NUMBER OF STARS IMPORTANT?

In Edinburgh, absolutely. The stars are everything – provided you get above three stars. Put four or five stars on your posters and flyers – with short quotes – immediately. All your competitors – and, in Edinburgh ALL other performers, however seemingly friendly, are your deadly competitors – will be using the number of stars on a review to boost their own ego or to try and deflate yours. After the Fringe is over, the stars mean bugger all. They are unlikely to bring in crowds on a wet Thursday in Taunton. But their real value lies next year at the Fringe when you can quote them and they will have some effect. And always remember the admirable enterprise of the late comic Jason Wood. Highly influential Scotsman critic Kate Copstick gave his Fringe show a one star review. The next morning, all his posters in Edinburgh proudly displayed a pasted-on strip saying “A STAR” (The Scotsman)

9. WILL I WIN THE PERRIER PRIZE?

No. Partly because it no longer exists; they seem to call it something different every year. But mostly because you just won’t. Don’t be silly. Fantasy is a valuable part of the performer’s art, but never fully believe your own fantasy. You stand a better chance of winning one of the increasingly-prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards for comedy – the longest-running comedy awards with the same name at the Fringe. And, unlike their insignificant competitors, the Malcolm Hardee Awards are guaranteed to run until the year 2017. I allegedly organise them, but intentionally try not to be too organised as that would be lacking in respect to Malcolm’s memory. Don’t bother to apply to me because there is no application process, plus it interferes with my chocolate-eating. Your show format is probably neither that original nor, frankly, that good and we will almost certainly hear about anything which actually IS that original. In Edinburgh, word-of-mouth is the strongest thing after a deep-fried Mars Bar soaked in whisky for 20 minutes. The Malcolm Hardee Award judges this year are (in alphabetical order) famed Scotsman critic and Show Me The Funny judge Kate Copstick, inconsequential little old me,  The Times’ esteemed comedy critic Dominic Maxwell and the wildly prolific freelance Jay Richardson. Please feel free to wave £50 notes in our faces and offers of two-week holidays in Barbados with lovely 20-year-old nymphets (that holds for all four of us).

Look, in Edinburgh, the most important thing of all is self-publicity. Thus Malcolm Hardee Week at the Fringe.

To quote Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks’ movie The Producers:

“When you’ve got it, flaunt it, flaunt it!”

Here endeth the lesson and – only temporarily – the self-publicity.

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The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd… and the terrified comedian

The stage. The spotlights. And the fear.

Three major things performers get off on.

And, when comedians are inexperienced, the third is so strong, they often forget the first two.

You can spot inexperienced comedians because they step forward, out of the stage lights, so they can see the audience’s faces and the audience becomes more human, less of a faceless beast in the dark.

But the result is that the performer’s face becomes dimmer and less distinct.

So you have a dimly-lit performer standing in front of a well-lit background and the human eye is overwhelmed by the bright background, which makes the performer’s face even dimmer.

The audience can’t see the performer’s eyes and facial expressions clearly. The effect and impact of what the performer says is lessened.

What the performer has done through fear in an attempt to have more impact has had the opposite effect.

Even worse – and I saw it happen twice recently – some performers without careful pre-planning and with their head filled with professionally suicidal fog actually come down off the stage to directly interact with the audience. They think it’s ‘bonding’. In fact, it’s wanking.

You can get away with it after a lot of careful thought, detailed pre-planning and a lot of live performance experience. But not “cos I feel like it”.

It makes the performer feel better – real live interaction with real live people – but it means, off the stage and in semi-darkness, most of the audience can see fuck all of what the performer is doing. The audience might as well be listening to a radio programme in the dark. If the performer has actual genuine eye contact with one punter, it means all other members of the audience are being excluded.

Eyes, Facial expressions. Brightly lit. Details seen clearly. That’s why audiences go to live shows. To see the performer clearly. That’s what communication is about.

Rule One of stand-up comedy… even in a small room…

If you can see the audience’s eyes in the middle of the room, you are standing in the wrong place. Get back into the light.

Rule Two of stand-up comedy… even in a small room…

If you cannot feel the warmth of the light(s) on the front and sides of your face, you are standing in the wrong place. Get back into the light.

Rule Three of stand-up comedy… even in a small room…

If there is a stage and you have come off it to ‘bond’ with the audience, get your mind off your insecurities and think about the audience’s viewpoint not your own. Get back on the fucking stage. Get back into the light.

Don’t think of the audience as a faceless beast in the dark, about to rip your soul asunder at any moment.

Think of your light as a warm womb protecting you. The faceless beast out there in the dark is just a bad dream and you will be backstage drinking lukewarm tea in less than an hour – perhaps less than ten minutes…

Stay in the light.

It’s why you wanted to perform in the first place. To communicate with people. Clearly.

(This blog was also published by the comedy industry website Chortle.)

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“My name is Ozymandias, comic of comics”… maybe

I will need incontinence pads soon.

I thought I’d blogged somewhere before about my theory that most comedians are a combination of masochist and psychopath… and then I thought maybe I hadn’t. And then I was sure I had, but I couldn’t find it. And then I did here. Clearly my memory is going. Not that it was ever very good. I’m sure this Coalition Attacking Libya semi-war thing has happened before. Several times. After a while, all post-Korean wars seem to merge into one.

On my Facebook page a few days ago, I mentioned a Sunday Mail interview with the immensely talented Scots comedian and magician Jerry Sadowitz.

In 1995, when the late Malcolm Hardee was writing his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, I asked him: “Who is the most talented comedian who has not yet made it?”

He immediately said: “Jerry Sadowitz”.

Or, in fact, “Gerry Sadowitz” because, at that time, I think Jerry was still (as far as we could see fairly randomly) alternating between billing himself as Gerry Sadowitz and Jerry Sadowitz.

In the Sunday Mail interview, it was claimed Jerry predicted he will die penniless and lonely and described himself as a failure who had struggled to find work since his last television series almost a decade ago. It sounded pretty downbeat.

Though, in fact, he can fill large theatres, is very highly regarded by the media and, as the Sunday Mail pointed out, he has been voted one of the greatest stand up comedians of all time.

On my Facebook page, one reaction to the interview, from bubbly comedienne Charmian Hughes, was:

“Yes, failure is a strangely seductive and addictive mistress – so much safer and predictable than the vagaries of success. You know where you are when you think you are not going anywhere!”

I agree. I have seen several performers blow their chance of success. It’s as if they have struggled for so long that they know they can deal with failure, disappointment and rejection, but success is a great – and therefore a dangerous and very frightening – unknown. The pain of rejection is like a release of acid in the stomach and, once you know you can survive it, like all strong physical feelings, it can become addictive.

It is something I think I have noticed in a lot of stand-up comics – perhaps it’s something in all performers. There is this inner, outgoing, self-confident need to show-off combined with a sometimes almost paralysing self-doubt.

This can manifest itself in two areas.

One is publicity where the effervescent, outgoing performer is so fearful of being hurt by criticism that they want to hide inside a bag inside a wardrobe inside a cave in a vast impenetrable mountain range. I’ve been involved with more than one performer who refused to do interviews or any publicity which would expose even the most general details of their private self to any public view.

The other area is even more extreme – career self-harm – and it is epitomised, let’s say, by former punk rocker Johnny Rotten walking off I’m a Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here! when it became crystal clear he was going to win it. Anyone who knows the comedy business will be able to remember an exact parallel on another TV reality show involving a successful comic on his way up.

I once chatted to that comedian and said, quite honestly though perhaps a tad insensitively, that I did not know why he had not been picked up by TV producers in the past.

“It could be,” he suggested, “that I have a tendency to tell them they’re cunts.”

“That would probably do it,” I had to agree.

It is the conflict between wanting to perform yet being phenomenally over-sensitive and the fear of failure.

Charmian Hughes admits, “I have done a couple of self-saboteuring things in my life. One was not returning the call of a BBC Radio One producer who came up to me after a show and asked me to write for her before that was a fashionable Radio One thing. I pretended it wasn’t my thing artistically but, of course, inside I was afraid I would be shit at it. The result was I slammed that door in my own face.”

Another comic told me:

“It’s like a knot in the pit of your stomach. The fear. You know you’re going to go up there alone on stage and they may hate you. Not your material. It’s not like doing Shakespeare or Alan Ayckbourn where you are an actor in a play. They see the comic up there on stage telling jokes and it is you. Just you. If they hate you, it is because they hate you for yourself. You have to get up on stage to get the attention you want but, at the same time, the last thing you want is attention. You want to be in the spotlight and you want to hide and both emotions are inside you simultaneously.

“That’s what the problem with publicity is. You want everyone in the whole world to know who you are and to reassure you that you are brilliant and better than anyone else. But, at the same time, you don’t want anyone to know who you are: you want to run away and hide, because you are just a little kid standing up there alone, afraid that you will get told off and you are on the brink of crying inside. It’s like a physical knot inside your stomach.”

Charmian Hughes says:

“I remember a kind of exuberant horror at what I was doing and feeling quite angry with the people who wanted to promote me which quickly turned to self pity when they then didn’t. It takes a lot of personal untangling. Of course, all that was in extremis and I would recognise it immediately now… maybe!”

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