My trip to Edinburgh is, in all honesty, a huge gamble. I was originally planning to be here for a full fortnight but, thanks to some family crises, my time at the Fringe Festival has been cut down to a mere nine full days.
I came here with a dream of performing as often as possible at this world-renowned arts and culture spectacular, but arrived with only one semi-confirmed booking under my belt. I’d been given a slot, provisionally, at the famous Three Sisters venue near the Royal Mile. It wasn’t guaranteed, however.
Earlier in the day, a group of us newbies had to perform our acts in front of an experienced comedian called Jo to make sure we were up to scratch. I realised pretty quickly that Jo and I had very different comic sensibilities, seeing as she was dismissive of musician-comedians whereas I’m totally enamoured with the likes of Christian Reilly, Mitch Benn and Phil Nichol. We did, however, bond over our mutual distaste for a rather hacky Brit-Asian comedian – who shall remain nameless.
It was an eclectic mix of wannabes – three foreigners, two Scots, a Londoner and me. One by one, we stepped up to the mock stage set up for us at Edinburgh City Football Club. I was caught in two minds about the material I wanted to use. Should I try and do some observational story-telling? Or take the risk and roll out the racist, misogynist Arab character I’ve been working on recently?
Jo was very positive and encouraging about everyone who took to that stage, and quite disingenuously in a few cases I thought. But all that stopped when it was my turn to perform! I’d decided the story-telling style was too obvious and I needed to push the boundaries a little. After all, no-one ever achieved anything extraordinary without taking risks. I got up with my usual enthusiasm and began. It started relatively well, which emboldened me to go straight to the darker, more offensive material – wife-beating, pornography, paedophilia etc. and I delivered every racial epithet imaginable with gusto. The reaction? Silence!
Everyone’s mouths were agape – disgusted with my material. The nicest comment I got was from a teenage Canadian newbie who just said “That’s too edgy for me, man!”
Jo was even more blunt and said she HATED my whole act, and I would get heckled, booed and shouted off the stage! She found my whole routine downright disgusting and spent several minutes explaining why it was simply unacceptable!
Then she came over, gave me a hug and said “I do know you’re not really like that.” But she was adamant the audience would eat me alive! In fact, she was unsure whether I should even be allowed to do the show at all and said it needed significant re-structuring to make it obvious I was not being sincere but merely playing a character. It was lunchtime and we all dispersed, but I had no time for food. I knew I had to go away and re-organise the material ASAP, otherwise my dream of performing at this year’s Edinburgh Festival was dead in the water.
I decided to add some ridiculous, impossibly ludicrous opening gags at the start and then put a break in the middle where I broke character for 5-10 seconds to give the audience a respite from the onslaught of unpleasantness. It’s a common trick, masterfully utilised by the likes of Tom Stade and Lewis Schaffer, but whether I could employ the same technique was yet to be tested.
I went back to our mock stage and delivered the restructured version of my routine. It went over slightly better than the first time, but there was still a palpable reprehension from every member of that audience. Even though she wasn’t sure I could pull it off, Jo wished me “good luck” – delivered in a rather ominous tone – and sent us on our way to go prepare for our debut performances at the Fringe.
The gig was scheduled on the “Party Bus” at the Three Sisters venue on Cowgate at 8pm. What I hadn’t anticipated was that the England v. Scotland game would be taking place at exactly the same time. And the punters who would usually attend the gig would instead be literally right outside loudly shouting at the big screen.
So instead of the usual 50 people we ended up with an audience of about 20. Eight comedians would be performing – two semi-experienced and six of us amateurs.
The compere was a Japanese-American comic, which made me pause as I had written a joke about calling Japanese people “chinks”… and was now reconsidering whether I should do the gag or not.
I was on third and sweating with fear, convinced that I would forget my re-written routine. And even if I remembered my material, the feedback I’d gotten earlier in the day suggested I was bound to die a comedy death on that stage! I wrote some bullet points on the back of my hand – a tip I’d picked up from watching Stewart Lee DVDs – and that helped reassure me I would be able to make it past the 5-minute mark without running out of things to say.
The first couple of acts got a pretty lukewarm response, not helped at all by the roaring from outside which was presumably rising to crescendos every time the Scots pulled off a crowd-pleasing play. Before I knew it, my moment had arrived – no going back and no hiding place.
On I went. Did my first gag. The audience laughed! Relief washed over me. But the worst material was yet to come! Would they turn on me? I started delivering nasty gag after nasty gag… every one was a HIT with the crowd! 😀
It was going so well that I decided to throw away the restructured version and just deliver the routine as I had originally written it. Risky, but I was on a roll now. Even the punters who were sat stony faced through all the other acts started laughing.
However, we were approaching the uncomfortable part now – the chink joke! Should I do it? I could never respect myself if I didn’t go for it. So I said it. They liked it. And I knew I just had to run with it now. I turned to the Japanese-American compere and said with a sheepish grin, and in my most offensive oriental accent: “Awww… Me so solly!”
Big laugh from the audience…. but the victim of the gag was left looking less than impressed! Regardless, I ended the gig delighted with myself. The other newbies’ faces said it all – sheer amazement that the routine they’d seen earlier, and hated, turned out to be such a success on the night.
Today I’d learned an important lesson. I need to trust my own comedy instincts and take with a pinch of salt the opinions of those too scared to push the envelope themselves. If it doesn’t work out then I only have myself to blame, but at least I am being true to myself. But if I change my material to assuage the fears of politically correct comedy veterans then I will never carve out my own niche or find my own comedic voice.
The only niggling concern I had afterwards was that I may have offended the compere. It’s a small world and the last thing I need is to end up on some unwritten industry blacklist. So I went up to him once the punters had left to gauge his mood. “You didn’t mind the chink jokes did you?” I asked. “You do them yourself.”
“Yeah. But I can get away with it.” he said testily.
“Sod you then.” I thought to myself. I got more laughs than he did, so who is he to judge me? In comedy, the audience is the only arbiter of whether you deserve to be up there on that stage or not.
I can’t rest on my laurels, though. Onwards! Tomorrow I have to start networking and get myself booked for as many shows as possible. Not an easy task I’m told. If I can get one show every other day I’ll leave Edinburgh a happy man. 🙂