After my triumphant debut on Wednesday, I wanted to keep the momentum going and get as much stage time as possible while I’m here. You might imagine it would be pretty difficult to secure performance spots at the world’s biggest and most popular arts and culture event, but the demanding nature and intensity at the Edinburgh Festival is working to my favour in surprising ways. My initial hope was to secure a gig for myself every day or two.
I spent a couple of hours going through my Fringe Programme and circled all the “Stand-up Comedy Showcase” type shows. These are the ones that most closely resemble what you would find at your local comedy night i.e. 60 minutes of three to six comedians introduced by an overly enthusiastic compere. Seeing as we’re in the second half of the Festival, and most comedians subsist on junk food, nicotine and hard liquor – mainly the liquor to be frank – there’s always a good chance the organisers of “Showcase” hours have had some dropouts and will be grateful for willing replacements.
Then there are the one-hour shows that simply didn’t happen. Either the people responsible couldn’t make it and were late telling the venues they weren’t coming – so they are still showing in the Festival Programme – or, worse still, they simply didn’t bother showing up at all. In those circumstances, and with a demanding public expecting an hour of entertainment, the quickest and easiest way to replace a cancelled show is to find yourself a funny man/woman willing to step into the breach and cover the time.
(Note – you’ve probably guessed that substance abuse, addictions and mental health problems play a significant part in the abovementioned dropouts/cancellations. I hope to discuss the impact of these troubles in the comedian’s life in future articles, but for now I’ll just be grateful for the opportunities they supply to a teetol health nut looking to get a gig.)
There were also a handful of stand-up gigs specifically for “Fresh Faces” or labeled “Open Mic”. These usually provide a more forgiving audience than normal as there’s an implicit understanding that about 80% of what you’ll hear from the stage will be utter dross – often delivered in near monotone by some newb who clearly doesn’t belong there.
My first piece of luck was that I’d heard on the grapevine a pretty-boy minor internet comedy star had (rather rudely and late in the day) ditched his scheduled one-hour show above a pub near the Edinburgh Central Mosque. The festival organisers had hastily offered the slot to a comedic storyteller, who already had another show every evening and so obviously wasn’t interested in repeating his material for a daytime crowd. The “Showcase” format was, therefore, a neat and convenient replacement and to try and keep it interesting the organisers have themed it as an “International Showcase” promising comedians from all over the world.
Today is Jummah – the Muslim Sabbath – and a great opportunity to connect with Edinburgh’s Islamic community. I was concerned I may have trouble finding the Central Mosque. I shouldn’t have worried. Turns out all you need to do is head in the general direction and once you hit all the Kebab shops, Halal Butchers and Arabian restaurants you know it’s bound to be around the corner. And so it was! The real bonus here is that The Edinburgh Central Mosque appears to have it’s own cheap and healthy restaurant as well. Which dramatically improves the likelihood of my leaving this city without suffering a coronary.
So after Jummah salah (prayer) I head to the pub – not a sentence you’re likely to hear often in your life – to find this International Showcase that, I’m told, is less than 100 metres away from the mosque itself.
This gig is an interesting opportunity, as I’m told the audience is predominantly teenage girls who come expecting a hip young pair of skinny jeans and are instead presented a gaggle of bitter, slightly twisted – or in my case very twisted – cynics spouting off about a world that has disappointed them.
The regular mix of talent on show here is: a middle-aged Londoner, a depressed Jewish New Yorker and an Aussie-Arab sceptic as the jovial host. Then there’s me – The smiling assassin. Who lulls you in with his positivity before unleashing a torrent of horrific implications – all delivered with an unwavering smile. Interestingly, the first two performers are Teachers, and I’ve been surprised by how many educators are moonlighting as comedians, but perhaps I shouldn’t be. They want to satisfy a desire for attention and admiration which has driven them to choose two careers where they pontificate at a crowd, assert their dominance over it and passionately deliver a unique perspective on how they see the world.
Wisely though, almost all of them choose to use a stage name. The last thing they need is for their students to find them too easily on YouTube telling (what may be perceived as) an off-colour joke.
Anyway, back to the show. Our host kindly offered me the middle slot, which is – as we’ve previously established – a nice place to put an act about which you’re not entirely confident. The audience was small – three teenagers and their dad. I’m reliably informed this is pretty normal given that visitors have more than 3,000 shows to choose from – all competing for the same audience and the vast majority are up against some very heavily marketed superstar performers.
So, the time had come. Could I replicate the feat from two days ago? Or was it merely a one-off that I would fondly remember as the highlight of my brief dalliance with the Fringe? The compere had established that the kids in the crowd range from 14 to 18 years old. This, I reason, gives me license to go for the jugular with the sick jokes. Because, thanks to the internet, today’s teens are far more depraved and de-sensetized to nasty humour than any generation before them. That’s the excuse I’m going with anyway.
I, once again, roll out the angry, racist, sexist Arab character and deliver practically the same routine. It’s nowhere near as popular as last time, but not a total disaster. I get off the stage to mild applause and a young boy, palms across his eyes, giggling into his own hands.
One of the great joys of doing these kinds of shows is that the comedians can sit around afterwards for a post-mortem dissection of each performance. All these guys are well-versed in their patter and have had a reasonable show. Mine was nowhere near as consistent, with peaks and troughs throughout. They mention that it’s a difficult task making a bunch of kids laugh at sick jokes in front of their parents. However, they are also concerned that my act is being misunderstood. I’m just too convincing.
Thanks to the spot-on accent, the confident delivery and no explanatory prologue, the audience are fooled into thinking that I am genuinely an Arab comedian who has come to this country and is delivering the kind of nasty material that they now imagine goes down well in the Middle East! They just aren’t getting that this is an ironic character.
It’s not new feedback for me, and I just want to kick myself. I had bought a child’s Arab Sheikh Halloween costume specifically to deliver this material. But in the rush to get to my bus on time I’d totally forgotten to grab it before I walked out the door. Now it’s sitting on my dresser 300 miles away and I have to cope without it for the next week.
I am very grateful for the feedback, as my fellow comedians are clearly experienced and competent at their craft. I have a lot to learn yet. So, I’ve decided this mid-afternoon “International Showcase” will now become a semi-permanent fixture in my Festival diary.
Yesterday, I said I was going to live on salad from now on. In the cold light of the following day, it appears that by “salad” I actually meant veggie Subway sandwiches, mini-Babybel and Diet Coke. It’s not awful, and certainly better for my arteries than the “Deep Fried Haggis” I saw advertised in a shop window opposite the mosque. Signs like that make me grateful I’m not a drinker. Only alcohol could convince anyone that eating something like that was even close to being a good idea.