day 23: a triumph

Saturday is easy to describe. The previous night had been so good that I slept more or less quite happily until 3.30pm. Then, by the time I’d got up and had coffee, it was time to go and flyer for the showcase.

Since it was the final night of the Flashback being in town, the lineup for the show was:

MC – Timmy Manners

1. Rik Moore

2. Charlie Duncan

3. Fraser

4. Rachel Anderson

We filled the room, and everyone had a good gig. Rachel in particular absolutely rocked, and to see a hundred-odd people of all ages singing her closing song and waving their arms at a gig that I’d arranged felt really very special.

Then the Flashback show was great again. It was a sell-out; like the previous night, though, we had lots of friends in, and while the performances might have lacked a little of the previous night’s killer accuracy with timing, it was, if anything, even more fun.

It felt like a triumphant end to a pretty great festival.

Then we went out drinking. We went to the loft bar and saw other friends who have had a great festival too. By five in the morning, the four of us were back sitting around the kitchen table, still laughing.

And by six, I found myself sitting with Fraser on the windowledge outside his room looking at the daylight. He asked if I’m happy to be counted as a fully-fledged member of the Flashback. I am.

It’s strange to think: a few months ago, I was all set to just see out this Edinburgh run and then quit comedy altogether. I thought I’d failed.

But this has been the best Edinburgh yet. I’m not worried about my compering anymore since I’ve been doing it most nights; I’m also getting to think I might have something of a talent for directing; I’ve done gigs I’ve loved; and most importantly, I’ve spent an awful lot of the festival just being really happy to be here.

Perhaps that makes it a good time to quit.

But perhaps not. After all, I’m still here for at least one more day, yet…

WIN

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day 20: bravery and bravado

There are different kinds of bravery.

I thought I was feeling brave by starting the day by going to see a play based on Tenessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie. It was called ‘Laura’, it was on in the Hive (so was free), and it had got a four-star review from the New Current.

As it turns out, all you need to do to get four stars from the New Current is just have so many looooooong silences while two pretty young actors look around at the room and each other, that it’s a relief when they finally break into a dance routine at the end because at least it means something has happened. And I don’t even like dance. The acting was perfectly competent (I saw worse in the Old Vic’s production of The Tempest last month), but it took an hour for them to tell a story that could have been told in ten minutes. Dull.

Feeling like I needed some guaranteed quality, I went from there to watch Eric’s show Tales Of The Sea. I’ve been meaning to see it for years – and I’m so glad I finally did. It’s such a brilliant show and a story of bravery in so many different ways; not least because of the charm with which Eric underplays his own courage by talking quite humbly about what he perceives to be his lack of it. The stories about his submarine training and his fear of sharks are so endearing because the tales he presents as attempts at overcoming his own nerves are stories of things that the typical Edinburgh festival type wouldn’t go near in a million years.

There’s also a warning in it – one that might have come straight out of Plato or Aristotle, if they had ever been on a submarine – about the dangers of excessive, hubristic bravado.

But what is also brave is that Eric was prepared to spend so much time and effort on a show which, considering that he is a stand-up comedian, quite often goes for long periods without laughs. He says openly to the audience that a lot of his comedy show won’t be funny, but the unfunny bits are worth telling. That, too, takes balls.

And on the subject of having balls – massive, massive balls – Sanderson Jones is about as cojone-tastic as it gets. I went with the Flashback to see his show, Taking Liberties; and I think it might be the best thing I’ve seen this festival. I don’t want to say too much about the show, partly in case he tours it (in which case you HAVE TO SEE IT) and partly because it is now the subject of a police enquiry. That’s how ballsy it is. But for me it is an absolute masterclass in intelligent taboo-busting with moral purpose. He goes so far over the line of what would be acceptable for many comics that he gets away with it; I guess he’s like Chris Morris, only taller and beardier and very very charming. If there is one show I wish I could have done but couldn’t (partly because it would cost me my day job), it’s this one.

And on the subject of police enquiries (another pretty slick link, huh?), I also ran into David Whitney on my way home. I hadn’t really had a chance to chat to him at the previous night’s gig, but in the absence of a showcase that night I was very pleased to see him. He also explained to me his point of view of the ‘headbutting’ incident – and while I think he knows that nutting a heckler possibly wasn’t the bravest thing to do (however much of a prick the heckler was no doubt being) I could see how it happened and it really is a pity that the whole thing was reported on Chortle in such a public way. He’s one of the most genuine honest chaps in comedy, I hope nothing too bad comes of it, and I think he is showing courage by seeing out the run and not just going back to London. I think that’s what I’d do.

Perhaps the problem is that justice has been accidentally unjust. By which I mean, if there was any just injustice here, Dave Whitney’s arrest would have gone unreported and Sanderson Jones’ show would have been on the front page of Chortle so that perhaps more people would go and see it.

Anyway. For normal people, perhaps, bravery at a comedy show is nothing more than sitting on the front row where you might get picked on. Most nights when the Flashback show is not sold out, I have to try and hustle people down to the front. So was impressed – at least at first – by two teenage girls who seemed to be really keen to sit at the front.

It turned out they were just drunk. And stupid.

Now, in fairness it should be pointed out that not only is our timeslot (the last slot of the night) a prime horrible time for drunk people, it is also very hot and humid in the room, because it is a cave with no air conditioning or ventilation and it has been full of audiences and performers under hot stage lights for twelve hours straight. Unspecified liquids dribble down the walls regardless of whether or not it has rained outside, so I suspect the dripping is mostly condensation formed from the sweat of hundreds of audience members and performers. We are also, of course, following Doctor Brown, who (because he is lovely) no longer overruns very much, but whose show does still involve quite a wide distribution of foodstuffs around the room. There is a growing pool of damp congealed branflakes in one corner that has not been cleaned throughout the entire run, and is now probably on its way to becoming a protected habitat for all the festering species that have evolved in it.

Basically, the place is a hot, damp, stinking tunnel.

It takes real courage to stay there and stay focussed on the show; Rachel gets a good laugh early on by apologising for the fact that it’s like watching a comedy show in a fully functioning anus, and after that then most people seem to manage it. But it turned out those teenage girls didn’t have that courage. They didn’t even laugh at the anus joke. They just complained. Loudly and obtrusively. Until eventually, having completely disrupted the show, they left.

Even after that, it still felt like a weak performance. There hasn’t been much rehearsing in the last few days and there isn’t the sharpness that was there last week.

Still, there isn’t long to go now…and as with all tests of bravery, it’s really just a question of keeping going until it’s done.

Flashback: 4/10, but it can’t be a losing day when I saw those other shows…

DRAW

day 18: it’s supposed to be bloody fun

I woke up on Monday in the little village of East Linton, where I had stayed in the cottage my Mum and Nick have rented. My back hurt. The bed was very comfortable but very single, and I’d fallen out in the night.

Apart from that, it was lovely to be there.

We went to the seaside for lunch, and that was lovely too. But unfortunately, we hadn’t actually booked any acts for the Showcase. So I got back just in time for me and Timmy to cobble together a makeshift lineup. We were quite lucky that James Acaster came back to close the show again. I like his act so much – he just speaks in a way that makes me feel calm enough to laugh a lot – that I wanted him to have a better gig the second time round; and I think it was a little better. Timmy compered, which was good because for some reason his material isn’t hitting at the moment, but he’s pretty adept at warming the room up.

If only we could get more people in there – it’s such a big room that even when we get 30-odd people in (as we generally do, even on the quiet nights) – it feels half-empty.

We also had a very small pre-booked audience for the Flashback, but that meant less fear. And less fear meant one thing. It was time to bring back Beetlejuice.

I did my best with it, but I think the audience was too small to really tell whether it had gone well or not. The best (and possibly worst) thing about it was that as I hit the bit where the first magic trick doesn’t work and Beetlejuice goes straight into ‘Magic number two!’, I heard a badly-concealed snort of laughter. It had obviously come from behind Fraser’s side of the screens which we optimistically call ‘backstage’, but it set me off giggling and I really struggled to get through the rest of the scene without completely cracking up.

Which was good – as Timmy pointed out a few nights ago, it doesn’t always look like we’re really having fun ourselves, and in all our attempts to get the show tight and professional we might have lost some of that sense that at the end of the day it’s just a bunch of idiots pissing about in silly costumes for a laugh.

But on Monday, in front of those sixteen people, it felt like we were making a realisation that we need to really be enjoying it, and enjoying it infectiously.

And also, of course – in front of those sixteen people – a realisation that we probably need to flyer a bit more.

Showcase: 5/10 (the audience was too small to get much atmosphere)

Flashback: 6/10

Overall: DRAW

day 17: imagination and confidence

Comedy is a very simple thing to make, at least on a superficial level. It basically just requires two things: imagination and confidence.

Specifically, we need the imagination necessary to create surprises (every laugh is a response to some kind of surprise); and we need to deliver those surprises with absolute, supreme confidence that the normal instinctive reaction to those surprises will be laughter, so that the audience has confidence in us to make them laugh.

If one of those two elements is missing or not quite right, then the comedy fails. If the material is predictable, for example. Or if the material is surprising but not in the right kind of way (often, new comedians go for ‘shock’ humour but they don’t quite judge it right and the response is merely disgust or offence). Or it is the right kind of surprise but the delivery is uncertain – good material sometimes fails if the performer doesn’t hit the lines with the kind of timing and clarity that comes from being absolutely convinced that these things should be laughed at. A misplaced and uncertain-sounding ‘er…’ can make a whole line – a whole act, even – fall flat.

Sunday was just a series of examples of this. The Flashback have long had a deleted scene, in which Fraser performs Beetlejuice as a squeaky-voiced crap magician. They only did it once, and it died a horrible death. So they haven’t done it since.

And yet, it has some of the best lines I think they’ve written. For example, after the first two tricks fail, Beetlejuice calls out,

“For my final magic, I will need – the implement of magical wonder! (pulls out a huge hacksaw)

And I will need – the indemnity form of magical wonder! (pulls out a huge legal indemnity form)

And I will need – a volunteer…with a pen!”

Which has always cracked me up – there is no doubt that it ticks the imagination and surprise boxes, and I’ve been telling them for ages they should bring the scene back. But the previous experience of doing the routine to absolutely nothing means they’ve always refused.

At least until Sunday morning, when Fraser suggested that I do it.

We talked about it throughout the day, but eventually decided that we didn’t quite have the confidence to run with it that night. And I agreed that if the confidence wasn’t there, we couldn’t do it.

For the showcase, though, we had a great lineup. My Mother and soon-to-be Stepfather turned up, and so I opened my compering with my marriage material, and got the crowd quite nicely warmed up for Henry Ginsberg. In private, Henry is a man who (like many comedians) sometimes seems quite shy in person, but who has a natural likeability that outweighs his social confidence. Onstage, though, he comes across as having absolute faith in his material. As a result he often has great gigs and the showcase audience loved him.

But then Timmy came on and did a bit of material that completely bombed – and for which I have to take a fair bit of responsibility because I’d written it with him – about what men would say to women if they could be completely honest about what they wanted. (Admittedly it’s a quite hacky topic but we thought we’d found a new way in.) But perhaps because it was new, and Timmy wasn’t quite sure about it, it didn’t work. The confidence in the joke didn’t seem to be there, which in turn created an awkwardness in the room that even James Acaster couldn’t get big laughs from; it was impossible. It’s not easy to bring a room back from the dead, and we couldn’t do it.

Still, the Flashback show was delivered confidently and was solid. Not great, but solid. Confidence is everything…

Showcase: 7 (some of my best compering yet, but I felt responsible for co-writing the bit that Timmy did)

Flashback: 6

Overall: DRAW

the real risks of whoring

I’m enjoying Leicester.

The Flashback show was brilliant last night. I’m really loving the complete lack of pressure on me in the whole thing. Unlike a scurvy show where if I’m not brilliant then it makes both me and the whole thing look bad, this is a no-lose situation: if I get the sound cues right and my little cameo goes well, it’s great; but if I fuck up it doesn’t really matter because nothing I can do can really mess up the whole show, and even if it did, it’s not my name or my face on the poster this time round. If things go horribly wrong, nobody who sees the show will ever remember me. It’s like doing a striptease in a mask so nobody knows it’s you. There’s no risk of my personal ‘credibility’ being lost.

What this means is that I don’t have to worry about committing my heart to the act like I do with my stand-up – I can do my little cameo bit, with the silly accent and blank expression and the slapstick pratfall, and just really enjoy doing it. So even though I haven’t really ever done any proper clowning or physical comedy before, I think the lack of pressure comes out in the performance and it’s been getting really good laughs…

Anyway, after the show we all went out in Leicester, where we ended up at a bizarre club night called the Imaginarium. Which was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever been to. It was a kind of burlesque-themed night where lots of people had dressed up and when we arrived the person on the door said, “the poetry brothel’s closing in ten minutes, so grab yourselves a whore.”

“Sorry?”

It turned out that one room was set aside as a ‘poetry brothel’. You went in, paid £3 and had a boy or girl in burlesque costume read you some poetry. Which I thought sounded interesting but potentially awful, because I like poetry a lot but it turned out to be the person’s own poetry. And I have read some really dire amateur poetry in my life.

As it turned out, the poet I got – called something like ‘Miss Mary’ or ‘Mistress Mary’ – was really, really good. I was a bit drunk at the time so annoyingly I can’t remember much of the poems she read, but the first one had some brilliant alliteration with consonents clattering sweetly on top of each other; and when she asked what kind of poetry I liked and I asked for something with a strong rhythm, she read one about a person succumbing to alzheimer’s that had a line in it about a ‘backwards sphinx’, which is such a good image that I could still remember it this morning. And then that was my time up and I had to go back out to find the others.

And it left me wondering about the different circumstances in which people are prepared to reveal parts of themselves. I’ve had this idea, which I think I’ve mentioned before, that stand-up is similar in many ways to striptease – it’s just a different part of the artist is being revealed. But whether it’s in jokes or poetry or stripping, the dynamic is different when it becomes a commodity. As soon as money is handed over, the personal risk, the part of yourself that you put into it, is disrupted somehow – in Marx’s terms, we’re alienated from the product of our labour, even when that product is something that would normally be deeply personal, like humour or sex or poetry. The paradox is that it’s precisely this lack of personal risk that frees you up to commit to it completely, because the danger of humiliation is mitigated slightly – it’s like the mask I mentioned earlier.

But poetry is a special case. People say stand-up is brave; even Simon Critchley – who is, in my humble opinion, the world’s most insightful philosopher of humour – told me in a reply to an email I wrote him that he thought that stand-up was ‘the hardest thing in the world’. But as long as it gets laughs, stand-up isn’t that hard or brave because the personal trauma that is revealed is cloaked in laughs. But poetry is much more naked, and the self-ness of it is guarded only by rhythm and metaphor.

I’ve written bad poetry myself before, and I even occasionally try (and often fail) to do slightly poetic things with my stand-up. But I’ve only once read my honest poetry for an audience, and it was horrible. I wouldn’t subject anyone to it unless they were a poet themselves, or specifically asked for it because they honestly wanted to know what was really going on in my brain; and even then I’d be quite likely to warn them about the dangers of that first.

So I think if you’re a good poet, reading your poetry to people, or letting them read it, is the hardest thing in the world. Even for money, the personal risk is just too great. And considering how relieved I am at the moment to just be getting laughs from turning up in my friends’ show and doing a comedy falling-over because it contains no personal risk, I’ve got to give ‘Mary’ credit for that.

(I heard some of the other poets weren’t that good. They don’t get that credit…)

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