the wisdom of silenus

There’s a reason why comedians shouldn’t be allowed near alcohol. I think we’re fairly well-disposed to misery anyway, but people prone to annual post-Edinburgh anticlimactic mood slumps shouldn’t drink at all.

Not everyone gets the post-festival depression, of course – some comics I’ve spoken to just came back exhausted.

But there seems to be a fair bit of depression about. And it doesn’t seem to matter whether you stop drinking (as is most sensible, despite the alcohol-withdrawal period) or carry on and just accept that you’ve become an alcoholic.

I know so many stand-ups who don’t drink at all; they don’t need naming here, but if you know any then just ask around and you’ll find a higher than normal percentage of teetotallers. Meanwhile, the ones who do drink probably drink too much.

This is possibly because, Edinburgh aside, drinking – like comedy – is both a relaxant and a downer. They are both mechanisms for those who know just what a bleak and shitty thing life is, and understand that the only alternative to nihilism and suicide is to embrace it anyway, to make something joyful out of it, to create laughter out of pain.

Which is what comedians and alcoholics generally tend to be addicted to.

If you’re fully committed to one mechanism, it’s likely that you’ll either have to forgo the other – or embrace it just as completely.

I think the Greeks were probably onto something with their myths about Silenus. He was the closest companion – often, it’s said, even the tutor – of Dionysus, the god of wine and orgies and music and loss of control.

Basically, Silenus was the guy who taught fun to the god of fun.

In art, he’s pretty much always depicted drunk. Old, bald, and drunk. Sometimes he also has the ears and legs of a horse, but I think that’s probably irrelevant.

Anyway, for those of you who are not familiar with it from The Birth of Tragedy or whatever, the story goes that one day, King Midas – yes, that one – was trying to find the secret of happiness, the thing that is most desirable for humans to have. Midas did that kind of thing, and it tended to get him into trouble. You remember the gold-touching thing.

On one occasion he went to speak to Silenus. Silenus repeatedly refused to tell him, so Midas did what any smart king would do and got Silenus drunk. Eventually, Silenus laughed and burst out,

“Oh wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do you compel me to tell you what it would be better for you not to hear? What is best for you is utterly beyond your reach: it is not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing! But the second best for you is – to die soon.”

Remember – this was Mr. Fun. This is what Mr. Funny Funtimes, the man who taught fun to the god of fun, can only admit when he’s drunk.

Most alcoholics and most good comedians understand the bleak pointlessness of existence all the time, and never more than in the weeks after an Edinburgh run. The laughter stops and we get left with – what?

Overdrafts; insomnia; distraction; collapsing relationships, homelessness (if, like me, you were dumb enough to leave your house to go to Edinburgh)…

And then we come back to London and we make stupid judgements.

And nobody stops us.

We shouldn’t be allowed.

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day 14: the only duty we have

In Edinburgh, following the funny is not just a hobby.

The day’s work started at Cabaret Voltaire, where I was again co-hosting the 4pm showcase with Patch. Everything started out in a way which was only a little weird. Somehow we managed to begin the show by performing some mock-Pinter and Shakespeare. Patch got some particularly nice laughs from the fact that an ex-girlfriend had turned up. Then, as the acts got going, things seemed to have settled and become normal.

That is, until Joel Dommett, halfway through his set and not getting a huge amount out of the audience, said – apropos of nothing, as I remember – “So, has anyone ever drunk piss?”

A man in the front row put his hand up (a little too keenly perhaps) and Joel got to work on getting the full story out of him: he said he’d drunk a pint of his friend’s wee the previous night. For eight pounds.

Joel, of course, did what any good comic would do, and offered him ten if he’d reprise it on stage.

“Eleven,” said the piss-drinking man.

“Done,” said Joel and started to organise a whipround. Then he asked if anyone in the audience needed a wee. A girl in a blue dress leapt up and said she did, so Joel gave her a glass and we directed her to the little area behind the stage.

At this point the audience were buzzing, waiting to see what would actually happen, and as Joel tried admirably to keep control of the situation, Patch leaned to me and said, “This is turning into Spank – only at four in the afternoon.

After a minute, though, the girl came back out saying that couldn’t go with all the pressure on her.

“Ohhhhhh,” went the whole room in disappointment.

“Well,” concluded Joel, “that was almost something,” and began to wrap up. But just as he was about to say ‘thank you and goodbye’, another man came striding through the audience from the back of the room.

Held aloft in the man’s right hand, a plastic pint full of yellow liquid.

He marched to the stage, to roars from the audience, and handed it to Joel.

“This isn’t real, though,” said Joel. Then, “Oh, it’s WARM!”

Then it all happened in a flash – the first man was up on stage almost as soon as Joel confirmed that it genuinely was a cup of real live wee. In a few seconds, he’d swept up the money, gulped down the whole glass, and was sitting back in his seat, to cries of shock, disgust and a kind of strange appreciation.

It is, after all, good to have a skill.

At that point, Joel left the stage, and Patch and I had to come back on and try and get the room back to the kind of level that the next act could play.

Understandably, I think, we couldn’t do it. The next act came up and did material which got almost nothing.

In the end – and to his very great credit, he stopped after a few minutes, paused, and said, “So. Does anyone here eat poo?”

That was the last I saw before I had to go to The Stand, where I was meeting Nan to see Stewart Lee. He’s a master, of course; but it was really a work-in-progress show that it would be foolish of me to try and judge as a show. I can only say that I enjoyed it a lot, and that the audience did too. Perhaps the best thing Lee’s TV show has done for him is to help him find his audience, and to make sure that he no longer has to do live shows for people who don’t like his act.

One thing that did annoy me, though – and that always does annoy me – is that despite its name, it really would be better if The Stand had enough chairs for everyone to sit down. Having to stand up to watch over an hour of one person talking (even if that person is Stewart Lee) is unreasonable for ten quid. Yes, it’s a really wonderful club. But it would be no worse a club if everyone was able to watch the show and leave without their legs aching. They just need to buy some more bloody chairs.

The showcase and the flashback were good. My compering in the showcase wasn’t amazing but I did the job well enough. Rik did well, though Laura Carr had a tough opening slot in the Showcase. Apparently she’s had a conversation with Julia Chamberlain, the comedy club promoter, who told her that she should drop some of the filth from her act if she wants to be successful. I just worry that it’s just made Laura a little uncertain about her material, which is admittedly a bit rude, but it’s funny. It’s a good thing Julia Chamberlain wasn’t around to give Lucy Porter that kind of advice at the start of her career, and I hope Laura doesn’t take it too seriously.

And then the 80s Movie Flashback was super. Doctor Brown started and ended on time, we got the audience in, and the show felt great. It feels like there are people in every show who hate it, who don’t get the joke. But our performances are good enough now that the people who enjoy it are really going for it.

The thing that we always need to keep in mind as comedians – and we fail when we forget this rule – is that simply have to do what we think will be funny.

Sometimes that means talking filth, sometimes it means dressing up in ridiculous clothes and talking in silly accents and voices; sometimes it means watching a man drink another man’s piss. And often, people won’t like it. But if we can find an audience for the things we find funny, then that audience will. So if we think something could be funny, we have to do it.

It is, after all, the only real duty we have.

Llaugh Showcase at Cabaret Voltaire: performance – 6

Stand-up Showcase: audience – small; performance – 5

80s Movie Flashback – good performance.

Overall: WIN

day 11: midway, and the feeling is that things have perhaps already peaked

Since I’d made a promise to the entire cast of a play who turned up at the showcase the previous night, I thought I’d better start the day by going to see their play.

And oh boy was it depressing.

It was called ‘The Fallen’ and it was the single most saddening play I think I’ve ever seen – it was about a soldier who returns from war with post-traumatic stress and then kills himself, and how his wife and son cope with it. The music was beautiful and I was a little bit terrified by how a bunch of kids from Warwickshire could perform so maturely and powerfully. There can’t have been a single one of them over twenty, but between them and the musical score they genuinely had me in tears.

Having said that, even though I started crying during the play, when it came to the physical movement-y parts near the end, the treatment was so heavy-handed that I actually stopped crying and just got annoyed that it hadn’t been more subtle. Perhaps I just don’t like dance. But there was no need to have more than two or three mimes of an action that used to be done with two people and now had someone missing. It’s a common problem with amateur and youth productions, that directors feel everyone has to have enough to do, and rather than giving them actually different things to do they have an extended section where everyone does a variation on one thing, which can get dull. Ah, well. It was a good production all the same, and they clearly had quality performers right through the cast.

Timmy Manners arrived today, to run the showcase with me for the rest of the festival; I was relieved to see him because I was starting to get a little jaded. I might just have been tired and hungover, of course, but the comedy that seemed to be coming so easily last week seems to be getting tiring now.

It didn’t really help that the showcase was the hardest work so far. It went okay, but it didn’t really take off, and even David Whitney struggled a little bit. I think he’s tired too.

To be honest, I think everyone’s tired. It’s a good thing that the Flashback were having a night off; the show wouldn’t have been great. I kept myself awake after the showcase with a trip to ‘Hunt for a Universal Genius’ (which James Sherwood was particularly funny in), and a party at the Caves.

But to be honest, it would have been better to just go to sleep…

Showcase: audience – small; performance 5

Overall: LOSE

day 5: a healthy amount of obscenity

Who needs phones? Yesterday was a really good day.

Rachel made me a bagel; I bought some really nice coffee; and then I did three great gigs.

I also – although this isn’t what made it a great day, honest – saw two different sets of mens genitals.

The first gig, which didn’t include any genitals but did at least prepare the ground for their – ahem – appearance, was Al Cowie’s gig at Cabaret Voltaire. I co-compered with Patch Hyde, which was as much fun as you might expect if you know Patch (or you read my previous blog about him).

Also included on the bill were Rik (and it was nice to see Rik’s stand-up again after so much Flashbacking) and Tony Dunn. With all the politics of Scurvy last year, I’d forgotten how much I like Tony’s act and how much sheer nerve the guy has. But I should never have forgotten it. It was mid-afternoon, there was at least one child in the audience, and Tony opened with a routine about having big feet which (if you’ve ever seen it before, you’ll know) was entirely and deliberately done to alienate most of the room and it was hilarious.

Afterwards, I went to the Carphone Warehouse to see if my replacement phone had arrived (it hadn’t) and stopped in at the Hive to pick up flyers and see if Bob Slayer, who does an earlier show at the venue, was doing something hilariously disgusting in his show (he was. When I looked into the room, Bob was standing on a chair, spinning around blowing into a melodica, with his pants down and his cock out. The next time I saw him, later that night, I had to try and explain why it wasn’t gentlemanly to be trying to grope the barmaid in public. He seems to be a law unto himself).

Anyway, by the time it got to my Showcase gig, I’d done plenty of flyering and it pretty much filled the room. I think the best thing about doing more compering is that I’m finally getting comfortable with it. That gig was the happiest I’ve been with my compering yet.

We had a good audience in too; including one middle aged couple who were standing outside the show just before we started, wondering what to see. When I told her that the lineup was Luke Benson, David Whitney, Paul Ricketts, and Rachel Anderson, her ears pricked up.

“There’s a female comedian – Rachel – in this one?” She said, and the man she was with audibly sighed.

“Yes,” I said, “in fact she’s going to headline.”

“Right,” said the woman to her companion, “we’ll watch this one!”

The show then included David Whitney’s gloriously filthy (and, to be fair, very clever) oral sex material, and Rachel coming on and singing her song about dealing with low self-esteem by embracing one’s inner slag. Rachel’s song is, of course, heavily tongue-in-cheek and actually comes, I think, from a point of quite strong moral principles. But the woman who had come to see ‘a female comedian’ left after her act, stoney-faced.

Which serves her right for being both sexist and completely devoid of any sense for irony. I just wish she’d been able to see Tony too. Or even Bob Slayer. She’d have hated that and it would have been brilliant.

Apart from that of course, it was a great show. The Flashback show was good too; It felt like there was still a good energy in the room (even if there wasn’t a great smell) from Dr. Brown who is on right before us – when we arrived at the caves I looked into the room and he was revealing his genitals as well, albeit to much greater laughter and applause than Bob had got).

Anyway. It felt from the start of the Flashback show that Rachel had hit exactly the right kind of pace and energy, and even though the audience didn’t give up as much love as I thought the performance merited, it was still a pretty good performance.

We even got a fairly early night – I was in bed by four.

All in all, a good day; and one in which, surrounded by I think I managed to appreciate the obscenity of Edinburgh comedy without really needing to join in. Still, there’s a lot of festival yet to go, and it’s not too late…

Showcase: Audience 48; Performance 7

Flashback: the best performance yet

Overall: BIG WIN

day 2: a long day

At 8.20am yesterday there was a knock on my door. “Mornin’ champ – 15 minute call.”

It was Rik, reminding me that we had a 9am tech rehearsal at Just The Tonic, where the 80s Movie Flashback have a late slot – twenty past midnight – with the first show scheduled for that night. So an 8.20 start was going to make it a very long day.

The tech rehearsal was very useful; the Just The Tonic rooms are basically underground caves, and I was a bit concerned that the dripping of damp rivulets down the walls and onto the electric sockets was a minor health and safety hazard, but the techie man at JTT assured me that nobody had been electrocuted yet so it was probably okay.

After the tech rehearsal we felt pretty good about the Flashback show; and I spent the next few hours quite happily, mostly in the flat (where I made some mean-ass poached eggs), trying to write yesterday’s blog, and then out flyering for my showcase show.

Having had a huge audience turn out the previous night without doing any flyering at all, I wondered whether I even needed to bother flyering the showcase at all. Still, I had a very nice bill booked – Jay Foreman, Laura Carr, Simon Fielder and Ed O’Meara – and I was pretty sure they’d all go well for an audience of any size.

Still, I wanted to do this properly, so I flyered for a few hours. And about 40-something people showed up. Which is still, with two hours of flyering, a third less people than turned up the previous night. From which I can only conclude the effect my flyering is having to actively put people off coming to the show.

I have therefore resolved to flyer as little as possible for the rest of the run.

Still, 44 was a great audience and the acts were all smashing. I did more of my own material too, which didn’t exactly storm the place but was solid and I was happy with it.

And then I went down to Just The Tonic again for the first 80s Movie Flashback show. Before it, the cast were nervous. I didn’t think they needed to be; it’s a very strong show now, and I’d like to think that the little directorial contributions I’ve made recently have made it even stronger. I feel proud of it, certainly. And as the crowd came in to the cave to the sound of the overture from Back To The Future, they were buzzing and excited, and it felt like some kind of amazing event was about to happen…

…And then, somehow, it didn’t.

I don’t know if it was nerves, or tiredness, or the lateness of the show, or the fact that I ballsed up a sound cue early on, or the fact that there were a group of noisy people in the bar outside – but for some reason the energy of the show started to drop. But for a show like this – one which is so daft that it really needs pace and hyperactive energy to really work – a drop in energy meant that the whole thing started to feel like it was going on too long. By the time we got to the Dirty Dancing sketch people were leaving. The cast rallied for the final scene and the remaining audience loved that; but it felt like there was real work to do.

I have no real formal experience as a director; I co-directed Topical Scurvy quite well, I think, for what that’s worth. But I’ve kind of ended up doing ad-hoc directing for the Flashback. And the show is so strong in content, it really is – even at the draggiest points last night, the good gags were still getting laughs – that it deserves good direction.

So, after the show, we went to the Counting House for a post-mortem which went on until about 4am. I was a little bit worried, when I gave them the notes I’d made, that I was being harsh; after all, it’s their show that they’ve worked so hard on. Who am I to tell them a single performance lacks anything?

But I believe so much now that it can be an incredible show that I want them to know that they deserve better than last night’s show. They deserve no walkouts at all – they deserve for the show to have rapturous applause every single night of the run.

And I’m going to do everything I can to help that happen.

Showcase: Audience 44; Performance 5

Flashback: Needs some work, but will be rocking very soon…

day 1: pushing a boulder

I am in Edinburgh.

At about 5pm yesterday, I arrived in the the flat where I’m staying with the cast of the ’80s Movie Flashback’ show. The others hadn’t yet arrived, so put my bags down and looked out of the window. And outside it started to rain.

I got out my umbrella – unused since last year – and trudged back out across the meadows in the drizzle. Across the grass, a big black tyre in the playground swung listlessly on its own, taunting me about times when I’ve been happier to be here.

Last year, Edinburgh felt like controlled falling. Arriving yesterday, into an apparently unchanged festival landscape but with an achingly long three weeks ahead – just like the last few years – it felt like Sisyphus reaching the bottom of the mountain once more to start another episode of pushing a boulder up a hill, forever.

I walked through Bristo square, down through the C complex to Niddry Street and the venue for the showcase I’m hosting. Somehow, possibly because with my jacket and glasses and bloody-hell-am-I-here-again look that screams ‘jaded’, I reached the show venue without a single person trying to give me a flyer.

Anyway, the place where I’m doing the showcase is called The Hive, and the first two things I discovered on arriving were that a) more flyers had arrived than I could possibly ever distribute, and that b) The Hive is also a bar and nightclub which sells gin and tonic for £1.50.

Both of these are omens of impending doom.

But then something lovely happened: milling around in the venue were Sarah Campbell and Ed O’Meara – who are doing shows in the Little Cave just before mine – and Laura Carr and Lindsay Sharman. And just sitting in a room chatting to them reminded me how much I like the company of other comedians – and, of course, drinking £1.50 spirits in the company of other comedians – and I started feeling better straight away.

I still had no intention of running the Stand-up Showcase last night, even though it was billed in the fringe programme to start last night. My plan was just to check out the venue, so I didn’t bother to flyer for the show or prepare anything or book any other acts.

Instead, I sat in the Hive’s Little Cave and watched Sarah Campbell’s show ’27 Up’ (which is full of lovely imaginative touches and deserves a bigger audience than it had), thinking that if a few people actually turned up for the showcase, I could politely turn them away.

Then 68 people showed up.

And one of them was – I found out later – Kate Copstick, the comedy reviewer from the Scotsman. She is the Egon Ronay of the Fringe and she can launch or end careers with the stroke of a keyboard.

Fortunately, Manos the Greek was running a show in the small room next door, so I hijacked him and the acts from that and scrambled through something that resembled a show. The acts turned out to be awesome, and audience were lovely and seemed to enjoy themselves, but I felt terribly underprepared. If that show is reviewed, and it turns out to be a bad one, this year’s boulder could turn out to be even bigger and heavier than ever before.

Still – it’s necessary to imagine Sisyphus happy. And I know I’m not overly concerned about reviews this year. I’m not here for that, I’m just here to get better as an MC and have some fun with comedians I like. And when Rik and Fraser and Rachel arrived late last night, I started laughing – genuinely laughing – and whatever other omens were looming tonight for this year’s run, I am definitely going to have some fun.

Showcase: Audience 68; Performance 4/10 (if I’d thought there was going to be a show this would probably have been better…)

edinburgh: minus one day

Yesterday was the day before travelling to Edinburgh.

It’s always a strange day; fortunately I had most of my packing and sorting already done because of being homeless and having spent the last two weeks on canals and in Northampton and in Wales and all that, so I spent yesterday back in London, going around art exhibitions with my Mum.

Somehow we managed four exhibitions altogether: at the Royal Academy we went to ‘Sargent and The Sea’ (a bit dull – and why did they not have any of his Venice paintings?) and the Summer Exhibition. The Summer Exhibition is remarkable – it’s an open-entry exhibition where any artist, established or unheard-of, can submit work, and if it’s good enough they’ll display it. It’s like the art world’s version of the Edinburgh Fringe – alongside the Hockneys and a new Emin there are things by people nobody has ever heard of and they are smashing.

My favourite thing, of course, was David Mach’s ‘Silver Streak’. This is it:

I don’t know if you can quite tell, but it’s made out of coathangers. Wire coathangers. The fuzziness you can see is all the hooks sticking out. I don’t know exactly what it’s trying to say, but it’s a remarkable piece of sculpture.

We carried on with the sculpture thing by going to the Henry Moore exhibition at the Tate. I quite like Moore’s early stuff, the stuff where you can tell what the things are. Like…

…in this Mother and Child, which he did in 1932, you can see exactly what’s going on – you can see the protective look in the mother’s body as she projects a huge, hard shoulder to the world, looking out for any danger to her child. It’s lovely. It’s not like a generic Madonna because in Madonnas the mother gazes adoringly at the kid; they have a comparatively banal religious purpose and perhaps because of this they show nothing about the feelings of paranoia or protectiveness that come with motherhood (I assume). But…

…this one, which he did in 1983, is a Madonna. And it’s pretty dull in comparison, not only because of its purpose but because in later life Moore’s sculpture got so abstract that you can’t really tell much about what’s going on. You can just see that there’s a big figure hunched over a small figure. There’s nothing really for the observer to do, nothing to participate in except to try and recognise what’s what in the shapes.

My favourite work in the exhibition, though, wasn’t even a sculpture at all but a drawing. It was called ‘People Looking at a Tied-up Object. This is it:

What’s in the wrapping? Why is it so much more interesting that the other strange objects lying around? See, it gives you something to think about…

And then we went to the exhibition of British Comic Art. Which was good, but was really more a history of visual satire from Hogarth onwards than it was an art exhibition. And it wasn’t really all that funny either – no matter how much the exhibition had to pretend that there is still some great visceral value in pictures of Fox getting overfriendly with negroes, it’s just not that great to look at anymore, because topical comedy isn’t funny if it’s not topical. And if it’s not funny, then it’s not comedy. So it was an exhibition of non-topical non-comedy.

Anyway. I’ll be seeing plenty of actual funny art – which hopefully gives me things to think about – in the next few weeks. Lots of comics are there already, like I was this time last year. I’m just not quite there yet…