Go to any amateur comedy night next month and you’ll almost certainly hear the following phrase:
“When I was in Edinburgh recently…”
What traditionally follows is an anecdote about near mental collapse brought on by sleep deprivation and a gratuitous consumption of booze.
Yet for the many thousand of comedians, including great swathes of amateurs and open-mic performers, the annual sojourn to Auld Reekie represents far more than just a chance to hit the sauce.
It is the culmination of months of hard work, with sets being written, tested, re-written and honed, often to handfuls of fellow performers, night after night in dimly lit back rooms and dank pub basements.
For both the amateur and professional scene, the The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, or The Fringe as it's known, is the highlight of the British comedy calendar.
For those already in the spotlight it is traditionally used as a bookend – to start or to end a tour.
Hot acts, such Tim Key, Sarah Milican, Dave Sedaris, Isy Suttie and Nick Helm, are appearing at this year’s Fringe, alongside a raft of big-name performers from Paul Merton to Jerry Sadowitz.
For less experienced turns, the festival provides a unique opportunity to gig in front of new crowds in a new city. It's also a vital career stepping-stone, while offering aspiring acts a genuine gauge of how far they’ve come… as well as an oft-sobering glimpse of how far they still have to go.
The Fringe started in 1947 as an alternative to the Edinburgh International Festival, initially attracting performing arts. More recently, it has become synonymous with comedy. Unlike other arts festivals, The Fringe has no selection committee. Anyone can perform. It’s a libertarian approach that fits well with the world of stand-up.
Around 250 venues usually get booked, hosting around 2,000 shows, with around 19,000 people performing during the festival’s month-long run.
Some come for a week, some for the entire month, playing one, two or even three gigs a day in rooms across the ancient city aside the Firth of Forth. Sets last on average around 20 minutes. It’s an often grueling schedule, especially as comics have to market their own events, spending countless hours on the streets handing out flyers before every show.
Then there’s the drinking, with bars, pubs and festival courtyards packed till the early hours as performers take advantage of the city’s social largesse.
“The social scene is important,” says Hannah Deasy, 26, a client service manager from London and aspiring comic. “My first show is at 4pm in the afternoon, which means I need to be out flyering by 1pm so I’m trying to avoid any massive mash-ups. However, when you get so many like-minded people in one place you have to go with the flow and have a few drinks.”
This year is Hannah’s second time at the Fringe, having spent a week at the festival last year.
“Coming up last year was a real turning point for me. Before that I’d only done ten or so gigs… mainly for fun. Seeing the Edinburgh scene, with so many up-and-coming comedians inspired me to crack on and give it a real go. My life has deteriorated ever since.”
With amateur wits often tied to their locality, whether it’s London, Manchester, Newcastle or Berwick-upon-Tweed, the festival also offers opportunity to meet new people, whether that’s other comics, promoters or perhaps even an agent.
“The one thing a comedian needs is contacts,” says Tez Ilyas, 28, a civil servant originally from Blackburn, now living in London.
“That’s the only way to progress. You can go up to Edinburgh and hone your material, but if you come back without any contacts, you’ll have nowhere to take it.”
Tez first took to the stage fourteen months ago and has progressed apace, playing at the renowned Comedy Store in London’s Leicester Square and advancing to the finals of two national competitions. This year is his first time at the Fringe and despite his relative success he consciously dampened his expectation before boarding the train from Kings Cross.
“You really have to guard against thoughts of landing an agent or getting a review. There are thousands of comics going up to the festival, including many established comedians playing at big paid venues, with posters all over town. Most of the time you don’t know who the people on the posters are… which means absolutely no one knows who you are, so you just have to be realistic.”
Like Tez, Deasy has also made an effort to reign in fanciful optimism, looking to use her month in Scotland as a chance to get a glut of stage time in a short period of time.
“People who come up to Edinburgh expecting to be picked up are absolutely mad,” she says. “Obviously it happens for a small number of people, but the reality is you’re all competing for a finite audience. The chances of getting an agent in to see you are very slim, unless you already have one sniffing around.”
For James Gill, 33, a journalist from Leeds, currently gigging on the London circuit, the best approach is one of enthusiastic optimism, grounded in realism.
“I am well aware that it is going to be very hard work. It’s my first time, but I’ve read and heard too much to think otherwise. I was chatting about Edinburgh with one well-respected comedian a few months ago. She said, ‘What are your expectations?’ I said, ‘Low.’ She said: ‘Lower them further.’”
Gill first stood behind a microphone 16-months ago, setting about his development with an almost monk-like dedication. He currently gigs on average four-times a week and runs an open-mic night in Kennington, South London.
Unlike Tez, James didn’t go through the Free Fringe, an offshoot of the larger festival guaranteeing free access to the public, to organise a venue. He sourced his own, along with two other comics.
“It works out more expensive, but at least you’re in control of where you play. Also, going via the Free Fringe means you can’t charge for entrance. By organising your own venue, you can charge on the door. So there’s the possibility of making money, but also the likely probability that you’ll lose it.”
Not that the Free Fringe route insulates comics against financial loss.
"It’s still expensive,” says Tez. “I’m paying my rent in London, plus a month’s accommodation in Edinburgh. Fortunately, we’ve been getting some good numbers. The actual show we’re putting on is free, but at the end we’re asking the audience to contribute. They’re throwing in a pound, two pound so we’re making some cash back.”
For Guy Manners, a 40-year-old interior designer from London, the Edinburgh experience can be soul-destroying.
“This is my second time up. Last year was quite disheartening as I realised I wasn’t just at the bottom of the ladder, I was actually holding the ladder up.
“Last year I just did three gigs. I was more interested in looking at venues and meeting people. This time I’m here for the whole month, doing two shows a day.”
Guy is one of the more unusual acts on the open-mic circuit. He performs straight stand-up as himself but also a character set called Bobby Stardust, a tuxedo wearing parody of UK comedians of the 1970s; a satirical nod to Frank Carson, Bernard Manning, Jim Bowen et al.
“I came here hoping to get a decent review,” he says. “Perhaps a quote that I could use from a reviewer. However, that has quickly changed. Now I just want to go home with a couple of improved 20-minute sets.”
By the end of the month, livers will have been rinsed, accounts will have been drained and the invite to appear on Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow will remain elusive. Yet every year, The Fringe gets bigger. Many comics come to Edinburgh hoping to fulfil a dream. Most leave knowing a career in comedy may only ever be that. Still, they come.
No agent, no book deal, no starring role in sitcom, but the open-mic veterans return home with plenty of additional stage time and, more often than not, a vastly improved set. They'll probably have a couple of new anecdotes too.
“When I was in Edinburgh recently…”
Hannah Deasy is playing every day at 3.50pm at Club Medina.
James Gill is playing every day at 5.30pm at The Jazz Bar.
Tez Ilyas is playing every day at 23.15pm at A Room with a view.
Guy Manners is playing every day at 8.40pm at The Voodoo Rooms.
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