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Wannabe Comedians? If You're Planning to Go to Edinburgh...

Posted: 13/03/2013 23:00

It's that time of year when the icy roads and gentle snowfalls remind every comic of the summers they often spend in Edinburgh. March is when forms need to be filled, and comics have to work hard to come up with a title for their new show. Worrying about writing and performing it comes later.

If you're starting out in comedy as a writer or performer, and you've never been to the Edinburgh Fringe, I have one piece of advice. It's the only piece of advice I can guarantee is absolutely correct, and it's the one piece you'll ignore, which is this:

Forget Edinburgh.

Build your comedy career as if the Edinburgh Fringe doesn't exist: forget the hype, the reviews, the perceived successes of people you know: don't get sucked in, because you need to put in an enormous amount of work and finance, and that's even before you've spent a day there, and your chances of succeeding are very slim. Get good, get successful, then get someone to pay you to go.

If you really have ten grand to chuck away this August, go there for a week as a spectator, stay in a swanky hotel, see three shows a day and be inspired to be as good as the best. Or put on your show for three weeks in the nearest big city to where you live, and plough what you'd otherwise squander on travel and accommodation into a whacking great publicity budget.

I already know you're not going to do that. The world's greatest comedy festival, which has launched so many careers from Cook to Cleese, Coogan to the Conchords and all letters before and after, is on our doorstep. Any wannabe comedian or comedy writer who spends a day at the Edinburgh Fringe is immediately inspired to come back next year with a show.

I blame Edinburgh for everything. I performed at the Fringe every year for 11 years, with no breaks, from 1984 to 1994. My entire stand-up career was built and dismantled around each August, and even when I quit stand-up and became a writer, my attitude to comedy was partly shaped by reading about it or watching on TV.

Comedians who go to Edinburgh spend the rest of their year paying for the privilege. Comedians who succeed are always looking for ways of coming back. Comedians who don't like Edinburgh gleefully snap up the work available elsewhere in the rest of the UK in August, but for the remaining 11 months resent those who put so much effort into going.

I was lucky, I only ever once lost money, but the hours and weeks and months I put into those shows could have been spent more productively. It's taken me more than 30 years to understand this and I'm still shaking as I think about it. What an idiot! What a waste! If I could go back in time and visit my 18-year-old self, I'd tell him this: "Write jokes. Perform them. Develop comedy ideas. STAY AWAY FROM EDINBURGH".

And my 18-year-old self would smile and ignore me, because he already knows better.

The first time I went to Edinburgh was in 1977. I stayed four days and four nights, three of them sleeping in a broom cupboard - not a euphemism, the room was an actual cupboard with brooms, a hoover and a mattress on the floor - at number 369, Leith Walk.

I wandered up and down, damp and alone, in and out of the converted church halls and cosy bars that spilled onto the twisting streets and ancient alleyways, the stench of the local brewery following me everywhere like a bad review. I saw 16 shows, lost my critical faculties about ten shows in, and became an emotional wreck. Plays that were probably mildly amusing had me roaring with laughter, gentle comedies moved me to tears.

I ran out of money and got a job for one night behind the bar at the Cafe Royal. I was sacked for failing to understand what my customers were saying, and speaking with an English accent. While I was there, news broke that Elvis Presley had died. It was the summer of punk. How could that first visit have been anything other than a defining moment in the life of an 18-year-old?

My fourth night was spent at the home of a friend's parents, in a beautiful Edinburgh house with a lovely bedroom overlooking the border hills, in a suburb two miles south of the city centre. I had a long bath, a deep sleep, and woke next day believing I'd seen my destiny. And I had.

Bloody Edinburgh. It's said that if women could remember the specific detail of every second of pain they suffer during labour, they would only ever have one child. If comedians could relive every moment of anguish they experience of their month at the Edinburgh Festival, they would only ever go once.

I took the coach home to Leeds next morning, carrying back memories of moments that have stayed with me for the rest of my life. I didn't forget the exhaustion or the emotional rollercoaster or the sacking, nor the shockwaves that Elvis's death had sent through the world, but those moments only helped embellish the opening chapter of the mythical narrative my life story had just become. I was unaware how accurately those four emotionally charged days would reflect the pattern of future stays, all I knew was that I would be back. And so I was, exactly one year later - as a STUDENT.

When you're a professional performer at the Edinburgh Fringe, there's nothing you hate more than STUDENTS, and I understand why.

First, you're competing for an audience with these amateur lightweights and their ropey student amdram: second, there's loads of them to do non-stop publicity, whereas you are just you and maybe one other person: third, unlike you they're not losing their own money... but what's really annoying is they're young and attractive and all getting off with each other, while you spend most of your nights drinking excessively with your mostly male colleagues, moaning about STUDENTS.

In 1978 I lived the Edinburgh student nightmare dream, as a member of Bristol University company 'Revunions'. There were around 20 of us, sleeping in the crypt of a church near the Meadows. It reminded me of the dormitories I'd seen in movies and TV shows about public schools and Colditz.

The good news was that we had an entire venue to ourselves, so we didn't have to deal with anyone else. The bad news: it was an old bus depot. Somebody had had the clever idea that a bus-themed Edinburgh Fringe would bring Bristol Revunions fame, glory and wealth.

Our company was not without talent. One performer, Julia Hills, achieved great success as a comedy actor: another, Greg Doran, now runs the RSC, while our bass player Bill Dare became a successful comedy writer and producer. Yes, our bloated company included five people whose sole job was to play music in a couple of shows.

We had one blockbuster success, that well known Edinburgh Fringe hit: The Homecoming Of Beorthnoth, Beorthelm's Son. Who needs a snappy title, hey, when all you have to write in the Fringe programme is "the first ever performance of a short play by JRR Tolkien"? No matter that even the most ardent Tolkien fans hated it, the key word there was 'short', and the suffering required to be able to tell your grandchildren you'd seen one of the few witnessed performances of The Homecoming of Beorthnoth, Beorthelm's Son lasted you a mere 20 minutes.

Tolkien aside, audiences were not easy to attract. Ironically for a bus station, we were not on anyone's route to anywhere else, and our three-hour production of Arden Of Faversham, a 17th century play that might have been written by Shakespeare but probably wasn't, had surprisingly little mass appeal.

My 18 hour days of leafletting and administration offered one small perk, that I was occasionally able to sleep at the crypt alone, while the rest of the cast were performing their student hearts out, clad in tights and breeches while bellowing sub-Shakespearean couplets at each other across an empty converted bus station canteen.

This was the year I made my Edinburgh performing debut, a lunchtime half-hour one-man rock opera called Guts. While I don't doubt that the show was a crock of ill-formed garbage, it was not without humour, plus some mildly amusing songs taking the piss out of punk. Sadly for me, the Scotsman newspaper's jazz correspondent Anthony Troon had been sent to review the opening performance. He had no knowledge or awareness of punk, and reviewed the show entirely on its musical merit. Anyone who has ever seen me perform songs will know that musical merit is not my strength.

So my first ever review for my first ever Edinburgh show was, to quote then Fringe Director Alastair Moffat, "the third-worst Scotsman review I have ever read of any show in my life". I spent that morning in a fug of bad-review-induced despair, (another soon-to-be familiar experience I always associate with Edinburgh) avoiding the gaze of shoppers and tourists I was convinced had seen the piece and were laughing at me, but not in the way a comedian requires.

What I hadn't realised was that in Edinburgh, a one star review acquires almost greater currency than a five. The Scotsman prints hundreds of reviews every day, so a casual reader hunting a show will probably gloss over anything between two and four stars. They'll assume the five-star shows are already sold out, but their curiosity will be aroused by a one-star review.

Three hours after reading that savage deconstruction of my beautiful creation, I arrived at the gig to see a massive queue. Anthony Troon's bile had alerted enough people to the possibility that my show might entertain them, and it did, and my audience figures stayed high for the rest of that short run. I had travelled from the subterranean depths of existential despair to the towering clichéd heights of unspeakable joy in the space of three hours. A typical Edinburgh morning, as I would later discover.

I never performed Guts again. Bristol Revunions at the Transport Hall lost pots of money, and guess who took the hit? Ha ha, not me, the good old Students' Union picked up the tab for that one.

That really should have been it, shouldn't it? Instead I learned the worst lesson it is possible to learn when you're a penniless student: 'That's the last time I spend three and a half weeks sharing a crypt with 19 students. Next time I go to Edinburgh I insist on having a cosy warm bedroom of my own, whatever the cost.'

Edinburgh? Forget it.

 

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