You Shoulda Been Here Last Week is a standup showcase at the Fringe for newer acts. We do have occasional drop-in turns from semi-professionals but it's essentially an amateur (open-mic) event.
We had about 25 to 30 people in, which compared to our average of 10 was a big night for us. Manos The Greek and Lenny Peters had both been on and left after their sets. I was on third. It wasn't a great gig at all and to make matters worse I came off stage to be told that Andrew O Neill, our headliner, hadn't turned up.
I told the MC, Jo Ogden, to go on stage and pad for time.
I walked back upstairs, hoping to find Andrew just arriving. There was no sign so I fished my phone out of my pocket, but quickly realised that whoever I called was never going to get there in time. So I thought I'd look outside to see if any comics were out there smoking, perhaps waiting to get on at the next showcase, Dr Ettrick-Hogg's Late Night Manly Standups. I stepped out of the door onto the porch and walking past was none other than Stewart Lee, arguably the biggest stand-up at this year's Fringe.
It takes the average human being about point seven seconds to walk past a doorway. Stewart Lee is in his 40s and had just walked up a hill so that probably widened the aperture of opportunity to around 1.3 seconds, enough time for me to (1) recognise him as Stewart Lee, (2) deem him a suitable replacement for Andrew O Neill and (3) pluck up the courage to pitch him. That extra point six seconds was the difference between "oh my god that's Stewart Lee" and "oh my god that's Stewart Lee - he'll do".
"Mr. Stewart Lee", I called out in my best, well-behaved schoolboy voice. He turned as I descended from the doorway, hand outstretched to shake.
"Will you please help us?" I implored him, now showing all of the desperation that had previously been veiled by my blind panic. I explained that our headliner had not shown up and "will you please do a set?"
There was a lengthy pause.
Now while Stewart Lee's lengthy pauses usually make me laugh very loudly, this particular lengthy pause was one where a chasm had opened in space-time and the jaws of oblivion yawned before me.
"How long do you need?" he finally asked.
"10 to15 minutes?" I replied.
Another lengthy pause.
"Ok," he said.
I didn't have time to effusively and properly thank him, as I needed to direct him to the basement through the buzz that was already building in the bar as people started to recognise him. Jo, who was still on stage padding, remained unaware of the impending phenomenon.
I got into the room and walked onto the stage. I couldn't just announce it. It was Jo's honour to introduce him, right? So I leaned into her and whispered, "It's Stewart Lee" and stepped back off the stage. The look on her face asked me if I was taking the piss. The wide-eyed single nod I replied with said not even close.
Jo understandably assumed that there must be another comedian called Stewart Lee. It would have been a brave choice of stage name but anything was more believable than the truth. Two and a half minutes ago I had left the room to look for any act, in any state to put behind the microphone and had returned with one of the finest comedy minds this country has ever seen.
When she introduced him, the applause was the applause of 25-30 people also thinking "there must be another comedian called Stewart Lee." But when he got to the stage, the shock wave that rippled through the audience was palpable.
He adapted some material he'd used on his television programme to include the bizarre circumstances of his becoming involved in this show. It was hilarious.
And just like that, he was gone.
Then as the people were leaving, a guy identified himself as a reviewer. I just hope he focuses his attention on the spectacularly unprecedented appearance of Stewart Lee rather than my lacklustre performance.
This is a story about the immense generosity of a legend. Thank you Stewart Lee; that single act of kindness outweighs all the adversity and stress we have endured thus far and whatever happens next, Edinburgh has been worth it.
I joked the followed day that I was going to call Richard Herring's management, as he would no doubt be interested in making an appearance now that his former double act partner had done our little gig.
Two days later, as Jo and I were walking home from our lunchtime show, we passed Richard Herring on the bridge. The temptation was almost too much to resist. But resist I did because you have to recognise when the gods are smiling and when they're just winding you up.
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