Fringe the Fraught
Because the Fringe started later this year than last, it feels like it’s near the end when there’s still a week to go. Part of it’s because Jane and I will be busy elsewhere for a while, so it is the end for us. And it’s been a stressful month in other ways. At least the Fringe has been a diversion from that; but for me it brings its own demons. Year after year it’s a reminder that I’ve let a side of me stagnate that was once a source of great satisfaction, as I find myself wishing it was me up on that stage.
It’s hard to explain why unless you’ve been there yourself. It all goes back to one moment, one of that handful you look back on as the high points of your life: a moment to match opening up the Bulletin and seeing this; or standing in that garden with my family and friends and Jane; or walking home from uni for the first time without the thesis hanging over me, knowing that twenty-two years of education were finally over. In this case, it was staring into a spotlight in a darkened room in Cambridge, and hearing that first big laugh.
Even mentioning that famous town feels like a distraction. For some people, especially here in Britain, it’s cause for intimidation, for others resentment; and I don’t want to make anyone feel intimidated or resentful, which is why I don’t make a big deal out of it. But I was there: I applied, I was lucky enough to get in, and I went; not to would have been perverse. It was one of the happiest years of my life, and a big part of that was Footlights.
When I arrived, at the doddering age of 23, my experience on stage was next to nil; my only performances had been for school classmates, and nothing as formal as a proper play. As far as getting up on stage went, I was as green as they come. But I loved comedy, and knew my history: Footlights wasn’t just something that coincidentally happened to be in Cambridge, it was one of my reasons for going there. I had to give it a go.
There was a “Virgin Smoker” for just that purpose, where aspiring comedians (as opposed to those just there for the beer) could try out. I wrote five minutes of material and went along. Thank God the laughs came; if they hadn’t I guess that would have been the end of it. I was so taken aback that I forgot my last line—the only time that ever happened, fortunately.
A group of us newcomers met up a few times afterwards, to talk comedy and plot our conquest of the old guard (who were all of a year or two older, and actually they were younger than me). Some went their own way or lost interest, but a few of us kept working together, writing together, trying out ideas on each other, and went on to stage a show of our own. Three Men and a Penguin, we were, in the grand tradition of Adams-Smith-Adams and other troupes at a tangent to the main game. We got our turn on the Footlights stage once or twice (in the smokers, not the revues), but our own shows were our real chance to hone our skills and make a splash. We got some good reviews from the student papers; learned what it felt like to be recognised by strangers in the street; and even made a small profit. We kept up a friendly rivalry, too, with a competing group of first-years—Earth, Wind and Lemsip—hoping they weren’t as good as us, but secretly suspecting they were.
What a wonderful time it all was, and how hard when it ended, as it had to for me. Back on the other side of the world, I fell out of touch with my fellow penguins (if you’re reading this, you guys, write to me!), except for the one I’d been closest to. Through James’s letters, and his later visit to Australia, I followed the rise of those bright young first-years, penguins and lemsips alike, as they took their own place in the Footlights firmament, ending up as club secretaries and treasurers and presidents and revue performers and directors. They were on their way.
I kept writing sketches for a while, a couple of which James and co. performed in my absence. With no-one to perform them with myself, I diverted some of those urges into a novel. And then, in early 1998—perhaps because I’d seen James on a recent visit to London and was thinking about comedy again—I had a go, again, at getting up on stage.
Jane and I were in Tasmania, staying with my parents to save money while we looked for work after being away from Oz for six months. Not long after we arrived, the heats for Raw Comedy came to Hobart, and I entered. Okay, I’d been on stage before, but not professionally, and not as a stand-up—except, in a vague sense, that first time. It felt harder getting up here, too, in front of my old home crowd; who knew who’d be lurking in the audience? I kept what I was doing from my friends (I lay pretty low in general, feeling bad about being unemployed again—it gets me every time), and hoped I hadn’t lost whatever competence I once had.
It went fine. Good laughs; didn’t miss any lines. A guy I knew from uni was the deserving winner, not that it did him any good—the ABC didn’t even fly him to Melbourne for the finals.
The owner of the club invited everyone who’d entered to get involved with some Theatresports matches held there every week. So over the next couple of months, that’s what I did. No writing necessary, at least, but God it was hard: improvisation within such strict boundaries uses every bit of concentration and inspiration you’ve got, and that’s still no guarantee of quality. For weeks on end I was pretty awful, as most of us who were new to it were. The old hands inevitably got all the laughs. They were good.
Only at the end did I feel I was breaking through. The experienced players got sick of carrying the new ones in their teams, and in the last match of the season left us to fend for ourselves. We formed our own rump team, and as the oldest member I ended up taking charge.
And we did fine. We loosened up, we had fun, and we made the audience laugh. We didn’t win—I don’t even remember how the scoring worked—but the others looked at us with new (if modest) respect. I would have been rarin’ to go the next week, if there’d been one.
There was something else in its place, though, a local stand-up competition with a heat one week and a final the next. I wrote a piece for it, rehearsed, and went along. And bombed—for the first few minutes. Looking at it now, I can see why; the early jokes weren’t strong enough. As soon as I got to the first good one, things recovered, and went reasonably well after that. I got through to the finals.
This time everything clicked; the audience laughed a lot, and I felt completely at ease all the way through. I was doing what real stand-ups did: a twenty-minute slot in a club in front of a half-drunk audience. For the first time, it felt like I’d done proper stand-up.
I didn’t win; a Queenslander who’d done a lot more of it did. It didn’t matter; if I ended up staying in Tassie, I had plans to do more myself; the club’s owner was keen. But the uni admin job I’d interviewed for didn’t come through, and a Canberra job did. So once again I had to go.
I entered the Canberra heats of Raw Comedy the following year, got some good laughs again, and didn’t win again. And that was that. We started visiting Melbourne for the Comedy Festival that year, and perhaps I got more of a sense of just how much work it would take to get there as a performer. But work was already taking much work, especially after I changed jobs; and then we moved away; and now here I am: going along to shows every year, looking for laughs that feel as good from the audience side as they once did from the performing side, and only sometimes finding them.
On Wednesday we went to see Stewart Lee, a guy exactly my age, ex-Oxbridge, who’s been out of comedy for a few years; unlike me, he was actually in comedy in the first place, as half of cult TV favourites Lee and Herring. His act came highly recommended and well reviewed. And it was good—sometimes very good. Odd, though, to hear 9-11 material in 2004, let alone Di funeral stuff; he’s been storing it up these past few years, I guess. I enjoyed his show, but it wasn’t quite as exhilarating as I’d hoped. (Which hope is always: more exhilarating than mortals can bear.)
On Thursday I was planning to see Aussie singer-songwriter Paul Kelly with Jane and some friends, but realised I’d screwed up my dates, and there was something else I really had to go to. Something which is the reason for all that preamble above. It was the Charlie Hartill Special Reserve, a one-off benefit performance of “full-bodied comedy” in memory of Charlie, ex-Festival Fringe director, ex-President of Footlights—and ex-Lemsip. Someone from that golden year, then, and longtime friend to my friends, even if I hadn’t seen him since.
It’s increasingly satisfying, unsettling, and fascinating to see where those bright young things are ending up. Another of the Lemsips has done very well indeed—he’s one of the creators behind a household name (hello, Dan). Charlie, too, achieved things we all aspired to in that first year; a source of satisfaction, one would hope, but sadly not enough. I can’t pretend to know the depths of his particular dissatisfaction, but I’ve had glimpses of something similar—counterbalanced by the hope (and, just often enough, the experience) that although one golden year might have ended, another will come.
It seems beside the point to review the show, except to point out that it was a fine memorial. Dara O’Briain stole it, with the kind of stand-up that reminded me why I still had a long way to go after that first “proper” gig. Halfway through a prepared set he launched into audience-inspired improvisation—not the painful improv I was once part of, but hilarious heights of lunacy about hunting wild omelettes in Kenya and the like. Rich Hall’s closing stint as Otis Lee Crenshaw just couldn’t compete.
My favourite moment, though, was seeing my friend walk out on stage, apologise to the audience for being an unfamiliar face, and read out a familiar monologue first performed by Charlie a long time ago.
Followed by seeing another ex-Lemsip afterwards for the first time in years (hello, Robert); then heading over to the Dome to see one of their friends debut a new character in a late-night stand-up slot, which incidentally was excellent (Merriman Weir, folk singer—look out for him next year); and meeting him at last in the lounge, after years of never being in the same place at the same time (hello, Matt).
The next night we continued our Fringe tradition of having Population: 3 over for dinner, for the delectation and delight of all; and the following day went to see their second matinee of The Wicker Woman.
As we walked to the Pleasance that day I rambled about comedy to Jane, who gets to be my sounding board on the subject every August. (Writing these entries has at least spared her some of it.) I worry that as time goes by I sound more and more like a bush lawyer, puffing up twelve months of stage experience—eight in Cambridge, four in Hobart—into some kind of authority. My fellow first-years left me behind years ago. But watching their progress has given my interest in comedy a focus it would otherwise have lacked, and maybe that’s helped the experience linger.
I know all too well, though, that the only way to turn the musings into something meaningful is to get up there and do it. Every year I have those same thoughts, and every year I come back to the same obstacles.
On the one hand, I live here. That gives savings in rent alone, compared to an out-of-towner, of anything up to £1,500. But everything else about the Fringe costs, and most shows, even actual hits, lose money. A £1,500 saving wouldn’t offset that—and this year especially, losing money in August wasn’t a good plan. I’d be a total unknown, with no agent, struggling to get bums on seats, probably in an out-of-the-way venue. The upside would be a lack of audience preconceptions; the downside, being so far behind my former peers that it wasn’t funny. But then you have to start somewhere.
Not being funny isn’t actually my main fear. I’ve passed the only test that counts—making audiences laugh—even if sometimes it was bloody hard work. As Barunka and I were saying over dinner (about shows we’d seen that were horribly unfunny), when your act isn’t connecting with the crowd you know—you know—and if that happens consistently, it’s time to reconsider. That hasn’t been my experience, fortunately. But would I be funny enough? Maybe not; the competition is fierce.
I know, though, that whenever I’ve been able to try out material more than once I’ve got better at delivering it. Which, when it comes down to it, is what I’m most curious about. Trying out untested material is always a gamble; trying it out again is an opportunity to improve it. I haven’t had a chance to refine an act since 1992 (I kept writing new stuff in Hobart because it was always the same crowd; it isn’t that big a place). A month of Fringe performances is about the best opportunity there is to do that.
Launching into a month of shows with untested material and rusty stage skills would be starting at a huge disadvantage. Obviously, it would be better to do some open-mic performances first, the kind of thing I was doing in 1998-99, in front of a more forgiving local crowd. But my local crowd is Edinburgh, the most spoilt for choice for comedy in the world. Despite what the curmudgeons say every year, plenty of locals do enjoy the Fringe and get out to it every August; I overhear them saying as much at shows and bus-stops.
And yet the Edinburgh crowd isn’t the Fringe crowd. The latter is always half full of Londoners, tourists, and performers from around the world; the former is mostly Scottish, and has a sense of humour of its own, and won’t take any shit. I’ve been quietly learning about this city and its people these past few years, sometimes wondering what I’d say to them if I had their ear; and I don’t know if I could get all the subtleties into ten or fifteen minutes. Not with the sort of drawn-from-life material I’ve done in the past.
It’s not just a case of slipping in the local references to demonstrate that you know who your audience is, though that always helps; it’s a case of treating the audience as equals, people whose concerns and sense of humour you (hopefully) share. I’m not sure if the local audience would let me do that—or how to convince them to.
For a start, I’m Australian. The accent’s a bit of a giveaway; and then you have to explain it. Explaining it would involve saying that I live here, and then you have to fight the clichés; if I hear one more joke about working in a bar, I’ll scream. Actually, my accent isn’t that strong, which needs explaining in itself. When I tell Brits I’m Tasmanian, they figure that explains it, but they couldn’t be more wrong: the Tassie accent is as broad as any; we had rising sentences years before they showed up on Neighbours. I won’t go into it more now, except to say that every accent needs explanation in Britain, because every accent carries cultural baggage here, and comedians have to deal with that all the time. The ex-public school comedians make jokes about being posh (even when they seem perfectly normal to me), the regional comedians make jokes about being regional, and the Australians make jokes about being Australian. As I would have to, too: even if the Scots didn’t pick my accent, a single tell-tale phrase would give me away. Or else they’d think I was English.
It’s a case of figuring out who you are, then, and how to present yourself, and how to make all of that funny—in ten minutes, or twenty, or an hour. Or ignoring it completely, refusing to acknowledge it, and doing something completely detached from reality—which can be much harder to make funny. Maybe I’ll figure it out one of these days, and have another go.
It might seem strange to go to a show again that you already saw last year, but I wanted to show some support for my friends, and I was curious to see how it had changed. They’ve performed it a lot around Britain since its first Fringe run, to consistently good reviews.
It had changed: both in the script (Brad speaks!), and, more significantly, in the performance, for the kinds of reasons I’ve indicated. They were certainly polished before, but there was something different this time: they know the material so well, know so well what works and what doesn’t, that it feels less like watching a performance than seeing a group of friends having a really, really good time. And because they were enjoying it, we enjoyed it; the audience response was amazing. And I enjoyed it, more than I thought I could a second time—more, in fact, than the first time, or any other show this year. I laughed until I cried.
Was it because of the quality of the show itself, or because it was my friends up there? I can’t make the distinction: it’s all entangled, as so much of the Fringe has been this year and every year, with my own hopes and dreams and friendships and life; entangling into itself, becoming part of a string of golden Augusts. I suspect they feel the same way, as every returning performer must; and I hope those feelings always last.
22-24 August 2004