Comedy festivals: the Fringe and beyond

Alexei Sayle and Tony Allen were the first ‘alternative comedians’ to perform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and since then it has become one of the world’s greatest events for comedy. According to Mark Fisher, author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide, ‘For dedicated comedians... the Fringe is a central part of the professional calendar... For many comedians, the Fringe is a catalyst to up their game or to try something new’.

Everyone has different experiences of the Fringe but all agree it can be the place for an act to make a name for itself. Julian Hall, comedy critic for the Independent newspaper, explained what makes a successful Edinburgh show:

It’s impossible to totally nail this but a show that has some structure without looking too built, a show that has heart without being mawkish, and a show that is truthful without being psychotherapy will do well. Oh, and jokes of course, ones that you’ll quote back to people for years to come. Yes, it’s a big ask and that’s why people still love to come and ‘crack’ Edinburgh.

Comedian Mat Fraser sees it as an ‘expensive fun alcohol-fuelled orgiastic drug-addled booze-soaked party time, with some gigs as well. These days I just do spots in other people’s shows as it’s far too hard to mount your own and a thankless task of failure all too often. I would only do it now if I was produced well by someone else.’

The excessive side of the Fringe is something that Zoe Lyons agrees about. In her experience it means ‘late nights, rivers of booze, terrible shows, wonderful shows, camaraderie, competitiveness, chips and rain’. Shazia Mirza finds Edinburgh ‘hard. In every way. I go there to develop my craft, watch comedy, do my new show, and watch the comedians I admire. That’s why I go. No one enjoys every single minute of the entire month.’

Ed Aczel has found a natural home for his act, but he also sees the yearly visit as an impetus to keep writing:

If I didn’t have a deadline for Edinburgh I wouldn’t be writing, I’d have my head in the clouds. I’ve done four shows. You come up with a theme, usually in March. You have it on the back of a fag packet. All the Edinburgh brochures get done in March so all the stuff on the back of the fag packet goes into them. Then you have to write around it. You get committed to stuff you didn’t want to get committed to, that was so badly thought through at the time, and suddenly you’ve got to make it fly.

Laughing Horse run the Free Festival at Edinburgh (www.freefestival.co.uk) presenting shows across all Fringe genres – music and theatre as well as comedy. They manage venues, performance spaces and volunteers across sixteen venues and have managed 6,000 performances of shows. They also produce the daily Pick of the Fringe shows and organise comedy courses.

They warn, only half-jokingly, of the usual hazards of ‘a considerable amount of eating unhealthily and drinking too much!’ For someone going to Edinburgh to perform for the first time, they emphasise the need for hard work and to expect ‘long hours, bad reviews, awful weather, exhaustion, chaos, battling egos, huge expenses, dodgy accommodation, no sleep, enough alcohol to pickle your liver and a diet consisting solely of battered offal eaten at 3 a.m. in the morning outside takeaways’.

They also say it can be the best experience of your life as well as being artistically rewarding. A typical Fringe experience ‘gives every day the highs and lows of celebrating New Year’s Eve, and gets repeated every day for twenty-five days. And then for completely illogical reasons you will want to return and do it all again, every year.’

So the main things to be deduced from these various accounts and experiences are that hard work is essential, you need to be prepared for anything, it is impossible to predict how things will turn out, and an enormous accumulated hangover is inevitable.

Festivals beyond the Fringe

There have never before been so many festivals in Europe, ranging from the massive events at Glastonbury to the smaller, more organic local festivals in England’s West Country. During the festival season the railway stations are full of expectant punters, either laden with beer and rucksacks on the way there or grimy and undefeated on the way back. The majority of festivals, in trying to give the punters as wide an experience as possible, usually feature a comedy or cabaret tent.

There is always room for comedians if you get in on the act quickly enough. You need to get your CV to the organisers shortly after the festival season is over so that they have time to get out of rehab and back into the office. As with any other gig, do not aim too high. Choose somewhere small where you can meet their standards. Festivals take place in big cities and in cowsheds around the planet, so pick carefully. Start at the festivals nearest home so you don’t end up forking out for an expensive train ticket, as you often won’t get paid. Comedy tents tend to run throughout most of the day at the big places, and in the evenings at the smaller ones, and as most festivals run for three to four days, that is a lot of slots to fill. The sooner you get in touch, the sooner you get on the bill.

They will give you get a free ticket, perhaps a couple, and a chance to perform, and most organisers are happy to let performers stick around and enjoy all the other goodies on site. The best-organised ones will give you a spot in the performers’ field to camp, and access to at least one free meal.

Meeting other people, especially comedians, is one of the most interesting parts of performing at festivals. You never know whom you will bump into and what you will see, so keep your eyes open for the unexpected. One thing, though: although the vast majority of visitors to festivals are very supportive, doing stand-up in a hot tent to a bunch of festival-goers in various states of inebriation can be a wee bit unpredictable. Folk walk in and out of the sight lines, usually by accident rather than maliciously. As with open spots, they are not necessarily there to watch stand-up and so will not observe the usual comedy-club rules. This can be either a challenge or a lot of fun.

Try it at least once – what have you got to lose? Make sure you get into festival mode rather than ‘overtly professional mode’. And if you are going to get whacked out, do it after the gig. You do want to be invited back, after all. Don’t you?

From Performing Live Comedy, Methuen Drama (Bloomsbury)