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Things Learned At: Edinburgh Fringe
JR Moores , September 9th, 2015 09:14

JR Moores reports on things learned "while observing people who observe things for a living"

Photo by Colin Hutton

To comprehensively cover the Edinburgh festival, it would take an army of reviewers frantically rushing between plush theatres, damp hovels and malodorous inn cellars in an attempt to catch every show, from a man pretending to be pasta for baffled laughter, to Liz Kendall: The Musical (probably). Even then, there's every chance they'd miss reporting the best routine of the year because that would be some afterhours improv executed in a VIP bar by a single pissed-up member of a moderately successful sketch troupe riffing on the way the liquid soap dispensers in the Pleasance Dome lavatories are significantly lower than the taps and sink (in most toilets they're fastened higher up the wall, you see.) It's hopeless really. There are hundreds of venues putting on countless shows for an event which isn't, in fact, a single event at all but a mishmash of multiple festivals. What's commonly known as "The Fringe" or "The Edinburgh Festival" is actually an umbrella term for several arts festivals that all take place in the month of August, including the Edinburgh International Festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Edinburgh Art Festival, the Free Fringe, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo and the Unappreciated Comedian Crying Into A Puddle After A Reviewer Called His Stage Persona "Overly Strained" Festival. With all that choice, what am I to do? Well, here are a selection of observations I made while observing people who observe things for a living.

Some heckles are just plain weird

Despite possessing similar stand-up skills, mental agility, inventiveness and political stances as Stewart Lee, Nick Doody is not a household name. In recent years he's crept away from the glitz, glamour, crippling debt accumulation and cut-throat competitiveness of the money-grabbing major venues to the earthier Free Fringe scene, performing his sets in the small basement of a pub while simultaneously operating his own PA from the raised step that acts as his stage. His latest effort, T'ai-Po, is as impressive as we've come to expect from Doody. It includes standard stand-up topics, such as relationships and alcohol and tobacco addictions, given fresh and hilarious twists. Then there's the livid political despair: he has a swimming pool/jellyfish metaphor about Britain's current political situation that had me literally howling with laughter (or, perhaps, "happy screaming" as David O'Doherty calls the act of laughing in his own show) and led my cohort to express an audible "oooooooh" at its climax because it was so darn clever (slash utterly depressing). And, as usual, just when you think everyone's having a lovely time laughing at the funnyman, Doody suddenly swerves into far darker territory or makes you feel wholly uncomfortable about what you thought you supported two seconds ago. For instance, he berates Theresa May and their ilk, asking "who thinks you shouldn't ban things you've never seen?", which of course prompts a liberal cheer. "What about child pornography?" he adds mischievously, to be greeted by the kind of embarrassed murmuring that only the most truly challenging comics crave. Anyway, not long into Doody's set, a man at the bar announced very loudly, if matter-of-factly, to the entire tiny pub basement, the following phrase: "I genuinely need a piss." It threw Doody, who said that the gentlemen was very welcome to visit the lavatory and helpfully pointed out the location of the loos. The weird thing was, the bloke just stood there, silently, unmoving. He didn't go for a piss. Nor did he interrupt the show any further. Nick Doody: so funny you'll tie a knot in it.

Comedians! It's time to stop berating your audience for not laughing at every single one of your terribly intelligent jokes

I'm as big a fan of Stewart Lee as the next Guardian-subscribing Quietus scribe, but scolding certain sections of the audience for not laughing as immediately or as hard as other sections of the audience has become as predictable a part of Lee's sets as Roy Chubby Brown's racism or Peter Kay's references to things off of the recent past. It was funny the first time, and sometimes still is when Lee does it, though I do feel he needs to drop this compulsion now and push in newer, alternative directions. (Audience-baiting aside, Lee's "work-in-progress" show this year is, as you'd expect, miles better than most comics' final, polished routines. His Islamophobia material, for example, needs no further honing, he has fully perfected it.) Lesser comics have often imitated parts of Lee's shtick and so, unfortunately, whether they're doing it consciously or not, they now seem to be incorporating this crowd-bashing stuff into their own sets, often making the mistake of damning not just part of the audience for being too slow on the uptake (as Lee does) but their whole damn audience, thus losing the room entirely instead of cheekily dividing it. Here comes the BAFTA nominated telly jester, bemoaning the slothfulness of the "Wednesday night crowd". There goes the lesser-known comedian's comedian, who thinks this alehouse loftspace's punters didn't understand his sophisticated satirical analogy (we did understand it, it just wasn't amusing enough to make us laugh heartily). Sometimes it is not the audience's fault. Sometimes it is your weak material or faulty performance of it. Sometimes you need to up your game.

While we're at it, if I hear one more comedian on the 2for1 ticket nights (usually the first Monday and Tuesday of the Fringe) calling their audience cheapskates or underlining the fact that "only 50% of you have paid anyway" I'm going to yawn so hard that the entire Scottish capital will be sucked into my gapingly bored mouth which I will then spit into the North Sea just off the coast of Leith. (It won't take long, literally every comedian does this on those particular dates every single year and for some reason people still laugh at them doing it).

The social apocalypse plunges deeper: talking at gigs has now infected the Fringe

Worse than heckling, which can be tackled head-on and nipped in the bud by your confident comics, is a quieter but no less annoying habit which is more difficult for the artist to address or, at times, even notice: the fucking act of fucking chatting during the fucking performance. As The Quietus and others have reported over the last couple of years, talking at gigs seems to be on the rise because of selfie culture or bad parenting or the creeping empathy-extinguishing epidemic of right-wing attitudes or the fact that the yoof fink it dope to play their toons thru their tiny, tinny phone speakers at full volume on trains while munching a Subway sandwich more obscene in odour than the Quiet Coach toilet cubicle that their mate just threw up in or the death of libraries or whatever the hell is causing it.

This year I suffered some dickheads at the side of Set List who were nattering throughout the gig as if they were in their living room being filmed for Gogglebox. Three lads tried their hardest to ruin gravel-voiced beardy American comic Kyle Kinane's gig by talking amongst themselves and giggling loudly at each other's jokes instead of those being told by the onstage professional (thankfully, the morons left after a while allowing us to enjoy, without distraction, Kinane's in-depth observations about the consumption of crab meat). Weirdest of all was the grown adult woman who decided that Luke McQueen's show was the most suitable moment to instigate a detailed discussion with her friend about, among other matters, Jeremy Corbyn's Labour leadership campaign. This fact is even weirder if you know about the comedian in question and the room in which he was performing. The Pleasance Beside is a tiny little box of a venue, with literally only three rows of seats and a maximum capacity of 80. Sitting on the back row having a conversation is only one seat apart from sitting on the front row having a conversation.

Furthermore, Luke McQueen is blooming terrifying; a manic-eyed, recklessly self-humiliating comedy genius who evokes the roguishness of Tim Key and Adam Riches, the intensity of Nick Helm and the fragile and volatile mental state of early Johnny Vegas. Even if you volunteer to do something nice for McQueen, you could end up reading his jokes out for him, shampooing his hair, rubbing baked beans into his naked torso or being nonsensically shouted at for no reason whatsoever. I can't imagine how he might punish those he caught chatting. Sadly, he didn't locate and debase the chatterer, although he did single out a man who had, somewhat unbelievably, fallen asleep amid the loud comic chaos. "Luckily, I'm not a sensitive person," confessed McQueen, standing before us in nothing but his pants shortly after pretending to piss himself, "or that might've shaken my confidence. I mean, how do you sleep through this?!" Anyhow, I twisted my neck around like an anal owl to glare at the selfish chattering idiot for every minute that the selfish chattering idiot ceased to selfishly chatter so that the selfish chattering idiot's slightly quieter and more self-aware chattering idiot friend became too embarrassed to selfishly chat and they finally shut their yapping inconsiderate mouths. Save it for the bar, you pricks.

The Free Fringe boasts comics just as slick as those at the 'Big Four' venues...

See the aforementioned Nick Doody as well as Mike Wozniak, whose entire show is one long, hilariously fraught, uptight, despairing and moustachioed shaggy cat story about accidentally kidnapping a scratchy feline, occasionally interrupted with "facts" about crocodiles, bubbles, insurance, fishing and more.

...and the spirit of anarchy can still be found in the 'Big Four' venues

See the aforementioned Luke McQueen as well as Sam Simmons, whose Spaghetti For Breakfast show is a veritable tour de force of absurdism (I think Simmons may also have sneaked in at least a couple of serious points too, among all the smashed lettuce remains, abused cornflakes, existential extension lead nightmares and floating toast).

Extra notes:

Complementing the sillier instincts exhibited elsewhere in his set, Simon Munnery had a stunning bit (calmly delivered but absolutely raging in sentiment) about the Tories' loathsome catchphrase "decent and hardworking people".

James Acaster's routine about the kind of detestable men who hang their jumpers over their shoulders was just one of the many highlights in an almost implausibly accomplished, gag-heavy set that also kind of had a vague story to it.

Acts of comedic bravery that I refuse to describe because it would totally spoil the magic include: the audacious-yet-vulnerable and possibly unprecedented way that feral-haired Canadian Tony Law concluded this year's Frillemorphesis show, as well as pretty much the entire concept and execution of Richard Gadd's commendably unique piece, Waiting For Gaddot.

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