EDINBURGH — The Edinburgh Fringe Festival has been going for two weeks now and the city has the vibe of a raging party around 4 am when half the bodies still moving are residually intoxicated and/or deliriously over-tired. Maybe that’s just Scotland. Ironically, it seems the eldest local Scots are the most chipper and spry right now. There is no doubt the Fringe owns this city for the month of August. And there is no doubt that comedy dominates the Fringe.
Comedy and the Fringe Festival have the same spirit: irreverent, rebellious, bold art being performed at the same time, in close proximity to established art exhibitions that never invited them to come. The Fringe started 64 years ago with eight theater groups, but I doubt even the boldest production managed to shake the status-quo quite like the first comedy shows to take on Edinburgh. During the run of the Fringe this year, there will be nearly 3,000 shows with over 10,000 performers. Every one of them in one of over 250 venues marked with an official festival number that appears on every other door throughout Edinburgh. All these shows, all these performers, all these venues and there will be an average of four audience members per show. Four. If that isn’t comedy, I don’t know what is. So how do you get five or more sets of eyeballs at your show (not to discriminate against anyone missing an eyeball)? Advertising and critical buzz.
Every inch of Edinburgh is covered in advertisements for comedy shows at the Fringe. Goofy guy. Sardonic guy. Kooky girl. Bizarro duo. And plenty of “the kid with promise” posters that leave the viewer to ponder “is this fresh-faced comedian a sweet devil or an edgy angel?” What will that guy say? What won’t that lady say? Looks and types everywhere, like a parade of every headshot and promotional poster through the history of comedy. I’m not sure if this indicates the universal themes of comedy or the universal themes of show promotion. There are plenty of recognizable names that jump-out from the fray: Margaret Cho, Glen Wool, Todd Barry, Stewart Lee, Hannibal Burress, Matt Kirshen, and yes, even Tom Green. Many of their shows are already sold-out so hopefully their look-alikes will pick-up the excess demand.
What am I doing here? Coincidentally, the first time I uttered that phrase, I was on a lineup at the iO West in Los Angeles, sharing the stage with Paul Provenza, Rick Overton, Eddie Pepitone and Greg Proops in an early stateside edition of Set List (formerly known as Improvised Set List). I opened my improvised set with the self-effacing line I had mulled over for the past 10 minutes to signal to the sold-out audience that I no way considered myself in the league of the heavyweights on stage with me. It didn’t work. The captain just told them he doesn’t know how to drive the ship.
Since then, I’ve been improvising stand-up sporadically with the show, as Set List has blown minds from Los Angeles to the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal, featuring performances from the aforementioned hit-squad above, Laurie Kilmartin, Rick Shapiro, T.J. Miller, Maria Bamford, Jackie Kashian, Chris Fairbanks, Carlos Alzraqui and Dana Gould. That same show started its run here in Edinburgh Aug. 4, anchored by creator Troy Conrad and Matt Kirshen, fleshed out with appearances from Hannibal Burress, Brendon Burns, Rick Overton and countless international comedy talents. Paul Provenza, Greg Proops and myself are rejoining the bill for many of the shows remaining at the Fringe.
So with an hour on-stage every night, I have 23 other hours to probe this daunting festival of comedy, cabaret, magic and penis-puppetry. With “adverts” (how local am I getting, already?) that all look similarly slick and include quotes from publications I’ve never heard of, it’s not going to be easy to figure out what is worthwhile and what is utter shite at the Fringe. Venturing into the unknown is what makes it so fun and interesting. Much like the essence of the show I’m doing here, I’ll be making it up as I go. I will let you know what’s good and what’s bizarre – even the bad has to have some entertainment value. Right? Maybe I’ll go check out Kooky Girl.