EDINBURGH – Everybody is playing dress-up and I feel left out. Turning a corner onto “The Royal Mile” in Edinburgh’s City Centre, I found myself in the belly of the beast – a Virgin-Money sponsored street fair – surrounded by costumed performers everywhere. This is the heart of the Fringe where every show vies for attention in one sprawling marketplace just outside the main box office. Think Times Square in New York or the 3rd Street Promenade in Los Angeles or Faneuil Hall in Boston or the 16th Street Mall in Denver (wherever street performers gather en masse in your neck of the woods) and then multiply the number of performers by one-hundred. Now double the level of neediness and spectacle and you have an idea of what this atmosphere is like. All of these performers are just trying to stand-out, catch the eye, tickle your fancy so that you will opt-in to their show over the countless others.
This is a microcosm of every aspiring comedian’s (or any performing artist’s) struggle. Without name recognition or credibility in the eyes of the audience, you have to stand out from the pack any way possible. Forget the posters and flyers, these people have taken to full-on publicity stunts: theater troupes parading in character, tight-rope walkers teasing crowds, singing groups harmonizing to Journey songs, comedians standing on raised platforms and creating awkward exchanges with passerby’s. This is backstage at a massive variety show.
Every performer has 30 days to hustle their talents and make an impression, whether they are an unknown breaking through in a small, dank basement or a big-name needing to stay relevant in massive auditoriums. To be named “Best of the Fest” or gain any sort of buzz at the Edinburgh Fringe can track any performer’s career to healthy touring, television, and film work.
Despite the onslaught of flyers and pushy barkers, I decide to keep it real and stay true to the streets, dipping into a random, small stand-up show called FUNT (cheeky!). After watching Chris Dangerfield and Alex Hawley slip in naughty sex jokes through their reserved delivery, I thought “damn, these comedians all dress better than Americans.” No hoody? No sneakers? Vests and jackets – who are you, Paul F. Thomkins? Thankfully Tim Shishodia took the stage wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt. This is the only time I was relieved to see a comedian take the stage dressed like they’re wasting away again in Margaritaville. The only time.
Shishodia hails from Kent and is only four years into stand-up. He is an absurdist comedian with bizarre segues in the vein of a Dov Davidoff with a Gaffigan-like “audience internal dialogue” voice that helps guide him from one unrelated topic to the next. He tells me “I’m just here to do shows and get better. I don’t really care about being seen or any of that. I can gig ten times in one day and play all kinds of crowds – that will make the minority that gets me win over the majority that doesn’t.” That’s the pure heart of the Fringe. When I ask him how he is typically received, he huffs that most people just compare him to other comedians like Harry Hiller. What kind of a dink would describe another comedian in such a shallow way? (see above)
So far, the audiences have not lived up to their wild, combative reputation. At worst, I have heard people in audiences mumble their own cynical conclusion to a set-up or mock another audience member for laughing too hard at the joke. Buzzkills and assholes are universal. But these UK crowds are otherwise seeming to be too easy. They’ll laugh just as hard at Shishodia’s goofball “I feel bad for people with moustaches and glasses. What will they use as a disguise?” joke as well as another comedian’s long rant about the Tottenham riots that just ends without a punch line.
In the same way I have to stop being surprised when I find a Target near a gig in Dickinson, North Dakota, I have to stop acting like anywhere outside of the United States is an alien land. Comedians in the UK make jokes about liberals, conservatives, iPhones, Facebook, gay marriage, racism, McDonalds, bad drivers and countless other well-worn topics. They even speak English. Point is, a comedian’s struggle is that same as a comedian’s struggle almost anywhere. It’s just that with a British accent, it sounds classier.
UPDATE ON SHOW POSTERS: many of them can now be found with moustaches, penises, and the c-word scrawled across their face. Universally funny. Check out my first Fringe dispatch here.