EDINBURGH — Much time has past since my days of barking the Upper West Side of Manhattan to promote a comedy show. Standing out in the cold for two to three hours shouting “hey folks, comedy tonight! Comedians seen on comedycentralhbolastcomicstandingshowtimethetonightshowletterman” (yes, it came out as one multi-syllabic word). The only thing separating me from an ambling homeless man was flyers. Well, I’ve come full-circle as I embarked on a flyering journey last night to promote Set List to the throngs of people in Edinburgh.
Set List has received countless four-star reviews, boasts line-ups of household names from the States and the UK and has consistently been the best damn show at the Fringe (unbiased opinion). And yet, if you don’t flyer, the people may not come. As I recall, “barkers” in NYC were met with utter disdain or were simply ignored all together. Yet at the Fringe, strangers willingly took flyers, engaged my pitch and told me “thank you,” “cheers,” and/or “sorry mate.” At one point, I was even bear-hugged and called “brilliant!” simply for telling a young girl that I was from America. I thought they all hated us. Even with all the love, four hours of flyering off-and-on is exhausting. And that was just one day.
“The third week of the Fringe is like the third lap of a mile.” Temporarily ex-pat comedian and character actor Chris Coxen is describing the mental state that he and many of the Fringe performers are in. “First lap you feel good once you get going, second lap is a little nasty but you’re still in it. Third lap you still have halfway to go, you’re getting tired and now you have to push through. It’s very mentally exhausting. It makes you a tough performer to just get out there everyday and do it when you’re in your worst condition. You just can’t wait for that fourth lap where the weight is lifted and you’re re-energized. It’s the last lap.” Almost there.
Chris moved from Boston to London in February seeking a new outlet for his character-based comedy. He’s been going “balls to the wall” in the UK building the show and his reputation that he has brought to the Fringe. “Comedians are buzzing about the Fringe all year over here. It’s the Super Bowl, the Gathering from Highlander, the Comedy Kumite.”
Regardless of their level, UK comedians are focused on building a new show or hour to put on display at the Fringe every year. “The UK in general has a comedy scene that truly rewards for innovating. The Fringe is the most capitalistic comedy event in the World, awarding entrepreneurial minds and spirits. Careers can be made with one bold idea you put up here. America has nothing like it.” We have great comedy festivals and plenty of innovation within niche performance circles (oft-labeled the “alt-scene”), but nothing on the scale of the Fringe.
What Chris is espousing is the DIY spirit of the Fringe that attracts artists and audience alike. “Fringe audiences are comedy fans that stay excited all month long for new shows. They are open-minded and tickled that they are seeing this crazy stuff in a huge festival that has been around for 60 years. [American] audiences don’t always have the patience to go and pay money to watch an unknown performer do an hour.”
Chris’ hour is entitled Chris Coxen’s Space Clone Audition. He has completed 15 shows so far and is beginning to feel the wear and tear of a comedy marathon. Every day at around 11 am, Chris is outside his performance space, Cabaret Voltaire, flyering anybody in the vicinity to attend his show. Some days, he will venture out as his original character, super-smooth Bahama-born lounge singer Barry Tattle, to have more fun with the sometimes-reluctant strangers.
“I’m really happy with my performances. It’s just been a real battle just to get people in the door.” On the day I attend, he has seven people watching (more than four!) at his usual 2:30 pm start time in the small downstairs catacomb that looks like many of the odd venues throughout Edinburgh. Host (known as compere in these parts) Tom Webb takes the audience through a run of five original characters played by Coxen in order to determine which of these Americans will be cloned to populate outer-space. This is the type of high-concept comedy that fares better in the UK than in the States.
Through “Space Clone Audition” audiences meet characters with wide-ranging dispositions – highly-sexual Barry Tattle, awkwardly-timid Keith Urtaine, absurdly-motivated Stever Pate, Future Queer, highly-aggressive Danny Morsel– and vote for their favorite. Audiences have chosen combat-dancer Danny Morsel 14 out of 15 times thus far, showing that they prefer a character that threatens to fight everybody over those who want to love them.
Perhaps it’s not so surprising that they enjoy the idea of an indiscriminate brawler, as Coxen himself was actually attacked on the streets of Edinburgh (see photo) by a pack of drunken Scottish teens a few nights prior. One teen blindsided him with a couple punches to the face before he managed to evade the group of seven or so by running to an open falafel shop. When I relate this story to a native, they simply remark “ah yes, those dodgy Scottish punks.” Like they are feral cats that you just learn to tolerate and bring inside for milk.
A little bit of makeup covers up the shiners. A smile covers up the exhaustion. An hour on stage makes up for all of it. “You just have to expect the worst and hope for the best.” Indeed, Chris, indeed. Now get back out there and pass out some flyers.
UPDATE ON CROWD SENSIBILITIES: When given the suggestion “Mediocre Genius” during Set List, only half the audience appreciated my improvised bit “If Stephen Hawking is so smart, why can’t he figure out how to get out of his wheel-chair?” That half was American.