“I’m highly intelligent and very funny.” Steve Hughes is staying right on stage at the Fringe festival’s staple late-night show Spank! At this point, the bold, unapologetic Australian “comic’s-comic” has walked about a third of the audience. Mind you, it’s 2:45 am and Spank! has been running since 10 PM. Leon, one of the show’s hosts, shouts at Steve from the side of the stage “are you fucking with me?” A beat. And Hughes fires back “nope, I’m sifting them out.” Brilliant.
To anyone not mesmerized by his content, be they too drunk or too stupid to process the nuance and depth of his material, Hughes appears to have lost the audience. Dumfounded looks plagued the left-side of the room while blocks of open chairs littered the rest. Thus far, he has settled matters as far ranging as “mod poseurs” (aka hipsters), equality of women in the workplace, the imposition of Western thinking on Muslim culture, and the banality of modern sex games. All of which he appears to be truly riffing. Did he use some offensive, salty language? Let’s just say I can’t think of one he didn’t use. But what was truly vulgar to those who walked from the show was not his language, but the bitter truth he spoke. He even went as far as to call television “stupid.” No joke – that’s the one that walked the masses. Perhaps the bit reminded them that they had TV to watch.
Shows like Spank! that carry on into the wee hours of the morning are what define the Fringe experience. During the daytime, shows are still mindful of presentation, form, and even the presence of children. But once midnight has passed, the crowds’ sensibilities have splintered and most people are “properly pissed.” (Sometime around 3 am is when you have to watch your step to avoid stepping in “street pizza” aka “man-sick” aka vomit).
Up to this point, I was enjoying myself at the Fringe but had been wondering where the true spark was. Everything was amusing as long as I entered the venue with a positive “appreciate the effort” mentality. All that changed when I allowed my newfound UK posse to whisk me into dodgy alleys and dank venues to catch real comedy. To borrow a cliché analogy, the Fringe becomes very “punk-rock” at this hour. Spank! for example, is set in a space that looks even more underground that UCB East. The comedians were so charged and in-the-moment that the periodic waves of feedback received no commentary from them nor any real reaction from the crowd. Hughes and company just bled it out.
This was also a night where Set List featured a lineup of comedians that I am ashamed to admit I have never heard of. All these guys are legends here – Fred MacAuley (“the voice of Scotland” according to a local) and Phil Jupitus (“the Jon Stewart of the UK” according to a London comedian). When the comedy-duo of Andy Smart and Steve Stein was announced (the first duo to attempt the format) I thought “well, this will be an interesting bungling of the show.” I was 100 percent incorrect. The two tore through their improvised set with such mastery, it bordered on appearing choreographed. Steve played a famous comedian from Kazakstan (which I’m told is not meant to be derivative of Borat) while Andy translated for him, resulting in physical jibberish matched with inventive narration. Words can’t capture how simply incredible it was.
Paul Provenza must possess the Rossetta-Stone for comedians to assemble talents as far-flung as were on this show. Australians, Egyptians, Scots, and Brits. He speaks their language (which can be quite varied in comedic terms), he gets them, he loves them, and the feeling is mutual. Anyone who’s met him in person or even just watched “The Green Room” on Showtime can see his love for comedy and the comedians behind it. While every show here (including his) is in competition with one another, there is a true camaraderie at the Fringe. Fellow comedians wish you the best on your show, you return the gesture…and you actually mean it.
Now 2:55 am, Steve Hughes is telling the crowd to “stop trying to control the situation” and by that he means “stop laughing.” He wants everyone to allow the show to be “as nature intended” and end in complete silence. Backing away from the mic, he mouths “shut up” to anyone who laughs. If great jokes create tension that is broken with a punch line, then Hughes is teaching a master course. He pans the crowd with his video camera, tells us it was the best gig ever, and says goodnight.
Come to the Fringe expecting to witness magic. Just be ready to stay up late.
UPDATE ON SCOTTISH AGGRESSION: A woman approached me as I typed this report and asked if I was “facing it” while pointing at my computer screen. Her Scottish brogue made the question indecipherable to me and I asked her thrice “what?” Finally her friend came up to tell me she was being polite and asking if I was on Facebook so we could be friends. I just shot back “no” (in a slightly dickish way). So the woman kicked my chair and told me to “get the fuck out of her way then.” If anything, I think it’s the day-drinking that is getting in her way.