EDINBURGH — I’m destroying myself and having a blast doing it. Last night, I went to bed at 7:30 am after a late-night after-party chocked full of the festival’s finest comedians. Fortunately, there is too much comedy to take part in for a mere hangover to kill my energy and spirits. Too many shows, too little time. Imagine trying to catch every brilliant show happening in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston at the same time in a little over a week. It’s madness.
Extra showa are being added. Tickets are disappearing. The hottest shows in town are seeing the effect of four and five star reviews, as well as coveted award nominations for Best of the Fringe. Set List, for example, has upgraded venues twice now – from selling out 60 seats, to selling out 100 seats, to now selling nearly 200 seats in a new, sexy Cave. That’s in a festival where shows average a four-person audience.
Just receiving a five-star review from the biggest publication The Scotsman, Set List has become the hottest show at the festival. That is evidenced by the fact that the back of the room is filled with faces you see all day on the biggest posters in town. As comedian Matt Kirshen informed the crowd “an amazing thing about this festival is there are so many amazing comedians that a huge name can just turn up and do your show” right before announcing the fearless Rich Hall. Also on the bill this evening are newly-arrived Set List-resident Greg Proops, consistent-hitter Rick Overton, Richard Herring, and UK mega-star Frank Skinner who chose Set List as his only performance at the Fringe.
Unfortunately, my only chance to see Rich Hall was last night on Set List where he boldly tackled Islam and pedophilia with style. Rich has appeared on Conan, Letterman, and Saturday Night Live (and is supposedly the inspiration for Moe on The Simpsons) and is now a London-based legend. He won the Perrier Comedy Award at the Fringe in 2000 and this year is doing two shows that are getting raves. Sadly, there is not time to catch his “Rich Hall Hoedown” since it conflicts with shows that I am doing, but he described it as an “awesome comedy show where we wind up just dancing to some kick-ass bluegrass at the end.”
Right now, I’m in Fringe Mania catching a ridiculous amount of shows. Lock-in for the rundown of that:
Andy Zaltzman is playing The Stand in his show Armchair Revolutionary. Zaltzman is a comedy compadre and former co-host of the Bugle Podcast with fellow-Brit John Oliver. Close yours eyes and listen to the two and you can’t tell the difference – similar cadence, rhythms, and that slow-low-voiced emphasis on common sense punch lines.
Armchair Revolutionary is one-part political commentary and one-part absurdist political satire. Zaltzman dissects the news of the World with a large chunk centered on the societal ills of the UK. Though I felt as if I needed to speed up my ears in order to catch all that was being said (these Brits are speedy talkers), I did notice that the UK issues he was covering were nearly identical to those facing the US. The only point where I felt distinctly American was when he asked the 63-person crowd who was happy Osama bin Laden was dead and I along with three other people raised our hands. Where we all were on the same page was when he asked who loved democracy and the show of hands reflected an underwhelming participation in the voting.
Zaltzman spends half his show pacing the stage with a pink-dotted shirt and an arrow through his head, looking much like Art Garfunkel is trying to be Steve Martin. The other half is spent in his armchair next to an old-timey radio that blares fake news reports that are very reminiscent of the Onion. You can see why him and Oliver get along so well. If ever there was commitment to a bit, Zaltzman “dies onstage” at the end, gets covered with a sheet while he sits in his chair and remains seated under that sheet until every last audience member has left.
And commitment to the bit is what certainly separates good improv from bad improv. Thankfully, there has been more good improv at the Fringe than bad. But let’s start with the bad: Paul Merton’s Impro Chums. Paul Merton is considered one of Britain’s finest comedians but what I watched was the type of improv that makes you sit there and ask “what’s the point?” Merton and his band of seasoned players go on at 4 pm in a packed gymnasium that Pleasance has converted into a large theater and chocked-full of passengers from every elderly tour bus in Scotland. Perhaps I’m not his crowd, perhaps it was a bad show, perhaps I’m just a cynic, but the whole thing felt masturbatory Ten minutes of Freeze tag? A conducted story where we get the anti-climatic joy of yelling “die” when a player flubs a line? Guessing an occupation using French-gibberish? Aucun merci!
On the polar opposite end, I was blown away by the improvised musical knocked out of the park by Baby Wants Candy. Given the suggestion of “Phantom of the Soap Opera,” the seven-American cast delivered a hilarious full-fledged musical on the spot.
Truly outstanding improv is when the players honor the suggestion and heighten it in clever ways – Baby Wants Candy did that ten-fold. They even set-up that “by the end, all of us will die” (a detail I had forgotten about) in a song I will title “It’s All Very Dramatic” and wound up all dying at the end. Other hits were “Dreams in Hollywood,” “Old Lady with Needs” and “I’ve got Moxie and a 12-inch cock.” America, clamor for their return and snatch up their tickets.
Full disclosure: I had tickets to another hotly-buzzed show that would have required me to leave a little early to catch both and I couldn’t bring myself to head out.
In the musical comedy vein, Assembly also hosts The Horne Section, a late-night musical variety show that features a top-notch band and notable guests from around the Fringe. Alex Horne, star of four different shows at the fest, heads up five sharp multi-instrumentalists in the Spiegelment tent (pronounced four different ways on my way in), which looks and feels like a Depression-era circus tent. They nail improvised tunes with their drums, banjo, trumpet, horn, saxophone, keyboards, guitar and bass taking all direction from the audience. The opening number had the bassist playing in the key of F, the drummer playing Bossa Nova, the saxophonist playing “all 80’s-style sax,” and the keyboardist fingering “the Final Countdown.” Now that I’m describing it, it was funnier in the moment.
Horne’s guests included Peter Serafinowicz (who my friend described as “doing good-looking guy comedy”) who came on to do “Jazz & Jokes” where he delivered one-liners over an old lounge-style swing beat. Most of these jokes would probably be eye-rolling Tweets in another context, but they were entertaining in the show. Here’s a sample: “If I became a narcissist, I would hate myself” and “all I know about Ron Jeremy is that his first dog was name Jeremy and he grew up on Ron St.” He closed his set with Sinatra’s “New York New York” in a monotone voice with the band members only playing one note or tempo – again, funnier in the moment.
UPDATE ON WALKING THROUGH THE FRINGE: Back and forth from venues all over the city logs your feet plenty of miles. That is no reason for having to hear the Proclaimers “I’m Gonne Be (500 Miles)” about 500 times since I got here. Yes, they are a Scottish band and thematically-appropriate, but if I hear that song again I will walk 500 miles to murder the Reid brothers wherever they sleep.