EDINBURGH — “Are you good, are you well? Are you having a good Fringe?” Apparently it is mandatory for every comedian at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to open their set with that inane line of questioning. A London comedian to remain nameless carried on for nearly three minutes at the top of his set, confirming that people in the audience were “good” and asking what their names were. It was like watching a shy plus-one try to work a room of strangers.
I will concede to the comedians doing an hour or a one-man show sans any opener or emcee, they are easing into the show. Essentially, they become all parts of a traditional club lineup: emcee (polling the audience and taking some stabs at their comfort level), feature (dropping some confident material and doing some more elaborate crowd-work), and headliner (getting laughs at will but also sitting back and making bold statements based on the activity earlier in the show). That’s the arc of most UK hour-long solo stand-up performances. It should also be noted that most shows have run 21 or more consecutive performances at this point, so a little mental laziness might be expected.
With only a few days remaining in the festival, it has become necessary to choose solo shows wisely and take in a series of showcases to really get a taste. Thus, I attended the Comedy Reserve, featuring four of the UK’s best up-and-coming comedians (as all the showcases purport to do) carrying 15 minutes of their best. Unfortunately, since I was also running from Pleasance Courtyard to Pleasance Dome from Matt Green’s show, I was too late to catch Luke Benson. Between his Scottish accent and hearing him muffled through a thick door, I was only able to make out a couple of jokes clearly – my favorite of which: “I played Call of Duty with my Grandfather and he recognized someone.”
Standing outside was a little bittersweet. While I had to miss the first part of the show, it was refreshing to be told “late-comers aren’t usually admitted, especially now that the available seats are in a distracting part of the room. So we will only let you in if it won’t disturb the show.” That’s a lenient version; most venues won’t allow you in at all once the doors have been closed. What comedy show in America would turn away another ass in the seat just because that ass was tardy? Audiences in the UK are supposed to have more respect; some of them missed the memo.
The Comedy Reserve was more interesting in the circumstances than in the actual comedy. Bi-sexual “poof” from London, Joe Lycett (pictured to the right), waded into the crowd almost immediately, only to be trapped in a crowd-work black hole. The older gentleman seated in front of me repeated the vague responses “absolutely” or “possibly” with every question Joe asked him. “What’s your name? What do you do for work? What’s your favorite kind of cheese?” “Absolutely.” Not sure where he was going with the cheese question, but this was clearly going nowhere. This man’s friends were embarrassed but also chose being equally vague in answering Joe’s straightforward queries (no pun intended). Finally, it occurs to Joe that, being the last weekend of the festival, a lot of industry was in-town scouting talent and perhaps that was the big mystery. Bingo! The man is a head of comedy for BBC 3. “Possibly.”
Jim Campell (the affable, funny compere) fell into his own audience spiral: “Anyone here on a date?” No response. “Okay, so everyone in here is celibate.” Yup, that is a correct assessment of the audience. Well done. One of Matt Green’s jokes fell flat: “It was mismanaged. Must’ve been from North London.” No laughs. “What are we, a crowd of Northerners?” I don’t even know what that would imply, but I certainly know I’m not from there. Since the crowd of mostly Brits didn’t laugh, I’m going to just assume I didn’t miss anything on that joke.
“Crowd work is to be expected” is what I’m told time and again out here, but it often seems manufactured. Personally, I have only been heckled once in my shows at the Fringe and it was by a quite-pissed (drunk) Scottish lad who felt the urge to shout out “West Ham!” and start naming his favorite footballers. Other than that, UK audiences have only “invited” crowd work with silence to jokes that I or other comedians felt deserved a better response.
“Just tell the joke!” is the frustrated mantra of international comedy aficionado and friendly face working the Fringe, Jessica Mozes. “Tell them why the joke works, don’t ask them.” Admittedly, I can be guilty of this myself which is why it is so frustrating to watch other comedians do it. Why do you need to validate their connection to your premise with a meaningless question like “we all excited for the Olympics in London?” At the point of asking an audience if they relate to or have experienced the next premise, a comedian is declaring they are either unsure about the joke or haven’t considered a better transition. Either way, confidence is lost on both sides.
Veteran American stand-ups at the Fringe have noted “comedy over here is like the American scene in the 80’s: anyone with the ability to stand before an audience and speak coherently into a microphone is making money.” This is worth noting when you take in acts that appear to be regarded quite well on the scene here and are underwhelming in skill. Up-and-coming showcase acts are four or five years into their careers, so naturally aren’t going to be strutting the stage and challenging the crowd.
There is the approach of meeting the audience at their level or making the audience meet you at yours. Then there’s Neil Hamburger (pictured above) who seems to loathe just being in front of an audience. Embodying the underbelly of an old-school Vegas lounge act that has long past his prime, Hamburger’s miserable character challenges the audience to consider what they consider comedy. His jokes were groaners, either because they were offensive or punny, such as “Why did Britney Spears get addicted to cocaine? Because Kevin fed-her-lines.” Or “why did the sexual deviant love hummus? Because the chick pees.” His subject matter was intentionally trivial: Wham!, Steven Tyler, Britney Spears, Limp Bizkit, UB40, the Smurfs and so on, causing no less than eight walk-outs. Serious walk-outs yelling “you’re shite” and “one of the worst, mate.” To which he replied “I thought we were having the time of our lives” before hurling pennies at them.
Hamburger is either meta-comedy or anti-comedy. Holding five drinks under his arm, greasing his bizarre hair across his forehead, surrounding himself in deflated balloons, and yelling “why?!” at the start of every joke truly makes you wonder what statement he is making. At the very least, the audience remains merely those who came to watch him. After urging everyone to “give yourselves a round of applause for coming out,” he then chastised everyone for being “narcissistic assholes. You don’t applaud the audience! You applaud the performers. You just sat there in the dark and did nothing!”
Take Glenn Wool as a solid example of a comedian charging forth. He delivered joke after joke using an impressive tool-belt of styles and didn’t dare ask the audience to catch up if they fell behind. In fact, when he was heckled, he just kicked them out with their opinion of him rendered inconsequential. Not to say that crowd work is weak or can’t be used effectively (Read Part 8 about Glen Wool) since comedians like Jimmy Pardo use it masterfully. Crowd work should be a device, not a crutch. Comedy Reserve comedian Julian Dean who gave no effort to crowdwork, managed to triumph with a few jokes over the mediocre audience such as “my wife and I are not ready for kids, which is unfortunate for our two children.” That’s a funny joke, right? Anyone have kids in here? No? A bunch of pro-choicers reading this?
Writers have long held that “an audience doesn’t know what they want. If they did, they wouldn’t be the audience.” Doing crowdwork can elevate a show and dealing with hecklers can cement your authority. But watching many UK comics dive into the crowd in order to move the set along has shown it to be a trivial and ineffective choice. Who knows who is sitting there and what they have to say. Or not say.
UPDATE ON FRINGE AWARDS: Adam Riches won the Foster’s Best Comedy Show Award for his show “Bring Me the Head of Adam Riches.” Humphrey Ker won the Best Newcomer Award for “Humphry Ker is Dymock Watson: Nazi Smasher!” and the Foster’s Panel Prize went to “The Wrestling” which was a one-off show where Andrew Maxwell and Brendon Burns narrated a live wrestling match between comedians and “professional” wrestlers. I will leave the Fringe having seen none of these shows.