Edinburgh — What a difference a day makes. Being the last day of the Fringe for half the shows, there is a weight lifted off many a shoulders. The healed eyes of Chris Coxen are looking more alive, updating that he “feels like Tim Robbins when he breaks out of prison in The Shawshank Redemption knowing I don’t have to flyer anymore.” On-stage, Keith Farnan, Phill Jupitus and Co, Marcel Lucont, the Pajama Men (pictured above) and others at the end of the tunnel are playing loose and free. For others still needing to fill a room tomorrow, the desperation remains.
Best of the Fest is a daytime sampler-pack that Assembly puts on in the Spiegelment Tent every single day. The lineup changes but the purpose doesn’t: put up a variety of acts and let them plug their show at the end of their set. With plenty of aged weekenders around, the tent is filled with lost-looking spectators who don’t seem to have any concept of what they are looking for. Between this crowd and the one I joined at Paul Merton a few days back, I’m realizing that people under that age of 40 just don’t really go to shows before 5 pm. I should be sleeping off a hangover, yet here I sit.
“Best of the Fest” should be called “Mixed Bag” or “Something for Everyone Who is Dumb.” Kevin Cruise was the MC, “playing” a bad cruise-ship entertainer. The crowd seemed to enjoy him simply as a great entertainer because they don’t understand irony. Nina Conti was next, bringing out her Scottish Granny ventriloquist puppet, proving once again that there is limitless comedy mileage you can get when crabby old puppets say the darndest things! Right, Jeff Dunham? Aussie comedian Domo Clark followed with as much smiley-energy as he could muster to try reaching all sectors of this three to 300 year-old-audience. With the exception of a solid bit about noisy pigeons, Domo’s high-energy physicality seemed forced. Even the kids shut down his crowd work when he asked “do you like superheroes, kids?” to set up a shadow-puppet bit in the light.
(Note: since it wasn’t comedy, it is out-of-scope, but I witnessed brilliance with the shadow-puppet show “Swamp Juice” from Canadian innovator NAME Find him.)
Card Ninja was more interesting. He is a New Zealand-based “half-Spanish, half-Chinese” comedian who incorporates cards-as-weapons-tricks into his set of jokes about his ethnicity. I had the feeling he has better, but his biggest laugh came from “having my ethnic background, I like to party, but only after I’ve finished my homework.” It’s 2:30 PM, people, what do you expect? He proved that there was a little life in this lame gathering of Fringe-goers, when he got laughs from uttering two f-bombs and sailing cards over their heads with a boomerang return. The Best of the Fest proved one undeniable fact: all people love hip accapello groups, The Magnets. That’s all.
Mixed results is also what I’m finding with improv shows, true to the nature of the form. It was fascinating to catch “Phill Jupitus: Quartet” two days after “Paul Merton: Impro Chums” and watch five different improvisers do nearly the same set of games and find it exponentially sharper. At Set List, I was lucky enough to become familiar with Jupitus (pictured to the left), Ian Coppinger, Andy Smart, Steve Steen, and their guest for the day, Greg Proops, but I had only seen them invent stand-up. No surprise that they fired-off golden laugh-line on after the other.
Most impressive to watch was their closing game I will title “Speak For Me” where each improviser provides the voice for another player while playing the physical component of a character as well. In other words, Proops voiced anything Jupitus said or did while Smart acted-out anything Jupitus spoke.
If it sounds like a mind-fuck on paper, just imagine how mesmerizing and impressive it is to watch. There was very little drag in the show and plenty of action.
Action was also what made the Pajama Men such a top-notch sketch show. Shenoah Allen and Mark Chavez are a comedy duo from Albuquerque, New Mexico (USA! USA! USA!) who tear through a seamless series of vivid sketch in one of the most buzzed-about hours at the Fringe. Dawning button-down pajamas, the two bring to life both grounded and cartoonish space-bots, annoying co-workers, cocky Latinos, dysfunctional families, bizarre bar-flies, mis-matched couples, and inept aliens. The voices were well-developed and distinct (some sounding a bit like Chris Parnell), but I certainly noticed the characters that got easier laughs were the ones who had British or Irish accents.
The sensibility of the sold-out 200-seat theater was precisely what Todd Barry described: they don’t laugh until the very end. I found myself being the sole laugh ringing out on dialogue with multiple hilarious albeit dark punchlines. At least everyone got on-board for this deliciously dark poem: “Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear. Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair. Because Fuzzy Wuzzy had cancer.”
Darkness was what surrounded Andrew Maxwell in his bare-bones solo hour “The Lights Are On.” Maxwell is an Irish raconteur and social-commentator with the most disarming giggle punctuating his more confrontational bits. He is willing to laugh at set-ups and punchlines while he casually roams the stage and pours himself water from a decanter. Maxwell was a runner up for the Fosters Comedy Award this year and deserved recognition if not the prize.
There was an unexpected cap to an already great lineup of shows with Keith Farnan’s Money, Money, Money. Looking like a haggard Irish rock-star, Keith took the Underbelly stage where Spank! carries-on every night, high-fiving the front row. He describes himself as “half-man, half geek: meek. I’m supposed to inherit something one day.” But through his lyrical, agile storytelling, you learn that what he stands to inherit (or currently is burdened by) is the immense debt of Ireland in a financially insecure World. Sound familiar? Ireland is 85 million pounds in debt to the IMF and the global recession remains courtesy of bankers and traders that decided “we want to sell things that don’t exist.” Making matters worse is the impossible riddle parents present their children: “we want you to be happy. And financially secure.” Can it be both? Does money buy happiness or cause misery?
Closing his final show of the festival, Farnan surveyed the crowd with genuine gratitude and stated that he had solved the riddle: he became a comedian. He ran off and found happiness by joining the circus at the cost of being surrounded by money. “My worst day as a comedian will still be better than my best day as a lawyer. But a little financial security would be nice.” A woman in the audience shared his sentiment as a teacher. She rightfully wouldn’t disclose her income to the audience – a good move applauded by Keith, feeling that she would have been judged, for better or worse, by everyone in the room based on her income. “If you make money, it’s always your round. If you’re poor, your friends don’t drink with you anymore.”
“Comedians spend a lot of money here on advertising, production, renting venues, renting the chairs – horror stories of comedians gaining overwhelming debt just for the chance to come out and entertain.” He finds three empty chairs in the front-row and comments “we even rent the empty chairs. There’s something quite poetic about that.” Those 10 pound seats were well-worth the cost since nobody leaves his show feeling poor or cheated. Time to find your own happiness, money be damned.
Economy makes comedy so much richer. Succinct, exacting wordplay from a singular, developed perspective aided with the timing to know when to push and when to hold back has been the mark of great comedians at the Fringe. Trying to get more bang for your buck by attending a showcase show will leave you feeling unfulfilled, much like greed. Don’t I understand the irony of that closing thought, given the length of this dispatch. Thanks for sticking around.
UPDATE ON TECHNOLOGY AT THE FRINGE: Somewhere in this expansive circus, my useless US Blackberry has flung itself from my bag. Now I have to find something else to pass the time other than Brick Breaker. And I’ve lost touch with America.