Edinburgh — “You cannot leave the Fringe until you’ve seen Simon Munnery.” Munnery is a staple of the Edinburgh Fringe, this year taking to the stage at The Stand Comedy Club through the run. With his effortless ability to wax poetic in intricate rants and clever prose, Munnery is the prototype for intellectual British stand-up. There was no angle to Hats Off For The 101ers, and Other Material, which he mocked by pointing at the shaky erector set arch behind him, declaring “every Fringe show needs a structure.” He drew in a standing crowd of true comedy fans and comics alike, including the two old friends standing next to me: John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman. I call them “old-friends” because when you look at them side-by-side, they look like a British Simon & Garfunkel.
Munnery (pictured to the right) was the perfect punctuation for a Fringe that exposed a wealth of insight into international comedy sensibilities. Even with a variety of accents, dialects , and languages being spoken, certain subjects like economy, politics, classicism and sex are universal while slang, social convention, and ironic boundaries varied.
I learned you can get the joke even if you don’t get the reference. I learned that my ears were capable of hearing rapid-fire English that is spoken in the UK. I learned that jokes are still about surprise, only in the UK, the punch lines hit you from the right instead of the left (that’s a driving joke). However, I was yet to solve the mystery of what was distinctly Scottish comedy.
Owner of The Stand, Tommy Sheppard, offers his take: “comedians in Scotland are certainly more of a dark or vulgar character. You’ll find a lot of humor Scottish comics do is bleak. Maybe that goes with the weather. The language is very earthy, very industrial, but our comedians and audiences find it more palatable.” Tommy has been at the core of the comedy scene for 15 years, when the Stand first began in the basement of WJ Christie’s pub as a stage for comedians without one for the Edinburgh Fringe. “Edinburgh has so much going on in August, but then September would come and there was nothing carrying that forward. No permanent presence that we comedy fans felt needed filled.” Their first box-office was £22 and now they are expanding to their third club in Newcastle this October.
Tommy is the kind of guy I expected to meet in Scotland – quite affable, a bit stocky like my family, equal parts casual and impeccable. He’s an old-school club-owner and comedy fan in the best way. “I tend to like the comics who have something to say. That’s what our audiences like – not a bunch of the over-the-top showmanship, selfish calls for applause for the compere that is really for you, and jokes about sex with your girlfriend like a lot of young American comics do.” Apparently Stewart Lee did a killer bit at the Stand’s finale show taking the piss out of American stand-ups with a similar sentiment. We all know the type of comic they are referencing and have often watched them rewarded (go watch reruns of the now-cancelled Lopez Tonight for examples) to spike their superficial careers. When you look at a landscape of comedians from around the world in one place at one time, you find that the quality distinctions are made on substance, that comedians stick around longer when they continue to mine the depths for their material – when they are “considered, thoughtful acts” as Tommy values.
“We find great American acts through our great relationship with Comic Strip Live, Gotham, and those clubs in New York. They let us know when there’s a good guy to take a look at. Great comedians come to us from America – Doug Stanhope, Lee Camp now, W. Kamau Bell and Hannibal Buress both doing big things here now.” Plenty of Americans fare quite well and may even enjoy the fact that they don’t have to contend with the dreaded “check-drop.” “There is no table service here. None of those distractions.” Lee Camp interjects: “no table service is the greatest thing to ever happen to comedy!” For those of you who also dislike drink minimums, know that Tommy “finds the whole idea of a two-drink minimum risible. No one would come out and not have two-drinks.” Oh, and if you’re as incapable of sitting still like me, UK shows take place in “intervals” with an intermission during every show. “American clubs could learn a lot about running a place from us.”
Every show in the hundreds of thriving comedy clubs in the UK run a showcase with a low-grade hierarchy separating the acts. More reliable comedians close shows for a few bucks more, but there is not an emphasis placed on TV credits. Tommy points out that he “never bills comedians with their credits under their names.” He relates a story of passing the Comedy Cellar and noticing every act had a TV credit or three under their name “for a bunch of shows I’ve never heard of. These guys here have all written or appeared on shows but it’s not TV we’re looking to use as some endorsement for how funny they are in the club. It’s not regarded as part of their pedigree just because they can associate with broadcast.”
The Stand’s comedians may not be billed and marketed according to their TV credits, but I can’t help pointing out the practice employed heavily for every show at the Fringe. By the end of the festival, every poster promotes an act’s appearance on shows like Michael McIntyre’s Road Show while they get covered with more and more “four/five star reviews” from obscure publications. To this point, Tommy comments “well, that’s the Fringe. Who doesn’t have a great review from somewhere? And honestly, who hasn’t been on Michael McIntyre?”
“We have a healthier circuit here,” he says. “There are hundreds of comedians making a great living not having been on television.”
Tommy continues: “They are doing fine. The influence of TV is ridiculous in America and not great for comedy. Most American comics are trying to hone their seven-minutes of clean, safe, lowest common denominator material to break through on Conan or some other show and that doesn’t make for durable comedians.”
So what was distinctly Scottish at the Fringe? There was a show about a Scottish fudge shop that took place in an actual fudge shop. There was a flyer handed to me by a Scottish boy for a show called Flyer Boy. There were large, abrasive Scottish comedians perpetuating stereotypes alongside stringy Scottish comedians who were so drunk or accented that their jokes were indecipherable. There was a Scottish native doing a show about William Wallace, dressed as the Mel Gibson version. That’s a Scotsman advocating an historically inaccurate film shot in Ireland and produced, directed, and starring an Australian. There’s bagpipers every 50 feet on the Royal Mile. That’s real Scottish, right? When Fred McAuley, a notable comedian and radio personality in Scotland, was given the Set List topic “Bloody Bagpipes,” he riffed that “there are plenty of bagpipes now while all the tourists are in for the Fringe, but when everyone leaves, the Scots are thinking ‘bloody bagpipes!’”
The Fringe was not about country, it was about making bold new choices that every so often pay off. You trust your instincts as much as you doubt them, finding yourself gaining an unexpected bit of perspective and building a small cache of regrets. I have only a few post-Fringe regrets: not catching the unique physical comedy of The Boy with Tape on His Face, missing out on the mere two shows Flight of the Concords-meets-8 Mile Abandoman did, never making time for Tim Key: Masterslut, and never finding an opening for Alex Horne: Seven Days in the Shower. I wouldn’t say I did it wrong when there simply is just too much to do.
The last day of the festival turned out to be the nicest one. The sun appeared four times and the streets were far less trafficked than ever. Set List’s final show was spectacular: Phill Jupitus, Jimmy Carr, Richard Herring, Simon Munnery, Andy Zaltzman, Rich Hall, Hal Sparks, Greg Proops and an actual baby (at 2:30 am). Sans baby, we attended comedian-filled after-parties for The Stand, the Gilded Balloon (featuring one last blowout performance from Axis of Awesome) and Pleasance (featuring free booze!) – everyone riding the fence as to whether they were blowing it out or refusing to let go.
Often-times the audience’s appetite is satiated long before the comedian’s. It’s best to know when to say “good night” before you lose your dignity. You don’t want to be the last drunk at the party stumbling around the cobbles outside. Know when the joke has ended or the joke will be on you. So farewell to the circus, the lunacy, the orderly chaos. Farewell to the smell of urine, vomit, mold and spilled ale. Farewell to the staff that helped everyone get where they needed to go. Farewell, Edinburgh Fringe. Until next time…I’m going to the registry to find out if I am eligible for dual citizenship.
UPDATE ON THE EDINBURGH FRINGE: It’s over. 1,877,119 tickets were issued, not including the attendance at the 607 non-ticketed free shows. There were 41,689 performances of 2,542 shows in 258 venues. The Fringe brought £142 million to the Scottish economy. Yet, when you return to the site, it has all disappeared like a fever dream that never happened.