How to Have Fun At The Edinburgh Festival
One Comedian's Overview of the Edinburgh Festival
Firstly, if venturing up to the Edinburgh Festival this year, make sure you have two things - a healthy bank account and an umbrella with you. The chances are you’ll need the latter on more than one occasion and the former for the duration. During the Festival, Edinburgh is expensive.For starters, the price of most Edinburgh flat rentals for the month of August make even Londoners weep.
It is true that the Festival does make a lot of money but invariably not for the comics. It is said the average Edinburgh show loses in excess of £8,000. I know one successful comic who sold out every night apart from one and still managed to lose £8,500; such are the economics of putting shows on at the Edinburgh Festival. It’s supposed to be the Fringe i.e. cheap and accessible. However, stories abound of people spending thousands of pounds on PR and to buy posters the size of a small car. As such, Edinburgh is in danger of becoming even more of an exclusive domain of the middle classes than it already is.
Fortunately there seems to be a sea change with the rise of the free festivals (at the last count I believe there are now 3 – Free Festival, Free Fringe, Freestival) and venues like The Stand who make putting on a show in Edinburgh affordable to those who don’t happen to have a spare £8-£10,000 to lose and/or rich parents. When I first went to the Festival tickets were £3. I went to see 5 shows in one day. Nowadays some of the tickets for the Fringe are £10, £15+. This is seriously going to limit how many shows most people are likely to go and see. Given those prices, people are less likely to take a chance on acts they don’t know. Most people don’t mind spending £3 on someone they haven’t heard of. However taking a punt and spending a tenner on someone you might not like is a completely different scenario. As a result, it would seem that a lot of people are now spending money on acts they know (i.e. they’ve seen them on the telly) and then go to one of the myriad of shows on offer at one of the Free Festivals.
The Free Festivals are called such because acts don’t have to pay £1,000s for the room and the shows on at the Free Festivals have a free entry policy. Instead the audience is asked to donate money afterwards, usually by throwing some loose change into a bucket on the way out. As a result it makes Edinburgh more affordable to comics and audience alike. With the real likelihood that the comic might actually make rather than lose money from their show, it is not surprising that more and more established comics are now performing at the Free Festivals. This of course has the added advantage that the general public can see some great comedy talent and not need to pay £10/£15 a go for the privilege. However if you are going up as a punter and you enjoyed the show, do make sure you show your appreciation and put something in the bucket. There is nothing more disheartening as a comic when you’ve had a good show and people shuffle out, eyes downcast, trying to avoid both you and the bucket. Particularly, if like me, you’re size 18, dressed in a bright red frock, and packed together in a very small room, the chance of them not being able to see you is, all things considered, rather minimal.
The flip side of the coin for the general public looking for a good laugh is that alongside some highly-skilled comics you will sadly find one-hour shows from people who don’t even have a strong 10 minutes let alone an hour. Now an hour is a long time to fill even for experienced and skilled comics. So who knows why someone who probably has problems getting paid 20 minute slots the rest of the year would insist on doing an hour despite the evident dearth of material, experience and stage presence they have at their disposal. After all, if you have problems holding an audience’s attention for 10-20 minutes, the chances are it’s not going to get any easier if you stay on stage for longer.Why would anyone do that, you ask? Well, presumably - besides lacking a keen sense of reality, they harbour the foolhardy hope that if they go to Edinburgh, they’ll be discovered and find television glory as the next Jack Whitehall/Russell Brand/Russell Kane. But in their rush to be famous they forget that comedy is a skill and like any skill you need to put the work in – and that means writing and gigging and yet more gigging. It’s said one of the reasons The Beatles were so good (their innate talent notwithstanding) is that they spent 10,000 hours slogging away playing the clubs in Hamburg before they made the big time. It’s symptomatic of our current X-Factor mentality that you can hear people (including people who supposedly “work in comedy”) be taken aback to hear that the likes of Mickey Flannigan weren’t just going a couple of years before making it big.
I remember seeing Mickey Flannigan’s show in 2007 where he was nominated for Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Comedy Awards. Along with Hattie Hayridge’s, his show was one of the funniest shows I saw that year. I didn’t stop laughing from beginning to end - much to the annoyance of the people sitting in front of me. (I have a very distinctive laugh). The show was a comedic tour de force. But by 2007 Mickey had been going for 10 years and it showed not only in the abundance of brilliant material at his disposal but in his loveable comedy persona which sold the material so well.
That is how to do Edinburgh. Doing an hour before you are ready is definitely not. People in the industry have long memories. If you get seen too early, all you end up doing is playing catch up. It’s a similar scenario to when you do an open spot at a big club. If it goes badly then it’s going to be much harder to get a second chance than it was to get into the club in the first place.
Edinburgh is also of course networking central. Acts will stay out till the early hours of the morning drinking, socialising and catching up on all the gossip. It’s also a good way of gaging how far up (or down) you are on the comedy ladder. The litmus test is by noting how much other people blank you or insist at looking over your shoulder while talking to you in the hope their eye will glance upon someone more famous. If you can, pace yourself or you may well lose the will to live towards the end of the Festival or find you’ve come down with some dreaded lurgy. I remember seeing one well-respected MC so out of it, he was almost unable to speak while mcing a show on the last day of the festival. Not the most ideal of combinations for a stand up comic.
Then there are the reviews. It’s Murphy’s Law that if the show goes brilliantly, then obviously no critic will be in. If the show goes so badly, that when you check your watch, you realise with horror that you still have 59 minutes left (this actually happened to someone I know); then rest assured several critics will be in that night. In addition, most comics will always, without exception, concentrate on anything that can be construed as negative within a review no matter how positive the general tone of that review is. Some reviewers also seem to have it in for certain comics. I know of one established act who was reviewed in Edinburgh one year in someone else’s review when they weren’t even up there performing!
Some comics deal with reviews by refusing to read them while others get friends to filter them out for them. Just remember no review can make or break your career and even the most successful comedians have had negative reviews. There’s the infamous one of Tim Minchin from 2005 where a reviewer for The Guardian wrote in a comprehensively negative piece “you're left with a bog-standard stand-up with a silly voice and a few good songs”. Minchin has since co-wrote an Olivier-Award winning musical, Matilda, currently lives in LA and has appeared in hit US TV shows. The review must have stung at the time, but I doubt that Tim Minchin (nor anyone else for that matter) pays it much heed today. Stewart Lee has previously posted negative reviews on his Edinburgh posters. Considering the high regard he’s held in by many in the business this does nothing for the reputation of the credited reviewer.
Of course good reviews can help direct people towards your show. While awaiting your five-star review to point the crowds your way, there is always that necessary evil - flyering. Now if you are an audience member and want to avoid being handed flyer after flyer, then the trick is to walk around Edinburgh with a bunch of flyers in your hand. Acts will leave you alone assuming you are a performer. As for the art of flyering itself, I’m hopeless at it. My advice would be to pay someone who isn’t. In fact, I hate flyering so much that when I did my own little half hour show in 2008, I came back with most of the boxes of flyers intact. Anyone want one? (I have about 4,950 going spare). I did try and enrol my mother as flyerer-in-chief but as she tended to get aggressive if people didn’t take one, I decided that this was probably not in line with official fringe policy (I didn’t check) and we went to a local pub for a drink or two instead.
A much more enjoyable way of attracting an audience is to do guest spots at other people’s shows/compilation shows and then flyer that show afterwards. For the general public, these compilation shows are a good way of getting to see lots of different acts. There are numerous such shows on throughout the festival – including those at the free venues – where you will see a plethora of acts – some bad, some good, some possibly even brilliant. The advantage of going to see these shows is that if anyone takes your fancy, you can check out what shows they are doing elsewhere. In 2007 I remember performing in one alongside Sarah Millican at Laughing Cows Edinburgh. Her show that year went on to win a top comedy award. That’s the beauty of Edinburgh; you never know who you might stumble across.