The Edinburgh Festival as Neverending Open University Course in Comedy – Module 23

I took a long time to finally put on a solo show at the Edinburgh Fringe festival. This was foolish of me, I have no idea why I wasted the 90s with a few gang shows and little more.
Though Edinburgh is increasingly viewed as showroom and trade fair, where we are all meant to lie in bikinis on top of the shiny red bonnet of our ideas, it is still the best Open University course in stand up. The course is unending, each year is a new way of finding success and failure (as well as some old ways that can keep repeating themselves, some lessons are easy to forget, over and over again.).

The clubs were a good first training slope. You are confronted by a broad array of audiences with different expectations and in different states of mental disarray. Though it never seems so on the day, the deaths that occur teach you far more than the successes. For anyone who wishes to be a stand up, I think this sometime thumbscrew or rack of stag nights, aggressors, or the plain disinterested, is good training. It can have limitations, though many are self-imposed by ego and/or fear of penury. I would progress over months, trying new material and new approaches, then, on a night where the audience eyes seemed reddest, I would revert to an old, safe routine, and before I knew it, the increasingly tatty ideas created by a mind ten years younger than my own, would be back in the set. By 2002, I had started to realise where I thought I wanted to go. I had fallen out of love with stand up on a few occasions. Twice had let my diary thin out to one or two gigs a week, but stand up is a stealthy illness. I had been on a few TV shows, written many more, and dabbled in Radio 4 and Radio 2. It would be 2004 when I risked my first solo show.

It was based on a drunken conversation with Danny Wallace. We were talking about how many people claim they are award winners because they have been associated with a BAFTA, Sony or Perrier award winning show. I totted up what I could count as my awards if I ignored the fact that I had never been to the podium to collect the gold statuettes, but brushed close to production. This became The Award Winning Robin Ince, Star of The Office, Series 1, Episode 5 (first bit), complete with a poster of me in The Office with a flash going off in my face so my details were obscured. Due to lack of preparation, it was predominantly a disaster. In the first few days, everyone laughed, but then something went wrong, and the struggle of sanity commenced. Emotions were skewiff, panic set in. The sense of being scrutinised during the fringe, the fear that everything rests on this one show, make people quite unwell physically and mentally (not helped by flat in London flooding with sewage the day before the first night, on top of a weekly 6am flight back to London to record a radio show I was increasingly loathing). By the last 10 days, I had turned it into something I did not despise. It was one of those shows that people either totally “got” or were left blank faced, there was not much in between. Though it was the cause of some of the darkest moments in my career, it taught me an enormous amount.
It was what led to me starting my Book Club nights which cemented long term friendships and working relationships with Josie Long, Joanna Neary and Martin White, and was the seed for the 9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People shows and the science nights in Hammersmith with Brian Cox, as well as a book, some interesting TV pilots, and many other things. It was this failure, this show that led to me hiding in tunnels to conceal my unexpected weeping, that made me want to cut into my own skin, that led to an explosion of creativity. In the toxic, drowning fog of that August, I would have predicted none of that.

In 2005, I came up with a far more successful show, Robin Ince is as Dumb as You. This was my first full on sceptic/science show with lots of sideswipes at the media. As usual, i was trying to deal with too many ideas, something which has become a sort of lengthy “catchphrase” in my shows. Every year, I make my notes, I see a narrative arc, and every year, at 59 minutes (or 2hrs 10 if it’s a tour show), I yelp, “oh balls, I haven’t told you all these things”…panic…even fast talking…the end.

I should have built on my 2006 show, but decided to attempt a new artistic disaster, Robin Ince Isn’t Waving, a prescient title, as I did seem to be drowning on quite a few nights. With Martin White on accordion, we tried to do stand up with impromptu soundtrack. There were two or three routines that survived beyond the fringe, but much was binned soon after. I dabbled in philosophy and ideas about appearance and thuggery. It had its moments, but it was a step back. (in both 2005 and 2006 we also put on Book Club shows, the run of these was my blue blanket)

In 2007, Robin Ince Knew This Would Happen was a return to the areas of 2005, stories of Darwin, Tycho Brahe, being eaten by crocodiles, and general celebration of the universe via joy and fury.

From 2008, I had a son, so the idea of a summer away to psychologically self harm was removed from the calendar. I did some Free Fringe shows for a few days, I forget the title, but I found holding a bucket after a gig (for money, not because I was being sick), far easier than I imagined. From this year onwards, I remained sane. More than that, I learnt to love the fringe. I ignored reviews, my own and other people’s, I avoided the main venues where the performers become the most fragile and pugilistic. I got on with trying to create stuff.

As with this year, I have usually done half runs of new shows, usually a solo show, a lunchtime science gang show, and the angry show with Michael Legge. This allows some audience members to see me talking softly and delightedly about the Large Hadron Collider, then an hour later seeing me screaming and topless as I climb over chairs and berate the audience for not being from telly, before a little break for my evening stand up show that is somewhere between the two.

In 2011, I did 4 shows a day. I lost my voice with in 4 days but loved the fear and adrenaline that greeted me each morning.

I have learnt to stop worrying, or maybe just keep my worrying to its usual daily level, and just try to create something that makes me and the people watching happy. This won’t happen every day, certainty of reaction creates hints of comedy as product. That’s my alibi.

This year I am lazily performing a mere two shows a day, though I presume I’ll say yes to guest spots from 10am to 3am. I have done four previews, each one with an entirely different 60 minutes of material, this sadly does not mean I have 4 hours of stuff, just quite a few hours of potential stuff. I do have a moving scan of my brain to reveal, and I know what I want to say, now I just have to stand forward and see what happens.
Wake up, time to learn.

This year’s fringe shows are at The Stand 3 at 16.25 and the Wee Red Room (with Michael Legge) at 22.00, this and all UK tour information is HERE

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1 Response to The Edinburgh Festival as Neverending Open University Course in Comedy – Module 23

  1. Michael says:

    I’m not at the Fringe this year, because I needed to actually take an actual holiday (although having said that what I’m doing is sailing a tall ship, because I don’t seem to do relaxation). However I look forward to returning, possibly with a show of my own eventually. Watching shows there is always an education, although with some open slot nights I’ve seen it’s very much an education on how not to do it!

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