The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a festival unlike any other. The 65-year-old whirlwind event lasts the entire month of August and is essentially a free-for-all: interested performers merely have to book their own venue, travel, and accommodation, then show up, self-promote like mad, and pray you get butts in seats. It requires stamina, hustle, and an open and adaptive mind.
Not only are there music, theater, literature, film, cabaret, visual arts and street performance components competing for audiences, this year there are also 996 comedy works from all over the world. Here seven Los Angeles comedians discuss how they're faring, how the audiences are different in the U.K., and some of their most memorable Fringe moments.
Paul Provenza, comic and producer: I've come almost every year since my first time in 2001. I've done my own solo shows, I've produced other artists' shows, I've played parts in friends' shows — anything interesting that I could do here and fit into my schedule, I did. A couple of years I came with no solo show of my own, and just did late night stand-up spots in the countless cool, odd late night shows that happen here. (SPANK! – You love it! is a favorite, by the way.) Interestingly, those particular years were the only years I actually made money at the Fringe.
I've grown to think of the Fringe as a place to develop ideas I've been toying with and felt might become something interesting to do. I developed The Green Room here, and after a couple of years of feeling it out and tinkering with the format over 28 audiences in a row each year, I worked out what was interesting in it, and eventually even worked out possibilities of the format for television.
We are doing the same thing with Troy Conrad's genius format, Set List [which gives comics a list of topics to riff on right before they go onstage]. We've introduced this amazing show to the international comedy world here, and continue tweaking and playing with it all Fringe long, giving more comedians an opportunity to experience it and fall in love with it. Doing both The Green Room and Set List at the Fringe also gave other international festivals a chance to discover those shows, and invite them both all around the globe.
Troy Conrad, creator and co-producer of The Set List: We've just come off shooting most of the episodes for The Set List TV series on Sky Atlantic, and ran the show earlier this year at festivals in Melbourne, Sydney, Chicago, and Montreal, so Paul Provenza and I worked on writing creative topics for the comics on the show and fine-tuned what we give the performers on their “set list.” Doing these other festivals let us evolve and develop the show along with co-executive producer Barbara Romen. We came into this one ahead of the game in terms of preparation.
Greg Proops, performing his self-titled show and hosting his The Smartest Man in the World podcast at the Fringe: Over the decades I have performed at the Fringe a thousand or more times. My first year, in '93, a man had a heart attack at my show. He was huge and just keeled over with a loud thump. He was carried out by paramedics and the show resumed. I said, “It would have been awful if he died, but what a great story.” Because he was British he wrote me an apology for having a heart attack at my show. I comped him in later in the run. He lived. Last year I just did improv, The Set List and my podcast — where to my delight Scottish people brought up Satchel Paige because I speak of him on the show.
Kumail Nanjiani, who has a self-titled show at the Fringe, and co-hosts The Meltdown at Nerdist Theater: Unfortunately I had been busy with other projects, so I had been unable to really perform too much in order to prepare for this run. But I have been doing stand up for 10 years, so in a way I've been preparing for it for 10 years I guess.
Rick Shapiro, performing Rebirth at the Fringe: I am lucky because my show varies from night to night…so my prep was very, very different this year. Around me were people that never would have normally entered my life. I had trainers to help me get my legs back (60 days hospitalized and six weeks to get on a plane to Scotland). There was the “Princess Queen, best dancer ever” (self-titled), and Lance the All-American porterhouse, lock-stock-and-barrel athlete that were with me daily and then there was the yoga. Come on, if you have seen my face or my act, you know damn well I don't meditate and there is no serenity in my life. But they got me moving, and now I am here.
Provenza: This year we've brought over Eddie Pepitone, [San Francisco's] Will Franken and from The Aristocrats, Billy The Mime. All of them have been performers I've been working on getting to Fringe for a while, as I felt they would each find an appreciative audience that had never seen anything like any of them. Imagining them all sharing a flat is just a hilarious bonus.
Up next: Billy the Mime, and how U.K. audiences are different
Billy the Mime, performing a self-titled show: I had to figure out what U.K. audiences were familiar with so I could pick the right routines to do; there was a big opera about Anna Nicole Smith in London recently, but they don't really know anything about her. Same for Roman Polanski and the 13-year-old girl, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Jeffrey Dahmer and Jerry Sandusky. Luckily they do know about priests and altar boys, Michael Jackson, and abortions.
Conrad: I love the audiences here in the U.K. There are a lot of people at the festival who have seen a ton of stand-up and are jaded with mainstream, polished comedy. They are our target audience. They have an appreciation for things outside the mainstream and really appreciate the risks that the performers take on the show. They are really comedy-savvy audiences here, and they appreciate this format. It's similar in the states, but in general, the crowds in the U.K. are really passionate about seeing comedy created the way it is on Set List. Also, they consume way more alcohol here and stay out later — we've added a 1:15 a.m. show on weekends and they come out and hang out all night after the show.
Provenza: Audiences are really the same all over the world — on some nights or in particular venues they're rowdy and drunk; some nights they're perfectly brilliant. That never changes wherever you go on earth. But Edinburgh Fringe audiences are a particular subset. The crowds that come out for non-star-name comedy tend to be very comedy-literate and savvy — and seem to have done their homework online, familiarizing themselves with performers' material and sensibilities. The Fringe does bring out a lot of real, hardcore comedy fans — the best crowds for inventive and/or challenging comedians. There's a crowd there that knows they will find that at the Fringe in abundance. The problem is getting them all in to see you at the same time.
Proops: U.K. audiences are more aware the world exists. America will not laugh at MoBot jokes about Mo Farah the British runner from Somali. Our world is small and ends on Wilshire.
Shapiro: “Sorry,” “Thank you,” and “Excuse me,” they say that a lot. They aren't disjointed Republicans looking for fast, dull answers. The festival crowd is different overall; they are here for the show, not just the punchline. They are a more mature culture — it's just a fact.
Billy the Mime: They take things way more seriously over here. In my new routine, “Whitney Houston's Last Bath,” at the end, after taking pills, drinking champagne, beer, doing cocaine (this is true — see autopsy report) she drowns in bathtub, rises from her bathtub, literally flies to heaven, opens the pearly gates, gets a pair of wings and can sing gloriously again (I don't know if this is true.). The U.K. audience think it's a moving tribute and reverently watch, LA and NYC audiences were in hysterics. On the other hand the U.K. folk really got the “Charles & Diana: Not A Love Story” routine. How often do I get to show a pregnant woman throwing herself down the stairs to get her husband's attention? (Diana says she did this, on tape. I've heard it, you Doubting Thomases.)
Nanjiani: Haven't really been able to nail down too many differences yet. They seem more willing to go along with longer stories. Also, a lot of them spell color and honor with a “u.” And a lot of them think haggis is a reasonable thing to eat. Also, my 20 minutes diatribe on the ins and outs of cricket is working much better in the U.K.
Conrad: U.K. audiences seem to enjoy being called “cunts,” which is so different than in the U.S., where a mob of passive-aggressive PC hipsters would record it and put it on YouTube to try and ruin the comic by labeling them as a violent misogynist.
Eddie Pepitone, performing Eddie Pepitone's Bloodbath: It's overwhelming here in the sense that there are like 2,000 shows (I kid you not), castles and the most beautiful baroque architecture, thousands of artists running amok on the streets amid the locals queuing in line for the bus. It's a little scary being in a foreign land but the audiences have been great! So into comedy, and I am getting to see some amazing Brit and Scottish and Irish comics and they are amazingly talented people. So it's really cool, scary and intense at the same time. Trying not to get caught up in the hype of press being at shows and all that, but it's impossible not to!
Nanjiani: Instant coffee is not so bad. Jetlag can last a full week. Sticky toffee pudding is amazing. Pub food is amazing but will make you feel like a dick for eating it. The other shows around town, some of them are pretty magical. Clowns and mime acts are considered acceptable forms of entertainment here. Rain rain rain rain. There seem to be no street cats here. And it's cool to come to another country and find out comedy nerds are just as awesome here as back home.
Billy the Mime: Performing in a dark, damp cellar where the body snatchers and murderers Burke and Hare stored dead bodies is a challenge… Difficulty at first was that [audiences] took the show so seriously. So I got my friend of 33 years, Penn Jillette, to record an intro (recorded on his iPhone and sent to me — ah, the modern age) where he says, “If you don't like Billy the Mime, I don't like you,” added some peppy pre-show music: Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston (since they do appear in the show), brightened up the pre-show lighting…it made a huge difference. You need to set the tone.
Shapiro: My manager is watching my every move this year. I am just really disappointed that my health wasn't what it should have been for this trip. [My manager] Tracy and I consulted hundreds of doctors before coming here. They all said I could do it. I thought I could do it. It's weird when you are a rule-breaker and the laws of nature prove they are stronger. But they are not — I didn't die. Maybe nature is just better than carrying out its plan than I am.
Up next: the most memorable moments
Conrad: There is something memorable that happens every night [in The Set List]. Our most recent show, Phill Jupitus went up as Eddie Izzard and was brilliant. It wasn't as much of an impression than a full-fledged channeling. It was truly like watching Eddie do it. The other night Simon Evans was onstage and made a joke at the expense of Russell Howard, but what Simon didn't know is that Russell had walked in just seconds before and saw the whole thing. After Simon finished, Russell walked onstage as if he was the compare [emcee]. Nobody will forget that. Overall, every night has been full of discovery for the comics, since they're bringing out material that has never existed until that moment, and for me, Paul, and Barbara, it's been wonder and amazement at how well they play this game.
Provenza: There was a time when anything could spontaneously happen at the Fringe. One year, the power blew out at the Gilded Balloon, and some of us who were in mid-performance just took our audiences out to Bristo Square (no purple cow there at the time, just an empty square full of skateboarding kids) and continued our shows outside, audiences standing and seated on the steps around the square. It quickly turned into one big, giant show with everyone's audiences merging into one.
By the time the power went back on in the venues, the show outside had its own life and momentum that went on for hours, and comedians from around the Fringe were calling asking if it was still going on, and could they come perform there? No one was in charge, anything went, and it was full of life and surprises and brilliant performances — and whoever happened by and joined the crowd got a free show with some of the best comedians at the Fringe. It was a brilliant, spontaneous moment that became legendary–a great example of how adversity and disruption became just more fodder for exciting, creative things to just “happen.” Those days, I feel are long gone.
Proops: I learned everything over here. How to deal with a foreign country, albeit one that speaks a form of English, is a huge boost. After England, New Jersey isn't quite as scary. It is weirder but not scarier.
Billy the Mime: My high-school drama teacher, Robert Baker, taught me well: “Act well your part, there all honor lies.” Whether there are 15 people in the audience or a full house, do a damn good show. (FYI: Those 15 did give me standing ovation.) Be prepared. Be ready to shift and change and adapt. And think twice about doing the Fringe in a worldwide recession when they have the Olympics in London at the same time.
Nanjiani: Once this is all done, and months and months have passed, maybe then I'll be able to look back and decide if it really taught me anything about myself. Right now, I have another 10 shows to go!
Shapiro: I have a new reality, and I would rather die on the stage then sit at home and heal. However, this experience, the travel, the nightly nights…all of it has made me realize — rather, understand — that there is a reason the unknown is “unknown” and I am yet to experience what is known to me. I just know that what I wanted, what I was told I could have, and what I was given…I respect and honor my opportunities more today than I have ever in the past.
Provenza: The corporate money-making machinery of the big promoters have really taken the Fringe over and changed the experience for the worse. I've seen it happen over a decade or more. They've turned it into just an easy money maker for big TV names and star comedians who will sell 1000 seats a night for four weeks — seats they can sell anytime and in any U.K. city instead of sucking them away from the less-privileged performers the Fringe is meant to be about.
They have systematically taken over all legally approved public areas to promote shows, while prohibiting other artists from promoting within major areas of the venues they control, and ultimately have strangled the whole free-wheeling, artist-driven, grass-roots character of the Fringe into one of greed and corporate interests above the interests of the lesser-known artists it was created by and for.
But like shark's teeth, the Free Fringe and such are growing to replace the original Fringe, which has become as big and undemocratic and institution that it replaced when it evolved. I have great hopes for that.