Wednesday 10 August 2011

Fringe Drawback #1

There are plenty of thing wrong with the Edinburgh Fringe. I glossed over them in the last post, and I propose to gloss over most of them in this post too. I merely mention the one that is of the most interest to regular reads of this blog, and comedy writers in general.

The drawback in question is this: The Fringe does not reward good comedy writing as much as good comedy performance. If you're a theatre-type, there are Fringe Firsts for well-written plays, and that's all fine and large, as Bertie Wooster would say. But the big comedy prizes are undoubtedly skewed towards the writer/performer, and the vast majority of comedy shows are by and starring writer/performers. Every now and then you get a bunch like The League of Gentleman, which contain a non-performing writer, but this kind of arrangement is the exception, rather than the rule.

This isn't necessarily a good or bad thing. But it is a thing. Okay, probably a bad thing. I guess it happens because the Fringe is ultimately a complete free-for-all - an unsubsidised Hayekian arts festival. No attempt is made to link writers with performers, or performers with writers (and nor should there be).

The result of this is there are dozens of shows put on by performers/actors who aren't really writers. And they struggle to make the standard hour-long format work. Writing a show that lasts half an hour is pretty hard. Writing a show that lasts an hour is very difficult. Stagecraft and experience will get you so far, but it won't quite paper over the cracks. My experience of the dozens of Edinburgh shows I've seen is that the good shows tend to be a brilliant performer making ordinary material sparkle. Sometimes you get a brilliant performer with brilliant material (eg Bill Bailey (see last post) and these types often win the big fizzy liquid prize). But the Edinburgh comedy shows I see are normally okay, but could do with a major rewrite, and serious edit and some extra jokes.

Impact on Television
All of the above, however, does have one big consequence. Producers and commissioners who are looking for the next big thing, they keep seeing writer/performers. This has coincided with a shift towards writing/performing in television terms, and therefore the panel game, sketch show and chat show where comedians talk to other comedians who have been made famous by panel games and sketch shows.

There are dozens of suitable candidates for a seat on the next panel game. But the next Great British Sitcom seems elusive. It's easy to forget that the vast majority of great British sitcoms are written by writers with no interest in performing themselves. I'm sure Clement and Le Frenais, John Sullivan, Esmonde and Larbey, Galton and Simpson, Carla Lane and the like would have run a mile from an Edinburgh show of their own. And yet Edinburgh is a huge engine room of comedy in Britain today. It has also been forgotten that the great comedians of the past had writers and often didn't write much of their own material.

I have no solution to this problem. The BBC do have The Writers Room and are doing their best to encourage new writing. But my advice to writers would be to keep writing scripts, but if you come across a comedian or funny actor, grab them, write for them and make them a star. It seemed to work for Richard Curtis.

Happy Fringe-ing.

Monday 8 August 2011

Fringe Benefits and other crap puns with 'Fringe' in the title

And so the internationally acclaimed fringe festival that has been out of control for years has kicked off again. It's over three weeks long. Everyone knows that's too long. It's unsustainable, but staggers on, consuming the life-savings of comedians, theatre companies and entrepeneurs. From a distance the entire enterprise is preposterous and bewildering.

Until you get there.

I've never taken drugs. Seriously. Had one puff of a cigarette and coughed. Never been into booze either. But Edinburgh is a drug - and it's taken me years to kick the habit. My first trip to Edinburgh was for my sister's wedding was in 1993, I think. Just after I left school. I went to see Moray Hunter & Jack Docherty do a two-man show, having seen them on Absolutely. Even though I was huge fans, the show itself was pretty ordinary. It was a fitting start to my Edinburgh experience - hype, expense, excitement and mild disappointment.

I was determined to take my university revue (Durham) there. They had performed at the Fringe in 1994, I think - a show called Toilet Humour which contained the wonderful Alex Macqueen (Thick of it, Inbetweeners et al). And so my rag-bag revue did a show in 1996 called 'The Usual Sketches' at St John's Church Hall (which has been re-branded several times since then) Somehow we broke even. We returned sharper, tighter and funnier in 1997 and did Massive Deja-Vu at The Gilded Balloon and lost a fortune. But had fun. (Hugh Laurie came to see our show.) Then I returned in 1999 with two members of that revue with a show called Infinite Number of Monkeys, which was nominated for Perrier Best Newcomer. Then another show in 2000, Infinite Number of Monkeys Do Gravity, and then a shorter run in 2001, Infinite Number of Monkeys: The Complete Works. (All above starred the artist currently known as Tim FitzHigham who has been a fringe staple for most of the years since.) Then there was a sketch show in 2002, or maybe 2003, called Innocent Bystanders containing Alex Macqueen again, a duo now known as Domestic Goddi and the now-retired Sports correspondent, Jonny Saunders (from Chris Evans's Breakfast Show).

I recall all above with fondness. I have ignored in my mind the hours spent giving out flyers and promoting the various shows. I have ignored the stress, the rain, the resentment at the success of others less 'worthy', the dreadful things I ate and the awful reviews. I remember only things like regularly standing next to a nice young Kiwi chap called Brett who was promoting a little music double-act bizzarely called Flight of the Concords. (What happened to him? Back in NZ now, probably. Just sad.) I remember frisby in the park, a few full houses, some good reviews, a Perrier Newcomer nod and seeing Bill Bailey for the first, second and third time at the George Square Theatre. (I got in free the first two times with my Gilded Balloon pass. To ensure I got in a third time, I bought a ticket with my own money.)

Since 2003, I have only really visited Edinburgh during the fringe a few times. I've planned and plotted plenty of new shows to take up, even to the point of creating show titles, making enquiries and setting up accounting spreadsheets full of wildly optimistic numbers. My wife, rightly, rolls her eyes, knowing full well that professional and personal commitments - and lack of thousands of pounds to lose - will prevented my return with a show of my own anytime soon. But I still get withdrawal symptoms.

In Praise of Edinburgh
There is plenty to be said about Edinburgh - mostly in favour, actually. It forces comedians to write new material annually. Annually! A new hour of material! Most American comedians would look at that as suicidal. For them, it's mostly honing an act over several years, aiming to get a six minute set which will land them a slot on The Tonight Show. And yet the British, and quasi-British, comedians rise to challenge. Similarly, sketch groups throw themselves together to create something that is frequently dreadful, but occasionally inspired. Somewhere, I have a flyer for a show by a new sketch group called 'League of Gentlemen'. It happens. And Edinburgh is often the catalyst.

Finding an Audience
In Edinburgh, new comedians, sketch-groups and theatre troupes alike will find an audience. It may be small, but it will be people they don't know personally. Hundreds of thousands of people turn up to Edinburgh with an open mind looking to see 'stuff'. This is an astonighly rare phenomenon. Put on a comedy show in London, a city of 8 million people, and you will find a far smaller group of people willing to try something new. Almost every London comedy sketch show is only really watched by friends, and friends of friends. In Edinburgh, you get to find out if you really are funny. It can be an expensive, painful experience, but those tend to be the ones we learn from the most.

There's plenty wrong with the fringe, and future posts will, no doubt, bring these up. There's plenty of good new developments too. It is stupidly commercialised in places, but then there's a Free Fringe things, which are a splendid development.

I'm heading up there myself in a week to be part of a BBC panel thing (here) so these shortcomings will be glaring obvious and blog-worthy. But until then, I am saluting the daft vortex of lunacy that is Edinburgh Fringe.

May your venues be full, may your audiences be merry and may your hangovers be short. (And two out of three's not bad.)