It’s not often I’ll pat myself on the back about anything, and this is not just due to having incredibly inflexible limbs. Nor am I one to blow my own trumpet, and that’s not just because I neither own a trumpet or have any musical skills at all. But it’s 3 days since the Phoenix Fringe ended and aside from actually have my first day off in several weeks, I’ve mainly being doing a Dizzy Gillespie while leaving red marks on my shoulder blades. That sounded much less odd in my head. What I’m trying to say is that it went all rather well. Work in the comedy world is always up and down, but I have been feeling a slight disillusionment towards it all recently. Sick of the weekend gigs where you perform to drunken hen and stag dos that have no interest in any words you say, but stuck doing them for funds, I was longing for doing stand-up that I enjoyed again. I had been told by many that I can’t tour as I’m not on the telly. This is the current system of how it all works. Previously any old act could tour small rooms at arts centres building up an audience who were just pleased to see comedy locally. Nowadays venues want you to have an audience already to compete with the hundreds of other comedy tour shows inflicted on them by big agencies. So this then gives acts like myself – whose material is ‘not right’ for doing a spot on Good News for example – no rungs to climb and a life of perpetually being stuck on the circuit. Add to this that small independent gigs keep disappearing due to finances, and Edinburgh being too expensive to do, it all started to feel a bit pointless.
Then last week happened. Thought up by Tiffany Stevenson, and put together over 5 months by a small team of 6 of us, the Phoenix Fringe was 36 shows in 8 days in one venue. It was a great idea by Tiff, but no matter how feasible it seems or how well you plan these things you won’t really know if it works until it happens. And it did work. Really really very well. Every single show sold much better than the average Edinburgh audience, with more than 75% selling at least 60-100 tickets. All the crowds were comedy savvy, willing to take chances on acts they didn’t know, and patient when the show they were seeing was a work in progress or something mad and experimental. Every act earned money, and we as organisers made a small profit to go into a kitty for next year. Russell Howard got given a dog poo bag on stage, Robin Ince drank his first Jaegerbomb and Bob Mills did his first ever show enthralling a small late night crowd with tales of being a dancer in the 70’s. We didn’t pay for PR, we did it ourselves and as a result gained more press and positive coverage than I would have done had I gone to Edinburgh and forked out thousands for it. We didn’t have any sponsorship, but carefully planned and it all paid off. It felt exciting, it felt all how comedy should happen: in the way both acts and audiences want it to. We built it and they did come.
I wasn’t there every night of the fringe sadly. Last Saturday night I walked out onto a stage in front of around 170 people in Leicester. Sitting in the middle of the very front row was a man, in his late 30’s, blacked up and dressed up as Mr T. His mates sat either side of him revelling in the hilarity of his stag do costume and at no point questioning the racial implications of a white man covering himself in brown make-up in 2013. The issue was dealt and commented on many times, not just by me, and the men were far more amenable than you might expect. But I still found, as I hosted the gig from start to finish, that I was reeling out gags and retorts with a horrible feeling of emptiness inside and a complete lack of care as to how the gig actually went. The crowd enjoyed it, but that’s something you can do when you’ve been gigging for nearly ten years. Few can tell when you really couldn’t give a shit about the job. The problem was, the night before, I’d performed a whole new hour at our Phoenix Fringe to 120 people that wanted to hear it. It’s pretty hard to follow that when someone’s shouting heckles at you such as ‘I thought it was a comedy club’. I dispersed with any ‘hilarious’ comebacks and told him it was a comedy club which is why he should shut up and pay attention to the acts instead of being an obnoxious prick. Not a crowd stormer, but sadly all that I had patience for.
So what I’m trying to say is that I don’t want to do those gigs anymore and putting together the last week of shows had made me realise that perhaps I don’t have to. We will run it again next year, with thoughts on running a few extra weekend festivals too before that. But also, I’ve decided I’m going to try and tour anyway. I’m not on telly, but I’m not really that bothered that I’m not. What I am bothered about is not being able to do stand-up I want to do to people that want to see it. I’m not quite sure how I’ll do this yet but I’m looking into it. What would be great is if you’d like me to gig near you then let me know of a small venue/arts centre/pub that would be worth contacting and I’ll see what I can do. Pop your ideas in the comments below this or email me via my website. No promises, but I’ve already got a show in Liverpool in September so I think it can be done. Without sounding too sanctimonious, let’s get comedy back to where it should be. I’ll even bring my lack of trumpet playing skills and extra padding for my back.
UPDATE – This magical website exists. If you live in one of the 11 cities that Detour works with, and fancy having me come along and do a show for you then please get pledging and spread the word! Not sure it’ll work but its worth a go eh?
Robin Ince has written an excellent blog on the sort of comedy that should happen, here.