The Gig: The Comedy Balloon, The Ape & Apple, Manchester
The Date: July 7th 2010
The Line Up: Myself MCing for “Ben El Fun” and “Sex, Drugs and Rock N’ Roll… Please” Edinburgh Previews.
It’s that time of the year. The time of the year when every conversation with every comedian at every comedy club in the country seems to start with the same question.
“Are you doing Edinburgh this year?”
No. No I’m not. I mused the idea back in January at the time when many promoters were starting to accept venue applications. My decision to avoid spending three weeks at the nation’s best known fringe festival was rooted in two inescapable truths.
1. I had no reason to be there.
2. I couldn’t afford it.
Not that these two reasons stop everyone. Every year the Fringe brochure is full of performers that would be better off staying at home and working on shoring up their ten spots than trying to sell an hour of their pea-green musings to all and sundry. Even established circuit acts lose thousands of pounds in the buyers attempting to stand out amongst the crowd. If I was heading up to the ‘Burgh I would want to have an absolutely bullet proof idea and a good amount of money to burn. Right now, I have neither. Doesn’t mean I won’t have one day though…
That said, there’s a very real benefit to be had from going up to the festival as a newer act so long as you have a sense of perspective about the experience. With the expansion of Peter Buckley Hill’s Free Fringe and Laughing Horse’s Free Festival venue there’s plenty of opportunities now to go and perform without having to sell your house, your organs or your youngest and most vulnerable child. With the right attitude, a newer comic could benefit from the chance to gig every single day and emerge at the end a much better performer.
Of course it also means that you might emerge as a washed out, broken wreck of a human being with a thousand yard stare and a nervous tick that manifests itself whenever you hear the word “flyer” used as a verb. In 2008 I did both. I took my show Unstoppable to the Laughing Horse Free Festival, performed daily with ComedySportz and squeezed in a few extra gigs at Nightingales, Shaggers and other places. By the end of the run I was physically and mentally exhausted but I was a much, much stronger performer than when I’d rolled into town. It also reignited my passion for stand up at exactly the right time. I didn’t walk away with a contract from E4 or an award in each arm but I felt it was mission accomplished.
At The Ape & Apple on this night I’d volunteered to step up and MC for two Edinburgh shows, each a double header featuring acts I knew and liked both personally and professionally. It was going to be Ben Lawes and Rex Purnell with one show, Ruth Cockburn and Jonny Addy with the second one. I’d dropped Spider a line a few weeks previously asking if I could come and compere, it looked like a fun night and a chance to socialise too. Spider agreed and the deal was made. Four up and coming comics hungry to iron out kinks in the shows they were due to present at one of the world’s biggest comedy gatherings. Who better to MC than a bitter, broken, underachiever desperate for attention wherever he could get it?
My week had also taken a surprising turn for the better by this point. On Tuesday I received a call from Laura asking where I lived. Not, as I momentarily suspected, in an effort to put a brick through a window for forcing her to lead Chris McCausland on stage in Storrington the week previously. Laura had hopped on her bike and ridden up from Rugby in an effort to surprise me. Surprised I was in a very positive sense. Laura also got a surprise when she stopped to ring me for directions. A passer by decided to tell her off for looking at him in a racist way. He then felt the need to point out that he wasn’t black, he was asian. Not only did Laura manage to inadvertantly use a racist look but apparently she managed to use the wrong one. I suspect he was trying to flirt. Welcome to Manchester!
Hence Laura accompanied me to The Ape & Apple for The Comedy Balloon, making the most of my showbiz status to get her into all the best places for free. The fact that it’s a free night anyway is neither here nor there. I could tell she was impressed by the glimpse into my rock and roll lifestyle. Less than twenty punters in a room over a pub, that’s keeping it real. I’m not being entirely glib either, I do really enjoy coming back to The Balloon for a kick around every so often. I previewed both my Edinburgh shows here as it happens. When I did Unstoppable I all but passed out on stage due to a fever I was running at the time too. Either I’m extremely determined or pig ignorant towards my own body’s warning signs. Note to self, when the lights start to go out I should probably stop talking.
A room over a pub with twenty people in it? It’s as if we’ve created a mini Virtual Edinburgh festival within the boundaries of our own fair city. I say that, I met many folks on the streets of Edinburgh last year that would have exchanged good chunks of their immortal soul to have that many people in attendence at their shows. Regardless it was a very healthy exercise in perspective. Whether there’s a hundred people in or a dozen there’s no excuse for not giving your all and treating those in attendence like an audience rather than a smattering of passers by looking for shelter from the rain.
As it turned out the night turned out to be a lot of fun. I stepped up to MC and immedately found out that the occupants of the front table, a group of around eight folk in their early twenties, were definately up for a good night. They also had a selection of rather cool names. One lad, by the name of Calvin, was not remotely backwards about coming forwards in banter. Hence I found myself flirting with a boy again. At this point Laura had never seen me do a set and was most likely convinced that I was the single most closeted offstage comic she had ever met. I swear it was just for fun. I am fully aware that this is a game of gay chicken that may well turn out to have distinctly messy consequences for me some day.
Ben and Rex were up first. Their show had a nicely subtle USP as there was a background story concerning Ben putting El Purnell, Ecuador’s number one stand up comic, up for the duration of his ongoing UK tour. El, of course, is Rex performing in character using a mixture of Spanish and broken English. Primarily his act is based on interaction with the audience and, with our keen front table, he probably couldn’t have asked for a better sounding board to bounce off of. Ben, in contrast to El’s energy, is rather more downbeat with a distinct sense of world weariness. The show was simple… El came on and introduced Ben, Ben introduced El and they finished with a short segment featuring both on stage together. The contrast between the two personae is rather effective, especially with the element of one upmanship that inevitably creeps in. They’re both sharp witted, especially impressive with El remaining in character throughout. A simple, funny show with a good amount of potential that will benefit both of the players involved after their run.
I couldn’t resist telling everyone that El was really from Chorley afterwards. Yes, I’m an arsehole.
After the break we moved on to “Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll… please.” the double header show featuring Ruth E. Cockburn and Johnny Addy. Another show of two halves, Ruth would be providing the Drugs and Rock N’ Roll and Johnny would be providing the Sex. Ruth, of course, being one badass rock motherfucker and Jonny, for his sins, making a living working in a sex shop. The theme was rather more relaxed than Ben El Fun as this was essentially a chance for Ruth and Jonny to blast out a solid twenty minute set apiece, albeit one which played to their strengths.
Keighley’s Most Wanted, Ruth Cockburn, stepped up first and had the gig of the night in my humble opinion. On this night, in this venue, with this audience Ruth really seemed to let herself go and have fun on stage. Because of this everything fell into place and, as her confidence soared, she gave a cracking account of herself. If this is the Ruth Cockburn that returns from Edinburgh in September then the world had better be ready.
Jonny stepped up to close the show and was a little too honest about how daunted he was by the prospect of following Ruth’s cracking set. Fortunately he relaxed into his work in progress and had a very good time of it. I know what it’s like to be working from a sheet of paper, trying to keep momentum up while checking your notes. There’s some really funny stuff in there, much of it with a morbid fascination that comes with a peek into the seedy underworld of the sex shop. With his chatty, somewhat informal approach my MD would be to have Jonny open the show and Ruth close it, playing to both of their strengths. Then again, it’s not my party. This means I can cry if I want to but that nobody will pay me the slightest bit of attention.
An amusing aside… During the opening show I couldn’t help noticing that El’s crotch appeared to be bathed in a soft blue light intermittantly. Confused, I couldn’t figure out where this was coming from. It then happened when Ben was on stage. Maybe this was some sort of odd gag that would be explained later. Unbeknownst to me Laura sat at the front table and busied herself with taking photos as the night went on. In order to disrupt the show as little as possible she turned the flash off. She did not, however, turn off the focus assist light. Focussing on other men’s crotches? We’ll have words about this. Fortunately this was noticed and put right before we were faced with an illuminated mimsy in the second half.
The night at The Balloon was a lot of fun which is precisely why I signed up for it. A chance to see two shows that I won’t see in Edinburgh and a chance to relax and dick about in a zero pressure environment. I also managed to try out a couple of bits of material subtly while I MCed. Always and Rapey Uncle both went down very well, well enough to use again. I doubt any of the participants of the night had any illusions about what they’ll get from their month at The Fringe. It’s going to be a long, hard slog in many respects filled with long walks, late nights and flyering. Ruth, in particular, is going to be doing two shows a day and I know how quickly that can take it out of you. Nevertheless I have absolute faith that all four will come back badder, bolder and better at this comedy lark than ever.
Just hopefully not so good that they take work off me.
Gig Score: 7/10
Lesson Learnt: Once again, have fun… If you’re having fun then as a rule of thumb so is the audience. Evidence this night provided by both myself and Ruth. Such is the confidence trick that is comedy.