Yesterday my lovely friend informed me that she has kindly procured for us some tickets for Dylan Moran in March. So far, so good. She then dropped the teeny tiny bombshell that these aren’t just any old tickets…Oh no, because why buy run-of-the-mill, boring, bog-standard tickets when you can get your grubby wee paws on FRONT ROW SEATS? To say I am nervous would be a massive understatement, and bear in mind that this isn’t going to take place for six months. That means half a year of anticipation and fear. I’m not even exaggerating. I probably sound massively ungrateful, and it will in all likelihood be a most excellent night. I will probably exit the Hexagon wondering what on earth I was so stressed about – of this i am fully aware. Yet I can’t help recollecting (and dwelling upon) Bad Comedy Experiences of days gone by and suspecting that I would be far more comfortable tucked away in a dark corner at the back…
I lived in Edinburgh – the home of Bad Comedy – for ten years. Before you say it, yes of course there is good comedy in Edinburgh too; I’m sure some ridiculous statistic relating to ‘made-it’ comedians states that 97.6% or thereabouts were discovered during the annual Fringe Festival (and, most probably, Moran himself) I, however, have not been witness to much (if any) quality comedy in the theatres of Auld Reekie. What one has to remember when extolling the virtues of this festival, is that about 97.6% of the acts are absolutely dire. Anyone can put on a show during the festival, anyone at all, and it certainly seems to attract a certain calibre of comedian: many an act who would get booed off the stage in their local pub somehow seem to think that they are likely to be ‘discovered’ in Edinburgh so make the annual pilgrimage. Comedians who aren’t funny in the slightest – and of those, there are many – attempt to make up for their short-comings by being as offensive/ politically incorrect/ shocking as they possibly can, often a combination of all three. The only prerequisite for a budding comedian /comedienne/ actor/ actress/ wannabe playwright is a venue in which to contain their audience (‘contain’ being the operative word…) It doesn’t have to be a theatre; oh no, many appear to be of the opinion that a wacky venue equals a good venue…public toilets, a friend’s living room, a phone box, a random patch of grass; they’ve all been utilised. Call me cynical, but I am of the opinion that if an act has so little money or popularity that they are reduced to performing in a public toilet (and, let’s not forget, the inclination to do so) then they are unlikely to be particularly entertaining. The problem with small venues – and this also applies to the numerous tiny theatres that pop up all over the city at this time of year – is that they are very difficult indeed to escape from. I generally know about thirty seconds into a Fringe show whether or not it is going to be tolerable; as expected, the vast majority of them are not. For those readers not familiar with the Fringe experience, very many of the tickets to shows are given away for free, in order to fill the venues and make the actors look deceptively popular. It’s all rather sneaky. As a student, it was possible to wander along the Royal Mile collecting fliers, endure 6 shows a day,and not pay for any… A whole day of one’s life wasted, yet we never seemed to learn… Squashed into a small fusty space, hemmed in on all sides by other audience members, and a mere few feet from the focus of the show, an attempt at liberation is futile. It’s almost as if they planned it this way…
The first summer I resided in Edinburgh, I worked at a city centre youth hostel and took full advantage of the many complimentary tickets handed in by visiting thespians. It soon became apparent that in order to fully utilise this staff benefit, one must follow a set of rules:
1. Always, ALWAYS sit and the end of a row.
2. Never, EVER sit in the front row.
3. Don’t believe the reviews, especially ones on their posters – they are probably written by relations who have never had the misfortune to sit through a performance.
4.Don’t ever feel guilty for walking out. Either you paid above the odds for a ticket, in which case the ‘star’ of the show is laughing all the way to the bank, or you were conned with promises of a free ticket to something entertaining that proved to be otherwise. They were using you to make themselves look popular.
Before I started adhering to these rules, I wasted many a long hour of my life. The one saving grace of most Fringe shows is that they are only an hour long, although it remains remarkable just how long that hour can feel. Think of an hour of turbulence on a plane, or an hour of listening to bad Xmas songs some idiot has put on the jukebox, or an hour cleaning the hair out the drain in the shower, and multiply it by ten. That is how long a bad Fringe show experience lasts. If I were in any way religious, I would liken a Fringe show in a cramped venue to my own personal purgatory.
So, the configuration of a small venue is often not conducive to an easy escape. However, this is not to say for one minute that real, actual designed-for-the-purpose theatres are guaranteed to be any better. A real-theatre Fringe-experience was beyond a shadow of a doubt, my worst ever. I attended a show which I had actually bought a ticket for (which made it all the more painful), when the decidedly un-funny comedian made me join him on stage. I was sitting somewhere slap-bang in the middle of a medium-sized theatre (if only I’d known then what I know now, I would have arisen from my strategically placed end-of-row seat, stalked out, and retired to the bar the very minute he started picking on me). As it was, he went on and on at me (despite me quite clearly trying my utmost to look invisible) and made me join him on stage and pretend to be his girlfriend. It was hideous, unfunny, cringeworthy and humiliating, and for me that pretty much summarises comedy. I am sitting here re-living it with a red face right now. My companions, of course, found the whole thing hilarious but I didn’t attend another show that summer.
Last August I reluctantly took the BF and a friend up to Edinburgh as they wanted to experience the festival. Despite me doing everything in my power to dissuade them, they eagerly snapped up ‘must-see’ tickets based on rave reviews. We saw a couple of shows that (I will grudgingly admit) were actually quite good, but these were established acts. We paid decent amounts of hard-earned cash for seats (end of row, obviously), in proper theatres, and everyone was happy. My companions were feeling rather smug, it was obvious they thought I was blatantly exaggerating about the poor quality of many of the shows. Ha, but they should have known better than to have doubted me…This smugness lasted until we had the misfortune of encountering the so-called comedienne who sang at great length and volume about the decidedly un-funny topic of incest. Sorry, that makes it sound like a chance encounter, but no, these two had paid good money for the privilege! It was hideous. Properly ‘this is what the Fringe is all about’ tiny-theatre, stomach-churning hideous. I would cite her name here if I hadn’t blocked it from my memory, just so you could avoid her for all eternity, in the interest of your mental health. Needless to say, led by me, we made a sharp exit. Recovering in the bar, my wee sis who had accompanied us, and is far too nice for her own good, expressed a slight regret that by leaving we had effectively reduced the audience by half. I, on the other hand, firmly believe one should never feel bad for demonstrating a complete lack of appreciation through the act of walking out, for the following reasons:
1. We paid for tickets. In this case, £60 for the 4 of us. If the other audience members also made a bid for freedom, then she effectively earned £120 for fifteen minutes of bad singing (15 minutes that felt like 4 hours, alas).
2. Nobody should worry about upsetting these people; if they genuinely believe that they are entertaining enough to be on stage then they are actually deluded and you are dong them a veritable favour by introducing to them the notion that perhaps they are not all that great after all.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the best comedy moment of that particular day was witnessing the two Southerners gazing morosely into their pints and muttering to themselves: “But she had such good reviews….”
You live and learn, boys!
In conclusion, I reckon Edinburgh has broken me. I should be thrilled at the prospect of front-row tickets, instead of losing sleep over it. I’m sure I’m not the only Fringe-goer who suffers from these long-lasting apprehensions, and pessimistic expectations that something bad is bound to happen whenever a comedian takes to the stage… Moran, my faith in all things comedy rests on you, please be gentle with me!