Here political comedy supremo Nick Revell describe his first ever Edinburgh experience – and his worst ever one …
The first …
I first performed in Edinburgh in 1980. I deliberately say “performed” because I think the term “gig” still only applied to music at that point. I was in a student sketch show, and across the entire festival there was one stand-up comedy show.
Yes, one stand-up comedy show. At the Edinburgh Festival.
It was called Late Night Alternative and it featured Tony Allen and Alexei Sayle. Annoyingly it was on at the same time as our show, so I never got to see it.
I learned a lot that summer. Most importantly, I learned how little I knew about anything.
Next, simply how to find the discipline and energy to perform one- or two-hour shows every night for a month. I know that sounds banal, but when you work all the time, it’s easy to overlook how huge a transition it is between relying on pure excitement to get you through the rare opportunity to be on stage, and then doing it well over a sustained period even when you don’t feel like it. One night I took a lot of speed just before going on stage, and learned not to take a lot of speed just before going on stage.
Primarily, though, it was fantastic just to be able to get out and see so much other stuff, and get excited and inspired. (And all the time be reminded once again how little I knew). The highlight for me was Circus Lumiere, a hilarious dark sketch show, parodying circus sideshow acts with lots of slapstick and acrobatics and including a man eating his own brain out of a top hat as he addressed the audience. That autumn I joined a theatre company, and Circus Lumiere was the major influence on the comedy I wrote for them.
The first year I did a proper stand-up show – technically gigging for the first time, I guess – was 1984, in a package called Brave New Comedy, with Arnold Brown, Norman Lovett and Paul Merton. We toured on and off for about 18 months, and Edinburgh fell right in the middle of that. We all did 20-minute sets, we didn’t have a compere, and we had a really good time.
The worst …
This one’s hard to say. Only because the bad ones come in so many different forms.
Driving yourself into the ground with too much drink and drugs and no sleep can turn even a successful run with a good show into an ordeal.
One year I made terrible mistakes with a horrible room and bad choices in everything from the poster to the promotion, and even though I had a good show, overall the whole run was a dismal experience. It was made even worse because it was the one year I’ve ever gone up with expectations of making a commercial impact, rather than just concentrating on doing the show well. Once you start having grandiose hopes of how the show will sell rather than just making sure you’re happy with it artistically, you are going to have a hard time because you’re pretending you can control things which are in fact outside your control. The weather was terrible too, which just added an extra layer of gloom. Much worse than any individual tough gig, because it goes on night after night, and because you care.
All the famed late-night bear-pit gigs can only get to you if you go in with the wrong attitude. The audiences aren’t really there to be entertained by your material, they are there to be entertained by seeing if you can survive. A good way of learning crowd control, but as long as you understand that’s all they are, then they can’t really hurt you even if you die on your hole.
I think the worst feeling I’ve had is going on in those kind of gigs knowing the audience want cheap, easy stuff and you give it to them and do well. I remember Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver once, years ago, dying in front of bunch of late-night morons and not making any attempt whatsoever to compromise and win them round, or ever losing their rhythm. I can still see the smiles on their faces (John and Andy’s, not the audience’s).
A sublime lesson in integrity and perspective.