The main reason for me heading off to this part of the world has finally arrived: the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For the folk at home, this is kind of like the Grahamstown Arts Festival, but on a much larger scale. This is the premier arts fest of planet earth.
This is different from the Edinburgh International Festival, which happens at the same time. The international festival is an up-market, larney display of hand-picked acts that showcase their majesty in exquisite venues around the town. But, some acts were a bit tired of being shafted and felt they were missing out on the international crowds gathering for the fest. Thus, the Fringe was born, allowing any act of any kind to take part, parallel to the noble fucks. Now, a complete range of shows is squeezed into tiny venues, buildings are wallpapered with irregular coloured blocks adorned with different characters as if in a bizarre police line-up after a crime at the circus, and the bustling streets are filled with tourists, performers, and people handing out flyers like coked-up, disinterested blackjack dealers.
Edinburgh is completely transformed and almost revolves around the fest. Prices go up. Structures pop up. And locals get fed up. They bitch and moan about the fest a lot, and that’s coming from me. Everyone will tell you that the population doubles, or triples even, just for the month of August. On the flip side, the amount of money that goes into this festival must be beyond belief, so like drunken people on a night bus, this is just a necessary evil they have to deal with. Things could be worse. Those drunk fucks could wake up in a car 8 hours from the city centre.
Planning for the fest is actually an art in its own right. Financial times can be tough for foreigners like me, what with the whole working situation and a pretty unkind exchange rate. But, as with most things in the world, there are ways and means of saving a lot of cash. The shows themselves vary in price quite a bit. A cheapish show, where no one is known can be £5/6, the more established guys can be £10-£12 and the extravaganza events can head closer to £20. This is really not bad when you consider an out-of-fest pint is about £3.50 and an average movie £10, so essentially you’re watching a world-class show for a few beers. It does, however, tend to add up. The fest runs for almost 4 weeks and there are over 3 000 acts to choose from.
So what to do to get the most out of the fest? For a start there’re the free shows. The Free Fest, as subdivision, hosts quite a few of the free acts and many of them are just looking for exposure. This was started by a chap called Peter Buckly Hill to help the performers that couldn’t afford the mammoth fees of registration, venue hire, and transport. The deal is that the venue is not allowed to charge the act for using them, and in turn the act is not allowed to charge the audience. Although they can accept donations.
Some bars host only free shows, so you can come sit there for free and drink their beer all day that has magically upped itself to £6 for a pint of the cheap stuff. According to John Scott on their opening night, the only way to get a show in Edinburgh in the past was to get heaps of money and give it to a fat Scottish guy so he can count your cash on your head as you sucked him off just to perform for three guys and a dog in a cupboard. This was part of the British comedy dream of hitting it big at the fest so you can get known and spend the rest of your life doing panel shows on telly. A dream that has actually come true for a few people, from Steven Fry to Trevor Noah. Check out list of comedians that won awards at the fringe before they were on TV here. These people are doing the best they can for next to nothing just for a shot at the big time. Not unlike the people who take the time to write shit in a blog and put it online in the hopes that someone will one day laugh you into a job. I feel it may be better to be the fat guy in this situation.
The next strategy is to take advantage of the fluctuating prices, like with preview week. The festival doesn’t really officially start in the first week of August, so many of the shows have the second part of that week half-price or better. This, in an effort to create some hype or get some good reviews in. A few of the acts are still finding their feet, but they know you cheaped out on them so they don’t much mind. Hang around the venues long enough and you could get a few tickets for free. There’s a lot of 2 for 1 shit, which is not particularly helpful if you’re on your ace. But most shows are cheaper during the week and offer student discounts. At last, my youthful face pays off.
Finally are the usual travel tricks, with your own food, drinks, and backpack. This always sounds like an idea from an older relative who you feel uncomfortable telling that “nobody wants to fuck the sandwich guy”. I am now the sandwich guy. I also found out that if you bring your own plastic cup, you can sneak your Tennant’s larger that you bought 20 for £12 at Tesco into almost any show, albeit a bit warm. And aside from your hipflask, hard tack is not your friend. Hard tack is for the sloots that need to get drunk enough to fuck sandwich guy.
Wednesday 3 August
This is the first day I decide to watch something. I had tried to sneak a few of the big acts I wished to see in this week so that I don’t miss them, and so that I save the maximum amount. There’s all sorts of things on, but it’s mainly dominated by comedy. I’m a sucker for occasion so seeing that it’s voting day in South Africa I booked Loyiso Gola, South African comedian and host of Late Night with Loyiso that saw him crack a few Emmy nominations. So like Trevor Noah, but taller, and doesn’t make so much money that his overlords make his show Hilary-centric.
I’m not particularly good at being on time, but these tickets were paid for and I’m not stupid enough to jump into a comedian’s gig late. So I hit the bus pretty early, with a can of Tennant’s in my pocket since I didn’t know the cup trick yet. I know my way around most of Edinburgh by now so this saves me a lot of time, but with over 300 venues this is still a challenge. I was told that every corner of every street is used as a venue and this is not strictly true. While venues can vary from bars, lecture halls and parks, quite a few are pop-up rooms that they’ve planted in open spaces to make mini-villages of multi-venued spots. Think of a large grassy area in your local university. The fringe will use the surrounding lecture halls, and then have a big set-up on the grass (Although good luck using the grass at my alma mater). These will also have food vendors, bars, and more aggressive flyer people. Honestly, the money of the fest is not in comedy, but rather paper.
I arrive at the Pleasance Terrace in a part of town that’s a bit off of the path of what I’m used to. Two rooms of about 100 seats each are the bunkers, where I was to watch, and surrounding venues were in a hall and in a wooden pop-up stand. The pop-up rooms were called “This” and “That”. I arrived at the latter which led to an altercation with the woman working there.
Me: “What is this?”
Betty: “Well this is This..” looks at the sign “I mean this is That and that is…”
Me: “That is This?”
Betty: “Yea that is This, haha”.
She laughs at the mix up of words. I laugh because she is shit at her job and I could have done it much better at a cheaper price. It was a weird connection.
I finally start lining outside of the Bunker for Loyiso’s show Dude, Where’s my Lion? and there is a fuck-off long line over-taking me from down the ally. The larger venue had clearly given away free tickets and folk were worried about seat. If you had bought a ticket you were guaranteed a spot, but seats were was first come, first serve. I’m beginning to worry that it’s just going to be me and Loyiso there, and thought moving the show to the bar and having a one-on-one chat would be quite interesting. But the late-comers arrive, and announce how American they are to the disappointment of all those around. They check that they are in the right spot, push in the line and we start to head in. The bunker is almost half full, and that’s not bad for the first show on the Wednesday of preview week.
The lights dim and in walks Loyiso, a mountain of a man at almost 2m tall. The venue is set out in that most of the crowd face him face-on, on like the long side of a rectangle, while a few rows of chairs are on either short side too. He does pretty well to engage and audience from three different sides, and to avoid hitting the lighting that hangs down from the already low roof. He asks who is not from Britain, and I pussy out of putting my hand up for reasons unknown to myself. He does well to deal with an audience member who can’t seem to find anything interesting with Scotland to fit into his act. His material starts out pretty standard, and he heads into South African views on British problems, but he urges us to stay with him through the rough bits and we’ll all learn something.
The act has been Anglicised quite a bit, with words like ‘traffic lights”, “crisps” and “safari” as well as a few decent British accents. I finally find the balls to raise a hand when I said I’d been on safari. He asks me where. I say I’m from South Africa. He goes ja, but the questions still stands. I panic and say Pilansburg. He asks what I saw. Every game drive I’ve ever been on had been erased from my memory, and in hindsight, the last time I was in the Pilansburg was for a 21st that lasted a whole weekend, so that may have been a factor. I’m only half-pissed at this stage, so my lack of communication is annoying me. I improvise I saw an elephant and some buck. He goes on for a bit. Returns to ask if that’s all I saw. I fabricate a lion, but said it was in the distance. He has a big joke about this and I’m off the hook. I’m glad I could help, even if it took a while.
The act really comes into its own when he speaks about growing up in a Muslim school. The crowd gets an interesting outsider views on things like London, homeless Britons, and Brexit. He applauds the audience for sticking through that bit without flinching too much. It’s been globalised but he still slots in some SA accents, and even breaks into some Xhosa which is beyond belief to the folk that haven’t heard it before. But his best work was probably his interaction with the audience. They say comedy is knowing who to pick. Loyiso knows who to pick. From some old Scottish grannies having a quick word that he can’t help but get involved in, to a polite put-down of an incredibly inquisitive crowd member. I’m impressed, as are the people around me, and they all have good shit to say on the way out. Loyiso even comes out to say howsit, get a whole bunch of suggestions, and take a photo and have a quick chat with half-pissed me.
This is all I had booked, so I went for a stroll down the Cowgate pub district and wandered into the Free Sisters, a pub that hosted shows in about 5 different rooms, with about 5 different bars. To my luck, the marqueed outside court this was the home of the Free Fringe and tonight was their grand opening. While the Fringe had a leather-bound owl as its mascot, the Free-Fringe adopted a bondage chicken, and even had a mascot up there on stage.
The show ran quite a bit behind schedule but had some variety. John Scott started off explaining the Free Fringe as above, a Weegie woman came next and almost had me in tears. She was followed by an average musical comedian who dealt well with her mic constantly falling, but didn’t deal so well with singing her song about forgetting to trim her pubes with a 9 year old in the crowd, who was eventually removed. A few more comics but the other one that stood out was an Asian dude. I’d not seen an Asian comic and only knew Russell Peters’s joke about them. Peters may be shit, but he was right about one thing: the Asian accent in comedy is funny all on its own. And this guy was not an idiot either, and played that persona really well. I laugh, and fuck off.
Thursday 4 August
My next preview show is for Thrones!, a musical parody of Game of Thrones. I’m a sucker for Game of Thrones and musical parodies are my kind of thing. The venue is just outside of the Assembly area and is a converted lecture hall. I feel weird. Not only have I pitched up to the hall on time, but the every seat is taken and people are actually paying attention.
The play starts and the cast is a mere seven people. It is slightly lower-budget than I had anticipated, and the dancing seems a bit clumsy. But they frame the story well and the songs were my favourite part, Khalisi’s solo while being fucked from behind being a crowd-favourite. All in all, this was a Book of Mormon for those who hadn’t read the books and the small cast did well to showcase different important moments in the story and various bizarre happenings in its world. It glided between various musical genres and took the piss out of the accents. The comedy was dark, but not full of errors.
The student union I used to hang around had been transformed into a medieval themed pub, so I amble in to check it out. It’s here that I learned if you stick around for long enough, you’re going to find some free shit. Flyer people accost me and I’m about to teach them some Afrikaans until one says the magic word: free. I initiate the human version of a hand break turn. The show is a court-room improv thing, something I had had my eye on. But now it was free, so my judgement was impaired. I was so overjoyed that I bought another show by a misleading flyer dude.
The courtroom thing, This Is Your Trial, is a big laugh. It starts out by them handing out charge sheets to the audience while they are still in line. Here you can charge one of your mates with a crime and put forward some evidence. This isn’t too useful for the solo artists, but it later turns out not to matter. The cast of four comedians come in, a bailiff, a judge, and two lawyers. They pick a charge, call the accused up and the judge learns a bit about them, like where they are from and what they do. The bailiff then makes a big joke about swearing them in and, in the time he’s done that, the prosecutor has already come up with a fictitious case that is absurd but hilarious. For example, one man was accused of voting tory (conservative) and turned out to work in animal breeding. The lawyer saw his gap and asked the accused if he was familiar with the tory breeding technique of fucking a dead pig’s head. He was found guilty.
This show makes me laugh to the extent that I hear some old bird complaining about me as we walk out. I can’t help if she doesn’t get it. Although my laugh has been victim of such criticism before. I next see Mike Ward, whose main hook is “freedom of Speech isn’t free”. He charged a fiver. His big joke that goet him sued by the Canadian government wasn’t very funny or offencive. I love offensive and edgy comedians, but it’s got to be clever. This guy isn’t. Off I fuck.
Friday 5 August
Now I’m ready to party. I managed to sneak in a ticket for Peter Kay, a musical comedian. His show is called Fingering A Minor on the Piano. An oldie, but a goodie. I hide a few Tennant’s in my jacket and head in. He’s a musical comedian with a piano. I was expecting Tim Minchin, but it was kind of more like Scrubs meets QI. The man had been a practicing medical doctor, and the majority of his show was medical humour and anecdotes as he read from his journal. He’s sharp, intelligent, and well-invested. He breaks every now and then to parody a pop song, revisiting a bit where he sings a riddle to verse of John Cale’s “Halleluiah” (yes the one from Shrek) and we sing the answer for the halleluiah part. The first answer is alopecia, a word I only know because I had Googled it this year due to it being in a Tim Minchin song. The riddles get more difficult. This is an incredibly intelligent audience, and I feel myself being on the wrong side of the bell curve. Joined of course by the one chick who keeps singing the previous answer, as if this were multiple choice and she was hoping for a trend. There’s a heartfelt end and I think it a good performance. Although I now left a comedy show wondering what I had achieved with my life and if my pursuits would ever amount to anything. It is an odd way to roam the streets. So I have a beer.
Luckily, nothing can salvage an existential crisis like and Australian comedian, and I’d booked YouTube superstar Frenchy for the night with his show World’s Worst Adult. The man is pretty much thing king of Aussie online humour, something that had become an essential part of today’s lad culture, and something that the big dogs of Aussie comedy often collaborate to cash in on. I meet him before hand and he’s quite friendly. He even has to put what was in his hand down so he can sneak a zap sign into our photo. My kind of person. The show, although at times musical, is on the other end of the spectrum. He also communicates well with the audience, but in a more entitled way. The front row consisted of a loud American and his stoned dad, and the rest of it tarts who fly in and out, which I found quite rude, only to look confused on returning when Frenchy is air-fucking to a Disney song without getting contextualisation.
I end up getting a drink with him and some groupies afterwards. I try to shift between asking him about his story while not ruining his chances with the betties. We meet Neel Kolhatkar, another Aussie YouTuber who I’m a big fan of, and I have to practice the same caution as he’s operating on some local delicacies too. I make it my evening’s duty to teach them the word “poes”. We have some banter about South Africa. Neel chucks his accent which I have a laugh about and Frenchy says he can’t talk to me without thinking of Blood Diamond. I said he reminds me of Rabbit Proof Fence, and all is well.
The famous are unkeen to head oot and I join the groupies around town. I hit some of the regular spots and end up in a multi-storied club with stairs in different places that appear to move. It’s like partying in Hogwarts, but folk are less interested in learning and more focused on getting their wands into some forbidden forrest. I end up in the Hive, an indication of my state and pretend to like clubs. I half-walk, half bus it back home.
Saturday 6 August
Having been quite fested out, I took a slow one on Saturday. I had booked only one show and it was at midnight. I recovered and got my shit together. Part of my free lodge and food deal that my family members have been kind enough to offer me, I’m playing landlord at their flat that they’ve air BNBed during the fest. So I tidy the place and await the first arrival. It’s a jolly dude from some other part of Scotland that clearly have a lot to say and not much time to say it in. He looks nice enough to not kill me in my sleep or at least smart enough not to do it on the first night since he paid upfront.
I did what is now going to be my pre-drinking ritual. Put the Deezer App on loud, mixed Malibu with Irn-Bru (which I’m claiming as the Mali-Bru) and made macaroni cheese. The music gets you in a good mood, the booze quiets the voices in your head, the Irn-Bru gives you energy through some kind of carcinogenic, and the carbs help you handle liquor when you have a minor drinking problem like I do.
None the less I head out and catch a street artist on the Royal Mile. As the main tourist street, the mile is packed with street performers so much so that they too are on some kind of organised schedule. This guy is a Jeremy Loops-type looping artist. He’s not as good as Loops, but those kinds of performances are always cool to watch. I amble around to try and crack nod to a few more free shows and who do I walk into but Loyiso Gola again. We have a chat and we’re now best fucking friends forever.
I find out that just because venues have a similar name, it doesn’t mean they’re going to be in a similar spot. I’ve gone in the complete wrong direction and turn my evening into a walking tour of Edinburgh. I get to the right spot and start queuing for Spank!.
Part of promoting yourself and getting TV-famous as a comedian is to do a whole bunch of variety shows where you say a bit of your act so more people talk about you and come see you. There are lots of these around, but the late-night kinds are pretty famous for having vicious hecklers. People who go out to get drunk and try and ruin a comedian’s set if they aren’t crying with laughter in the first ten seconds. The comedians are all too aware of this and generally have a few put-downs in their back pocket. But it’s been known to break some.
Spank! is not one of those shows. Spank! tries to make it a party. The show is set in a basement-like area, with coloured lights, strobes and loud speakers. It’s a smallish venue, but a long-ass show of almost three hours. Due to the length of the show they allow you to come and go as you wish, encouraging you to return with a drink. The hosts are energetic and loud and try to get everyone involved. Their biggest trick is to flash the strobe every time they say the word “Spank” where the crowd has to shout out “you love it!”. It’s little, but effective.
The first act is a comedy group and it’s here that we get the first taste of nudity where a guy is on stage with a baker’s hat and a bread roll covering his dick. He may have actually put his dick in the bread roll, I’m not too sure. It could have counted as a sex act. Or just made a sausage roll.
The next few acts are actually a bit average but supply laughs here and there. It was interesting to see, just off stage, how nervous they got before heading on stage. The comedians would be pacing up and down, going over material and furiously drinking to get rid of nerves. Our crowd was actually a pretty tame one, except for a stag party sat near the back. But they all perform pretty well. I even get pulled on stage for some chick who does the whole opening half of the pay in Spanish. She finds me, identifies me as “Pablo”, and chucks me on a chair. She pretends to slap me and I play along. She then motions a phone symbol with her hand and goes on in Spanish more. I’m confused. Does she want me to pretend to have a phone? Does she want my phone? I make a similar hand gesture to her and she goes off in Spanish until some Australian yells “give her your phone, mate”. I do so and she tunes me for having a Samsung. I’m not quick enough to say that I’m sure her iPhone fell off of a truck. More Spanish and she now has a gun. Theatrically of course, actually having a gun would perhaps have been excessive. She motions me to say something. Although I get that the show was meant to be understood through what happens rather than language, I am pretty lost. I assumed the question was, “why shouldn’t I shoot you?” So I respond because it’s not a real gun. This was probably not helpful. She carries on, shoots me, and I take the bullet, not nearly as theatrically as I probably would have if I was a bit drunker but still. I go off stage. I wish I could have been more helpful, but she looks ok with it. I also get randomly called Pablo by random strangers for the remainder of the evening.
The show returns from a short break and we kick off into the naked promo. This is an interesting development that is a stable part of Spank!. Anyone in the crowd is allowed to promote anything they want over the mic for one minute, and put a flyer up on stage if they have one, but they have to get naked on stage first. Completely. It’s very much an unforced thing and no phones or anything are allowed so folk generally get into the swing of things. Some get up to promote their shows and have a flyer on stage for the fest, some get so caught up in it all that they don’t think of anything to promote and just end up saying their hometown. Unfortunately, they’re usually guys. Now I’ve been to boarding school and a male residence, so I like to think that my penis quota has kind of been maxed out. But that night it increased by two. Three if you count boerie roll guy.
The rest of the acts are pretty average, but the vibe remains upbeat. The stag party had been removed after one of them threw up on a person in front of them. I find this funnier than half the acts. The show ends at 3AM with the whole crowd dancing on stage. I hang around and get drinks bought for me by a local and end up debating Northern Ireland politics with a Scottish chick married to an Aussie. I pop into Opium on the way home for a night cap. I get back at 6AM. Ish.
I’m tired, and have three weeks left of the fest, of Edinburgh, and of my trip as a whole.