I love the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For the month of August, the city buzzes with excitement as countless people enjoy countless sights, sounds and shows.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the fringe festival and the first in three years due to the pandemic so the excitement from audience members and performers is tangible. Audience members want to see shows, want to be entertained, want to laugh. And we want to make them. Performers have spent a couple of years doing shows to socially distant crowds or on Zoom. We all NEED this.
That’s why, stood backstage at my venue and comedy home The Stand Comedy Club, I was very excited. As a standup comedian, the lead up to the festival is an all encompassing thing; you spend months trying material at comedy clubs around the country, or around the world at other comedy festivals, reworking ideas until an hour of funny stuff emerges.
My giddy glee was soon to be altered, as my venue technician walked backstage to give me my two minute warning before show time. I looked up optimistically from my cup of cold coffee and a half-eaten sandwich.
“How’s it looking?”, I said, smiling.
My venue tech winced.
No one ever winces for a good reason. You don’t win the lottery and wince. I hoped that my technician’s body language was betraying good news.
“One.”, He said. “You’ve sold one ticket.”
At that moment the reality of the situation came crashing into my brain. It’s the first Friday of the Fringe. It’s my first show. I’ve worked for the past six months on making sure this show is good, one that will make audiences laugh, one that I’m proud of. And I’ve sold one ticket. I felt every emotion in those two minutes. Fear, panic, doubt, as well as that strange urge we get, when something goes wrong, to laugh at it all.
So that’s when I chose to walk out there and see what would happen. As I got onto the stage of my 40-seat capacity room, suddenly now feeling like a vast space like Hammersmith Apollo when no show is on, I gazed through the lights to see the first crowd of my fringe run, the crowd that 12 years of constantly gigging had amassed.
His name was Mike. He’s from Leicester. He works in radio. He was sat in the middle of the room, presumably thinking to himself ‘This will busy up around me any minute now’. It didn’t.
Laughter is a very social thing, and it’s about realisation; when audience members hear a punchline, they tend to look at those around them to clarify that what they heard was indeed funny. My style of comedy is observational, relatable material so I really do need as many people as possible in the crowd, so that the jokes work.
You can understand then, why I had to tailor a lot of the show to Mike. My material had to be relatable to him. Amazingly, he was unencumbered by the idea that he might have to laugh out loud in an empty room and he laughed at all the right bits.
At the end of the show, Mike walked out and gave me a hug and went back to the rest of his life. Unbeknownst to me, he had spoken to a reviewer on his way out. The reviewer turned out to be legendary comedy critic for The Scotsman Kate Copstick, who wrote a lovely post on social media about me, describing Mike as my “audient’ which really made me laugh, and saying that his praise “reads like a five” (5 star review), which made me really happy.
Since then, everything has changed. Within an hour of it being picked up by the BBC, it was the 3rd most viewed story on the entire website. The story has gone global; I have done radio interviews for stations in Ireland, Germany and Canada, as well as a multitude in the UK. Every newspaper has picked it up too. As I type this, I’ve just spoken to BBC World Service and a couple of days ago I was the ‘Thought For The Day’ on BBC Radio Scotland, the speaker linking me to themes of perseverance and bravery.
A week after this surreal, happy accident, I walked onstage to a sold out show. I’m grateful to anyone who has bought a ticket so far. It’s an honour to make people laugh and now they are all part of my story too.
So, what happens if you walk onstage and there’s only one person in the crowd? It’s the apocryphal tale of the performer isn’t it? Well, If that person is Mike from Leicester, you don’t need to worry at all. It’s going to be a good show.