After spending a week at the Edinburgh Festival, I returned home yesterday feeling – as I always do when I tumble back out of that gorgeous, gothic city – watched over by an ancient volcano, as though I have left Narnia.
I’ve lost count of how many times I have been up there to do a run of shows, but it’s been pretty much every year since 1998. Of course the festival this year is nowhere near the size it usually is. I did not have to gently elbow my way through a throng of pigeon-stepping tourists on the 12-minute walk from my accommodation to my venue; and I did not have fistfuls of flyers advertising other shows thrust enthusiastically into my hands. Many a time I have been handed a flyer for my own show, and have cheerfully assured the young marketeer that I will most definitely be attending.
My run at the festival this year was a work in progress in the truest sense of the phrase. I started writing it on the train up to Waverley station, and was on stage with notes in my hand and hope in my heart. Of course, in a work-in-progress show you will have ideas already, and will pepper it with older material so that your audience gets value for money. The more experienced a comic you are, the better able you are to make sure that people have as good a time as they would have had if they’d come to see you on tour, even if your structure and rhythm are a little ramshackle.
Stand-up comedy isn’t like theatre or painting. You can’t create it in a studio away from the audience; you need them there from the beginning in order to make it: to see what works, what connects. The building of a show from scratch in Edinburgh itself is what I imagine the festival was like in the 1980s, before most comics arrived with a polished product that they hoped would make them stand out to television and radio producers.
Comedy is also very different from other art forms in that absolutely everybody thinks they are qualified to critique stand-up, so it was nice this year not to have endless unqualified critics troop in and comment inanely on every show they were able to blag tickets for.
Just as Marcus Rashford prefers (I imagine) to play football on a grassy pitch, most comedians prefer to perform stand-up in a comedy club, preferably with a roof. In lockdown, though, we learned to do our sets online, and thanks to the technological efforts of so many online clubs, these began to feel less like we were just sitting at our computers and performing into a void.
I will admit that at the beginning of lockdown I sulked. I couldn’t see online comedy working or being fun. The whole point of stand-up for me was to be in among people, feeling their energy, risking them hating me (let’s not analyse that). I felt like the only job I knew how to do had disappeared, and I missed it. I missed hanging out with other stand-ups, where there was no small-talk and oversharing with strangers was normal.
But, as humans do, we adapted and evolved. Some online gigs now have a “front row”, where you can see people sitting in their homes watching, and see them laughing. You occasionally have a bloke strolling into shot in his pyjamas and saying, “Do you want fish fingers?” as you deliver a carefully crafted routine. That’s OK. Seasoned performers have had far more hostile interruptions, and actually, it gives online gigs almost the same unpredictability as live gigs.
Zoom gigs even began to have “green rooms” in which the performers could see and chat to one another before the show started. In a charity event for JW3, a Jewish arts centre in northwest London, I found myself in a Zoom “green room” with Boy George. Actual Boy George! We sat there and had a proper natter before the show, and it remains one of my favourite online gig moments, even if it was a little surreal.
A large proportion of the Edinburgh Festival this year continued online, and is reaching an audience that is often ignored and not catered for because the clubs are not accessible. Disabled people who can’t leave the house easily, people with young children for whom babysitting costs mean very few nights out, those in more remote areas – all found in lockdown that they were included.
Being back at the Fringe this year brought home to me how much I had missed not just the festival, but Scotland itself. I performed in the pouring rain on an outdoor stage in a multi-storey carpark. Before we started the show, I sat with Fred MacAulay and a bunch of other Scottish comedians in a caravan and I couldn’t help but wail, “I missed your accents!”
The feel of the festival is very “the show must go on”. The audiences pack the socially distanced venues, and no one dwells too much on the fact that we have been locked away from each other for so long. By the end of my week there, I had a fully formed show that a different audience each night had helped me to build, which I’ll be taking on tour in the autumn (with a few more warm-up shows at the Soho Theatre next week if you fancy). If you are up there in Narnia, go and watch everyone you possibly can. We have missed you.