“Asking a stand-up to improvise an entire set is like asking a magician to do real fucking magic.” —Paul Provenza.
On 24th, 25th, 26th and 27th of August 2011, Dan and I staged four live versions of our famous podcast as part of PBH’s Free Fringe at the Edinburgh Festival.
It was the first time we had tried anything of the sort. I think we had planned to do some trial runs in Glasgow and the Midlands before the big fest but, as is so often the case, time got the better of us and we took a plunge into the deep end.
Thankfully, our audiences were warm and generally appreciative, and I think we can consider the live podcasts a success by most criteria.
Podcast 1 remains our favourite and is surely the most memorable. When “The Human Centipede” was selected as a conversation topic, I casually asked Dan “So, have you ever been in a human centipede?” which got a good laugh. I was able to wax lyrical on the movie monster’s lack of ambition (“Three people? That’s not a human centipede!”) and about how I felt motivated to go the extra mile and get an easy entry into the Guinness Book of Records. A young woman in the middle of the audience was laughing uncontrollably at this section and covering her face in hilarious shock. Seeing this girl’s watery eyes peeking at me through her fingers will always stand out in my Edinburgh memories and, to me, was the absolute high point of this year’s Fringe.
We had friends in the audience for Podcast 1 who were familiar with our stuff. I was very glad when my friend Neil shouted “Do Derek Gray!” to prompt an appearance from our occasional character. Character comedy, I think, can be a bit contrived and I didn’t want to go onto the stage saying “Here’s a little character I’ve been working on” because I haven’t been working on him! He’s just a thing I do off-the-cuff on the podcast, meaning that Derek is only about twenty-minutes old. Luckily, I can ‘become the character’ pretty much on-command because he exists in me so utterly. He is my anal-retentive, obsessive-compulsive side with a strong desire for order, hygiene and symmetry. It was terrific fun to talk in-character about Derek’s involvement in the London riots (“I flew into a fury”). Derek confessed to being responsible for breaking precisely half of the windows in London town (“Plus: new shoes”). The Derek section ended with Dan losing control and corpsing, much to the audience’s pleasure. I think this little section of the show, as Derek would say, was “perfectly acceptable”.
There were some Maltese men in the room for Podcast 1. I had some existing comedy observations in the bank about Malta, the “miracle bomb” at the Mosta Dome, and the clapped-out Maltese public transport. I think this looked very fast-witted and showed unexpected knowledge of an unusual location. I suppose I was lucky that these punters had come from a place I knew, but it did feel like a good pay-off for years of deliberate harvesting small things with a comedic eye.
Daniel James Godsil was brilliant throughout the run, but perhaps especially in Podcast 1. I had always known he would be good at the live podcasts, but not this good. I suppose I may have had a kernel of worry that his nerves would betray us at the last second and he’d clam up. But he didn’t. His early observation about strippers being “reluctant to barter” went a long way to boosting our confidence and our winning the audience’s trust that day.
Flyering for Podcast 2 outside the venue, I spotted comedy hero and “Edinburgh institution” Arthur Smith walking down the Royal Mile in a kilt and some strange white-framed designer glasses. At first I wasn’t certain it was him: he looks a lot older than he does on telly (sorry, Arfur) and he was, after all, wearing a disguise. What really put me off thinking it was him though, was the fact that I’d been reading his autobiography on the train just moments previously. What are the chances? Alas, it was almost certainly the Hamlet actor and Leonard Cohen impersonator himself because Dan had independently identified him too. I’m annoyed at myself for not speaking to him because he had the potential to answer an important question regarding Cluub Zarathustra (about which I’m writing a book), but seeing him did at least inspire some material about celebrity-spotting for the podcast. I was able to say that “Ricky Gervais [who I once spotted in Glasgow Central Station] hires expensive bodyguards but Arthur Smith just wears a cunning disguise”.
Podcast 2 turned out to be the most disappointing of the run. We had a decent turn-out in terms of audience numbers but there wasn’t much love in the room and we never managed to get the crowd properly on our side. When our ad-libbing skills ground, if not to a halt then to a sluggish little chug-along, we resorted to using some of the winning material from the previous day – The Human Centipede, strippers, and a few cheerful mouth-jingles – but they weren’t having it. I don’t know if some audiences simply aren’t up for it (because it seems unlikely to me – anyone who has the drive to come to the same show must have something in common we could appeal to) or if we failed to win their trust in the first two minutes but it just didn’t work.
After the show, we had to hot-foot it down to the Buff’s Club for my stand-up spot at Al Cowie’s LLAUGH Comedy Club. I was surprised at how confident I felt even after the sub-par podcast and I think I gave a decent performance for Al’s delightful audience. There were two small children in the room (the son and daughter of some of Dan’s friends), which seemed to make the other comedians a bit nervous about swearing. Since my current stand-up material is about penguins and harmless pun-driven jokes, I didn’t have to reign anything in at all. My only regret is that I rattled through the material too quickly. I don’t want my on-stage manner to be that of the hyperactive comedian, so I resolve to put the breaks on next time. The three other comedians who performed at LLAUGH were extremely competent, if a little “G-Star Raw” in manner and material. As arrogant as it sounds, I genuinely feel I was the most interesting act on the bill, albeit not the most competent. If I can get up to their level of professional-sounding delivery, I think I can do okay at this.
After the stand-up and a short break, I went to the Voodoo Rooms to MC The Sulking Ape and Other Stories, which was a smash. I wrote a dedicated report about it here.
Podcast 3 was a step up from Podcast 2 but still didn’t recapture the magic of the first performance. I think the material generated was pretty decent but today’s audience (perhaps put off the truly unreasonable rain) was very small. The six or so people who came were very much up for it, but I think there’s only so much you can achieve with such a small crowd. The proprietor of the venue was visibly annoyed by our inability to draw a crowd today, but I don’t think he appreciated that it was Dan and I who suffered for it the most.
Also suffering today’s tiny audience was Al Cowie. My appearance at his club last night was twinned with a guest spot from him at today’s podcast. Big thanks to Al for coming down to play such a small and rain-soaked audience. I don’t think the guest-spot format was very successful (though this is no reflection on Al who was brilliant). A guest spot was one of the things we had suggested in our pitch to Peter Buckley-Hill to convince him to take a chance on our ad-libbed show. I think he had been worried that we would run out of things to talk about or that we generally owed an audience more than improvised banter, so he’d asked us to refine the format to include some safety nets. A surprising thing about the live podcast is that we’re definitely best when there’s no safety net: we need to be free to riff, and it felt that the show lost an all-important frisson when we fell back on old material or a structured format. In the case of the guest spot, it just felt like we had to stop-and-start and so never got into a proper flow.
Podcast 4 was, thankfully, a very good one, so we were able to finish our run on a high note. I started the show with a slightly refined version of the stand-up I performed at Al Cowie’s club. This time, mindful of my decision not to race through it too quickly, I gave a slower and more dead-pan delivery, somewhat channeling my heroes Arnold Brown and Stewart Lee, though very consciously avoiding any of their specific mannerisms or turns of phrase. By slowing it down, I was able to savour the experience more and properly enjoy it. It gave my slow brain extra chance to think of new ideas off-the-cuff too, and I think the slower style lent itself well to the pedantic analysis of a snowman joke. I had a better opening gambit this time and also reanimated my joke about storks, which I have not thought about for a long time, so it felt like a decent little step towards the longer show I eventually want this material to form.
There were some interesting audience members in for Podcast 4, which always helps. A man on the front row was especially game. He contributed some useful material that I was able to use as a springboard. His knowledge of military munitions gave me the chance to lambast him for being a bit of a weirdo: “Who ARE you?! You sit there on the front row, casually talking to the acts, and you know all about weaponry. You’re like one of those lunatics who sits at the back of the bus talking to strangers about nun-chucks!” The nun-chucks line is actually courtesy of my girlfriend who is not a comedian and therefore doesn’t need it. Annoyingly though, the line works better for her because you can imagine a young girl being cornered by this kind of loon and sympathise, but you can’t really imagine it being a problem for me. If I ever use the line again, I’ll be sure to put the young female character into it as the object of the nutter’s polemic.
The man on the front row wasn’t really a nutter, of course. He was lovely, and I’m grateful for his contribution. There were some younger girls in the middle of the audience (who very tellingly related to the nun-chucks character, clearly through experience) to whom I was able to direct some material about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I mentioned Buffy’s boyfriend Angel “wanking and crying at the same time” in the tree outside her bedroom window, which is my favourite thing to talk about in comedy. “wanking and crying at the same time” or “laughing and wanking at the same time” in a variety of contexts is my special comedy idea and I don’t tire of using it. It is my baby and I love it.
There was some weird talk of firing various chocolate bars out of my bum-hole (the curly-wurly being the audience’s favourite chocolate projectile) and when the psycho on the front row revealed his occupation as an accountant, I was able to segue into a request for the audience to put some money into the bucket on the way out. Between them they gave us £1.30.
So where are the podcast recordings? We fucked up royally in recording the podcasts. Podcast 1 (the best one) did not record because my cheapo batteries went immediately flat in the recorder. The same thing happened halfway through Podcast 3. We did, however, manage to tape Podcast 2 and 4, but I’m reluctant to put them online because Podcast 2 was so poor and Podcast 4 contains my precious new stand-up material. What we will do is use all of the material recorded to edit together a ‘best of the live shows’ podcast, perhaps punctuated with new commentary about the Fringe 2011 experience from me and Dan. This will take a little while to sort out, but stay tuned because it’ll be excellent.
Something else we fucked up on was ensuring that the donations bucket was present at the end of the show. If you were in our audience and would still like to contribute (or if you enjoy the regular, non-live podcasts and want to do the same) send us a bit of money. If you send us £1.30, you will double our entire Fringe 2011 gross revenue, making you a massive patron of the arts.
Thanks for having us, Edinburgh. It was ace.