Wednesday 26 August 2015

Dave's Joke of the Fringe

Darren Walsh has won "Dave's Joke of the Fringe" for this joke:

"I just deleted all the German names off my phone. It's Hans free."

I'm not a big fan of jokes, though you'll often hear me laugh at a pun, and Darren has many. I don't know of any comedian who thinks that it is logical to rank individual lines in order of funniness. Every performer is unique, and every performance is a one-off. And every performance is experienced differently by every person present. But there are moments when in spite of all this audiences become united, and for an instant an illusion of shared reality is sustained for the duration of a burst of communal laughter. How that happens is an actual miracle, nothing short of magic. 

Like the review star system, "Dave's Joke of the Fringe" is an attempt to suck all the magic, wonder and joy out of the experience of comedy, and to reduce it to an abstraction of craftsmanship, a formula for gags, a list of comedy sentences. What is the motivation for the existence of "Dave's Joke of the Fringe", aside from a publicity stunt? I think it is fear: fear that something might exist in laughter that is impossible to quantify, something ineffable and weird. To admit it exists is to admit that our shared reality rests on immaterial foundations.

Darren Walsh's joke works, because Darren Walsh works, and he deserves to be celebrated. He works conspicuously harder than most comedians. The joke works because only he can deliver it in the way he delivers it, at the moment he delivers it, in that instant that becomes memorable in the light of the audience, who light up in recognition of it.

My favourite Darren Walsh joke is this:

"I was in an Indian restaurant eating a curry when I got some surprise bad news: my naan had slipped into a korma."

Darren tells it better.

"The Golden Age of Steam" – report card

Before the Edinburgh Fringe this year, I made a list of ten things I wanted to achieve. It’s time to return to that list, to see how well I did.

1. Make a show that (by my standards alone) is better than "The Human Loire". (It will include, among other things: less reliance on props, gimmicks and sound effects; better pace and structure; more audience interaction; a clearer thematic through-line. And it will end on a song.)

SUCCESS. “The Golden Age of Steam” is a better show than “The Human Loire” (though some will doubtless prefer the Loire’s more flamboyant moments). The whole show and props fitted into a single bag, and used only a handful of repeated sound cues. I loved chatting and interacting with the audience. Whereas “The Human Loire” was simply a collection of acts put in an appropriate order, “The Golden Age of Steam” had an internal logic to it. One reviewer complained that there was no structure or meaning in the show, missing the clues and associations I had placed there.* He didn’t get it, and he is entitled to feel let down, but I don’t think the show would have been better (by my standards) if I had made these more explicit. I’m proud of the song.

2. Preview it at least three times before Edinburgh.

SUCCESS. There were six and a half London previews booked in. One was cancelled.

3. Find new and exciting ways to promote it.

NON-SUCCESS. I had plenty of good half-baked ideas, the best of which was to lead a train-like conga of audience members through the streets of Edinburgh, chuffing and whistling. One excuse I gave myself for not doing this is that it would have been a distraction from the principal task of performing, but probably I was just chickening out.

4. Perform it six times in Edinburgh with wholehearted commitment.

MAJORITY SUCCESS. At the very start of the second show, I twisted my right knee painfully while jumping up onto the high stage at The Hive. For the rest of the hour I was in terrible agony, which was so intense that at times I almost forgot what I was doing. It was not a good performance, but I’m proud I soldiered through (bless me). For the remainder of the run, I wore a heat bandage and took strong painkillers. And I incorporated references to my limp and restricted movement into the show, which actually improved it.

5. Take big risks for the sake of fun and enjoyment.

MAJORITY SUCCESS, I think. Risks that you fail to take are hard to spot in hindsight. My favourite moments in the show were the ones where I allowed proceedings to get almost out of hand: engaging with a surreal heckle, overseeing a dangerous moment with a hammer, Bob Slayer jumping up on stage, etc. 

6. Fill the room to bursting for at least one performance.

NON-SUCCESS. After I wrote that aim, my venue was changed from a proposed space at Cowgatehead that seated “50” to the much larger Big Cave at The Hive that comfortably fitted more than twice that number. I employed two flyerers to help me get more people in, but my largest audience was a little under 50, more than last year’s show but not enough to fill the hypothetical room at Cowgatehead (which, in the end, never existed). I also had many walk-outs.

7. Perform guest slots every day I am in Edinburgh.

NON-SUCCESS. For five nights, I had fun playing the seventeenth-century mass murderer Elizabeth Bathory in Alexander Bennett’s “Hell to Play”. I also did a slot at ACMS, which was a hoot. But I failed to seek out those obscure comp shows of surreal, clowny delights. I ought also to have extended my enquiries to more conventional stand-up nights. Some missed opportunities there.

8. Watch more shows; spend less time recuperating in my room.

SUCCESS. Having a hostel room in the very centre of town helped greatly. Although I was suffering from a cold and a sprained knee, I refused to let this slow me down too much, and although I had a couple of “lazy” days, when I was simply too exhausted to go out to see certain things I wanted, I was delighted and inspired by the many bold, beautiful and varied experiences I had. Too many to list here.

9. Assist friends with their shows (flyering, teching and bucketing).

NON-SUCCESS. Probably my biggest non-success of the Fringe. Lack of planning and tiredness played their role here. I did a small amount of flyering and plugged friends’ shows after my own, but I was otherwise entirely focused on “The Golden Age of Steam”.

10. Secure opportunities to repeat and develop my show further in London later in the year.

NON-SUCCESS. But perhaps it’s not too late. I would love to perform “The Golden Age of Steam” a few more times. It’s hard to let go of it. But the come-down from the successes of Edinburgh make the prospect of reassembling the show in London a hard one. After all, one of my previews was in front of a single audience member and two of the bar staff. Another preview was cancelled because nobody showed up at all. I’m not good enough at self-promotion. It would be absurd to expect Edinburgh to bestow public recognition upon me, and I am still confused about how I should proceed. Or should I simply wait? Part of me would prefer to end on a high, and busy myself instead with new projects. 

There it is. I calculate my successes to be about 5 out of 10. Three stars. But like the star system on reviews, the figure is meaningless. The success of the first aim – the creation of “The Golden Age of Steam” – overrides all the others. The whole experience at this year’s Fringe was fun, exhausting and inspirational: enough experience for a whole month.

* E.g. the four modes of transport referenced: air, car, train and foot; the modified repetitions in the script; the “Golden Age” pre-industrial bucolic section on harp and flute; and the large number binary choices (“to be or not to be”, “do you get it or not?”, “praise or scorn”, “poetry or Lilt”, etc.) presented throughout the hour. All deliberate.