Critical appraisal

Dave Cohen on the truth about Edinburgh reviews

  Oh to be in Edinburgh, now that England’s there.

Edinburgh - the stand-up comedian’s holy grail, or his financial downfall, depending how you look at it. One day a comic will work out that it will make more sense to miss the festival one year, and just nip into a newsagent and buy 10,000 lottery tickets – and will probably get him better publicity.

One brilliant Festival can set you up for the rest of your life, but most of us stumble through a few half-decent ones enough to force us back year after year. I have performed at 15 Edinburgh Festivals (so far), including 11 on the trot between 1984 and 1994. In sporting terms I’d put it like this: Played 15, Won 6, Drawn 7, Lost 2.

Since the late 1970s I have lived 15 months of my life in Edinburgh, although like Groundhog Day it has been the same month over and over, with length of male sideburn, nationality of tourist and conversion of banks to cafés the only noticeable changes.

The first time I went as a professional, in 1984, the national Scottish press (as opposed to the Scottish National press) were buzzing with fury that the Fringe had become too commercial, and that comedy was threatening to kill off the entire spirit of the event. Here we go again.

I have spent most of this Scottish period of my life in the company of stilt-walkers, students and tartan-clad Americans, many of whom express attachment to their roots by consuming burgers produced by the MacDonald clan. I have met plenty of Scottish people, and there were always a lot of them at my shows. I never managed to entice the foreign tourist to my one-man curiosities, or for that matter the London comedy fan base, which swelled every year, although never at my door.

Most of them figured, quite rightly, that they could see me and three or four others performing our funniest 20 minutes at the Comedy Store in London, for a quarter of the price and time they would spend witnessing each one of us delving deep into our emotional shallows for an entire, long hour at a time.

For comedians, the Edinburgh Festival begins in January, when the first documents arriving through the post remind us that unless we have some concrete idea of the kind of show we intend to be doing by mid-April, we’ll lose our chance of appearing in the Fringe brochure. And the festival ends in late October when, if you were lucky enough to make some money, the final cheques from the venue crawl in.

The Festival itself, that extreme, intense and emotionally-draining roller-coaster of an August, feels like an entire year of your life, telescoped down to four weeks. So where in a normal year, you might expect a burst of intense activity, followed by a few calmer days, and maybe a period of coasting, that could stretch over a few weeks, during the festival you may achieve something of that nature, complete with all the emotional highs, lows and in-betweens, in the course of a single afternoon.

You might wake up at 10am feeling king of the world, only to be plunged into a cataclysmic trough of gloom and despondency by 10.17 – and for the flimsiest of reasons, like the fact that there is only semi-skimmed milk in the fridge, and you wanted skimmed.

From my own experience, there was nothing that could send me reeling into the darkest recesses of existential despair so fast as a critic’s review. Even deeper if it was a bad one.

The first year I ever took a show to Edinburgh, in 1978, while still a student, I was rewarded with what Fringe director Alastair Moffat described at the time as ‘the third-worst Scotsman review I have ever seen in my life’.

To be fair to me, my one-man spoof punk rock musical Guts was never likely to seriously engage the Scotsman’s jazz critic. Even 30 years on, I can recall the gist of his piece, something like ‘if you’re going to perform a one-man musical, that one man should at least be able to sing. Unfortunately Dave Cohen can’t play guitar either’. This was to be the first of many, many occasions in my life when a review would despatch me into a fug of unspeakable misery. But then, 20 minutes before my next show, I noticed a large queue assembling outside my theatre. In a newspaper of 200 daily reviews, the harsh words of Anthony Troon (yes I still remember his name) shone like rays of comedy gold dust and guaranteed me a crowd.

The lesson I learned that day was a mistaken one – that a single review can and will directly affect the size of your audience, and, by implication, your bank balance. The reality is that one very, very bad review, or a cluster of a half-dozen or so excellent ones, may help your show in the short term. But unless your show is brilliant, or at least consistently funny throughout, then it won’t make a huge difference.

Fantastic reviews are great for your CV, and for next year’s publicity, but sometimes they can do more harm than good. In 1989, the Scotsman reviewer (thankfully not Mr Troon this time), gave me the nicest review I’ve ever had – and he was a great writer, which made it even better.

I couldn’t have improved on it if they’d sat me down and asked me to write it myself. The following year I was up mainly to appear in shows other than my own, but booked a few nights of stand-up to keep my hand in (complete with that great review on the flyer). I shouldn’t have bothered, because I hadn’t written enough new material. By now, that Scotsman reviewer had moved to The Guardian, and I arrived at my venue one evening to discover, to my horror, that he would be in the audience. ‘Oh no,’ I thought, in that stupid way a performer’s mind works in Edinburgh, that makes them think everyone can see inside their soul, everyone remembers every word spoken last year, and the critics will stone you for repeating a joke you made in the same room 12 months earlier: ‘He’s going to spot that I’m doing loads of old material.’

Naturally he didn’t remember – but he did write another nice review. He still liked me, but felt there were parts of the show that lacked conviction – those parts, of course, where I performed the old material, worrying at the back of my mind that he would condemn me for it. He did see into my soul, the bastard!

Over time I learned never to read the bad reviews. You don’t need to buy the journal, or look online, to know when you’ve got a bad review. This is because, despite all the mountains of paper, and zillions of reviews that slosh around the city in August like a giant oil tanker spillage of verbosity and opinion, every stand-up has perfect radar for unearthing every bad word written or spoken about every comic they know. And if they miss one, a mate will always ring them and spread the word.

You may think this is callous behaviour, but it’s human nature. Sad to say, a bad review of another comic, even one who may be a friend, can’t help but raise one’s own spirits. It’s like seeing your fellow comic die horribly on stage, they understand your look, which says ‘I know how you feel, it’s happened to us all, but you understand how grateful I am that thank God, this time, it’s not me.’

Seeing your fellow comic suffer, and utterly understanding their pain, is one of the great things that bonds all comics. During my last year of performing on the comedy circuit, I did a hell of a lot of great bonding. But that’s another story.

Published: 8 Aug 2008

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