Dan Willis

Dan Willis

In 2000, inspired by his time as one of the punters’ representatives on the Perrier panel, Dan Willis gave up his job as a computer programmer and took to stand-up. Since then, he’s notched up 12 festivals in addition to his circuit work, including Edinburgh, Melbourne and Adelaide
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© Adam Ethan Crow

Lower your expectations!

Dan Willis has advice for fellow comedians playing Edinburgh

As I sit in my rented Edinburgh accommodation, waiting for fellow comedians to arrive and grab their keys, I thought I’d have a ponderation on a few things that have been said in my general direction whilst heading Auld Reekie’s way.

The main question I’ve been asked is: ‘Why bother going to Edinburgh?’ Especially nowadays when I’m based in sunny Australia. Is it the pursuit of sex, money, drugs, fame, or as other people call them, ‘happiness’.

Well, it isn’t money, you can throw that one right out the window. If you see large posters for a non-famous comedian, you can pretty much guarantee they’re looking at a £10,000 loss right off the bat.

Some avoid Edinburgh to make money; if you’re struggling through the year, August can be a busy month with bigger names otherwise engaged at the Fringe. I’ve done this once, and it left me feeling a bit dead inside- hearing all the stories and gossip via texts while entertaining the people of Plymouth, Portsmouth or other fairy-tale destinations in need of a few nob gags.

But then if you’re just in it for money, Comedy’s a tricky old sod: enforced poverty happens to even the finest of talents. And you’ve got to accept a few painful bites in the wallet along the way.

So if not money, what about sex? Surely performing will suddenly make you a lot more attractive than you currently are. Frank Skinner said in his autobiography that David Baddiel and himself loved the women in Edinburgh, but hated the pressure of writing a show; Baddiel And Skinner Unplanned was born.

I’ve been accused of just being in comedy for sex, but I’ve always quite enjoyed sex, comedy or not. I’ve numerous times been lectured on the morals of chatting up audience members, only for the same person, four pints later to stumble up to me: ‘So how can I get groupies?’

When a male comedian says, ‘I’m not in it for the sex,’ he’s probably saying it to impress a girl.

And sex for me, is no issue, I’m practically married now, the thought of returning to the hubbub of singledom is not one that’d put a smile on my face. As Chris Rock so perfectly said: ‘You don’t want to be the old man at the disco.’

So what’s the main reason people do Edinburgh? It’s certainly not for the choice of two different sausages, or the weather. It’s got to be the fame. The concept that you’ll be discovered, Scotsman reviewer Kate Copstick will be enamoured, agents Avalon will throw you on an arena tour; all from performing just 22 shows in a rainy city.

For a comedian desperate for recognition, validation or just a vacation, Edinburgh can be the Holy Grail of success. Fame is probably the driving force behind most performers making the journey, but for some reason, it’s not why I’m here, at least not this year.

I’ve had the unwitting luck to see things from both sides: In 2001 I was a Perrier judge, clocking about 90 shows. Mostly I’d watch a show anonymously, but a few times the acts would know I was there, grab me and talk their shows up a bit.

Mostly it was friendly banter, but three times I was told by acts (and I quote): ‘The minimum I’m expecting is a nomination for the newcomer award’ as if saying that verbatim would guarantee a piece of silverware. As a Newcastle fan, I can vouch; silverware comes harder than that.

One act explained his ambitions, then strolled on stage to perform to me, his wife and two barmen, spending the hour mostly pointing at a beer bottle he’d found called ‘Shi Té’. Thinking back, it’s one of the shows I remember the most, thus he might well have been on to something.

The others were also wildly off the pace, but still focussed on the prize. I found it amazing that people could lack basic self-awareness of their ability, this being one of the main talking points when the judging panel met.

Roll on 2006; my first solo show at the Fringe and what was in my mind? “Nomination for best newcomer, that’s what.

I paid for a prestigious venue, full production, all the bells and whistles that I’d seen many before throw good money at, but still there was, with a complete lack of self-awareness.

My show was OK. On a good day it was great, on a bad day it was bad, but I averaged off on a confident OK overall, looking back it wasn’t anywhere near as good as I thought, but I loved it at the time. So where were the judges? Where were the accolades?

Going through my stats at the end of Fringe; I’d sold well, not a single Perrier judge had seen me, failed to get even a ThreeWeeks review and was down about £5,000. I’m not 100 per cent sure it all went to plan, though I did get to meet Doug Stanhope, and Vince Vaughn spilled half a beer over me at the Library Bar, so at least I had a couple of stories to tell.

Since then, I’ve just done free shows, kicked back and enjoyed myself, generally breaking even or even (gasp) making a profit. This year it’s two new shows, no previews, no press releases, just see what happens; it’s a Fringe after all. I can’t wait to get started, the atmosphere, the people, the choice of two types of sausage and the pouring rain.

So what I’m saying is: set expectations low, lower than you ever thought possible. If big things happen, celebrate it, if they don’t, celebrate just being here. Edinburgh’s the best place to be a performer, if you can’t enjoy your stage time here, buy a holiday villa in Skegness and attempt to sell plush dolls to unsuspecting Egyptian tourists. Worry not about the fame, the sex and definitely not the money; just enjoy being a comedian in the world’s number one festival.

And note: if I was worrying about anything, I’d have spent the last hour polishing my shows, as opposed to writing this Correspondents piece - but then, that wouldn’t be very fringe like at all, my flat mates are arriving, I’d best pop open a beer or two.

Dan Willis: The Walking Dead is on at the Laughing Horse @ City Cafe at 15:00. He also made this film of his 2012 Fringe:

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Published: 1 Aug 2013

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