How comedians come up with their Fringe shows

Ruth Sewell finds out

The Edinburgh Fringe is a vibrant melting pot of talent, a festival of comedy, theatre and art, and the root cause of many a comedian’s filing for bankruptcy and/or the development of severe mental health issues. 

For five years, my boss at a comedy production company and I went up to talent scout at the Fringe. We’d watch eight to ten hour-long comedy shows a day, and then stay out til 4am getting pissed with the comedians every night. After six comedy shows on the trot, nothing is funny, especially if you have a splitting hangover, haven’t eaten a vegetable in six days, and have been rained on between every stiflingly hot show in a windowless room so you constantly smell like wet dog. 

My enduring memories from that era largely consist of drinking warm white wine out of plastic pint glasses, (also known as ‘psychosis in a cup’) misjudging how far apart the venues were and invariably having to sneak in late to the taunts of the irate comedian, and, on one occasion, drawing a vagina on a comedian’s arm in Sharpie without his consent. 

If it was a heightened and mildly traumatic experience for me as a talent scout, I began to wonder what the experience for the comedians was like. It’s notoriously difficult to make profit on a show even if it’s a roaring success once you’ve paid venue fees and living expenses, and you are in competition with hundreds of other acts for punters, reviews and the coveted Edinburgh Comedy Award.

 I talked to a few very talented people about their process, their experience of performing in Edinburgh, and the big question: how does a comedian build a truly brilliant comedy show? 

So, to start at the start, how the hell do you come up with a concept for a one hour show? You want something that stands out, yet has universal appeal... oh, and you have to be able to sum it up in a poster that will stand out from the other 3,000 posters plastered all over the city. 

Sofie Hagen, who is on her third hour long Edinburgh show says: ‘When I write a show, I usually have a feeling, a story and a point. First show, my feeling was competitiveness, my story was about me pissing on a man in Leicester and the point was how to disregard society's beauty standards. Second show, my feeling was introversion, my story was about marrying a piece of wood when I was a child and my point was that it was okay to be a bit different. And then I go from there.’

Suzi Ruffell, now on her fourth solo show, which is about what it means to be a white, gay, working class woman, can relate. ‘I always write about what I am experiencing, the main idea for this show came when I was back in Portsmouth for Christmas and I realised how different I am from a lot of the people I grew up with. I also have some cracking stuff on being a member of Portsmouth’s biggest reptile club.’ 

James & Jamesy (Aaron Malkin and Alastair Knowles) have a different approach as they merge physical comedy, clown, and dance to create environments where audiences are invited to participate, so they’re lead by the audience in a much more direct way. ‘We begin our creative process by presenting a seed of an idea to an audience. A seed could be a costume, prop, line of dialogue, or character. We have never considered any of our shows as finished; they each evolve as we continue performing them.’ 

Mae Martin, generates concept ideas on stage. ‘Every other year I do an improvised stand-up show in Edinburgh. Since you're speaking off the cuff it's a good way to tap into what you're in the mood to talk about and what people want to hear. I need the adrenaline to help me stumble on punchlines. Then later I can sit down and flesh it out.’

For Dan Cook, ‘anything can be used as a concept or theme for a show as long as it's done well. I recently saw Mae Martin's show Dope about addiction and that was personal, funny and also informative. Michael Brunstrom has a show where the central theme is parsley. That works just as well for me." 

But hey, maybe there’s no need for a central concept. As Josh Pugh says, "I like watching concept shows where there is an interesting through-line or story but I also just love watching an hour of stand-up. I think you should do what you feel like doing and not engineer a concept for a show just because it’s Edinburgh.’ 

Now, you’ve got your concept, (or have deliberately chosen to eschew one) and you’re ready to get down to the serious business of writing. Do you seclude yourself in a Tuscan villa, gazing over idyllic countryside as you pen your musings with Byronic ardour? Do you smash away at the keyboard in pursuit of a word-perfect routine until your fingers are worn down to bloodied stumps? Not according to most of the comedians I spoke to, who generally work with skeleton notes to improvise around until the show comes into focus. 

Gordon Southern writes his show out longhand to start, then bullet points it as quickly as he can so that it doesn’t feel like a script. ‘I'm a comedian, not an actor. Improvisation is always a second away.’

Hagen doesn’t even bother with the bullet points. ‘I tell the stories on stage and when they work, I usually will remember how they're told. So every time I do it, the bit just gets stuck in my memory. I know I should be writing it down, but I haven't so far."’

‘We don’t write so much as play,’ say James & Jamesy. ‘In the studio we attempt to get ourselves into a state that we call a "body of delight". We engage in activities that help us let go of the stresses and obligations of daily life, trust our impulses, and cultivate a spirit of play. It is when we are in that body of delight that we tend to discover wonderfully fun material that we’re excited to present before an audience.’ 

Some comedians have other requirements. Dan Cook needs silence. Southern needs to be hungry (literally... he ‘writes better on an empty stomach’). Joe Wells needs ‘crippling anxiety… followed by some incredibly painful work in progress gigs.’ For Pugh: ‘A lot of my ideas come when I’m doing other stuff, like hovering or loading the dishwasher. So the only conditions I really need are to own appliances.’

It’s in previews that a comedian can start to get feedback. Cook, who’s performed on the Fringe eight times, says: ‘My first preview is my favourite gig of the year. I usually do it at the end of January or the beginning of February and it is just an hour of me saying all my new ideas out loud in front of an audience for the first time. It's usually this gig that provides a moment that gives me an indication of what the show will be about.’

In contrast, Wells ‘really hates doing previews. I think mine are particularly unfunny but they are necessary to get a show together so it’s worth it in the end.’ Southern cunningly tries not to throw a load of new material at an audience in one go. ‘I try out bits of it in stand up shows, sneaking them in like medicine into dog treats’ which I imagine makes the process a bit less painful. 

It surprised me that more than half of the of comedians I spoke to had never worked with a director, but rather drew on the opinions of friends and fellow comedians to shape their shows. Wells totally rejects the idea of a director, saying: ‘I was attracted to comedy because I’d have complete control over what I did."’

However, comedians could still see the value in having a director viewing their show with fresh eyes. Martin namechecked  Adam Hess, who she described as ‘the king of watching a set and giving one small suggestion at the end that makes it all about 70 percent better."’

Suzi Ruffell works with Rose Johnson, who ‘just encourages me to be more creative and take more risks.’ James & Jamesy’s director David MacMurray Smith ‘was our clown teacher. He has a remarkable knack at determining the heart of the show (or as he calls it the "North Star") and steering our characters in directions that reinforce this. "Never keep a joke because it’s funny".’ Sage advice.

Before you know it, August has rolled round. Venue: Sorted. Posters: Printed. Trains: Booked. Extortionate accommodation: Secured. Routine: 30 per cent learnt. So once you’ve hauled ass to Edinburgh, the next big hurdle is opening night. In writing this article, I discovered that for many of my questions, comedians had fairly similar experiences. But not with regards to opening night. 

Hagen bloody loves it. ‘I get a faster heartbeat just from thinking about it. It's the best. It's simply just the best feeling.’ Ruffell finds it ‘nerve-racking’ but she does a lot of previews so usually feels ready and excited. Southern says, ‘It used to be terrifying but these days I'll have tried out the show in Australia first. Like nuclear weapons in the 50s.'

On the other hand, Wells finds the opening night ‘so stressful. You just don’t know if the show will work in Edinburgh and I’ve seen friends go up with shows that don’t work  and it’s a horrible experience.’ 

For Martin it’s all a bit ‘anticlimactic. You build it up in your head and then get up there and remember what a marathon it is, and how badly your venue needs air conditioning, and you go home after your first show and settle in for the long haul.’

And like any long haul, there promises to be questionable food, poor quality sleep and a baby crying for hours on end. And that baby might be you. 

Most comedians have an Edinburgh horror story or two, and while they generally don’t help to develop the show, they probably help to develop the character of that comedian... which helps with next year’s show. Maybe. 

‘During my second show in 2015 I had a fire alarm go off ten minutes before the end of the first show,’ Ruffell recounts. ‘I took the audience out onto the street and finished it there.’ But there’s not much you can do if, like Martin, you have pneumonia ‘and coughed so hard while on stage that I cracked a rib’.’

When I asked Joe Wells about the worst show he’d ever been to he said: ‘Probably my own performance at Political Animal last year. That afternoon I had twisted my ankle coming out of my solo show and the shock of the pain mixed with lack of sleep and poor eating habits at the fringe meant that I blacked out on the street and an ambulance was called. I should have pulled the gig that night but I took a ‘show must go on’ attitude. The whole gig is a blur, my head was fuzzy and I kept not being sure where I was. Rory Bremner was there. I think he hugged me after the gig which was nice." That does sound nice. 

The bane of many a comedian’s life are ‘technical difficulties’. Lights not working, sound cues in the wrong place... Cook recalls, ‘one year, when I was in a sketch group, our show heavily relied on videos which gave the show a narrative, without the videos the show didn't make sense. A few times the projector stopped working and we just had to revert back to  performing the previous year’s show. The audience didn't seem to mind... or indeed, notice.’

But perhaps one of the hardest trials in Edinburgh is the anxiety surrounding critical reception.When asked what the best and worst things about Edinburgh were, Southern said, ‘The best thing? Stars. Performers pursue them at any cost. And the worst? Stars: a lack of them due to thick cloud cover.’ 

Many comedians I spoke to avoid reading their own reviews, because, as Martin observes, ‘it never gets easier reading someone's hastily written, mediocre or cruel review of something you've worked on for a year or two and really care about. Sometimes years later I have the distance to see that their criticism was fair and learn from it, but sometimes it's not, sometimes it's bullshit, so I think best not to read them and just get feedback from your audience and your peers.’ 

Hagen remembers that ‘once a reviewer came to my show 20 minutes after it started and left 20 minutes before the end. That one made me furious,’ but despite some unfair judgements she does read the reviews. "Either they're right in their criticism and I should make my show better or they're wrong, in which case, it can't hurt.’ 

Despite all the potential pitfalls of an Edinburgh run, everyone I spoke to loved the experience and most have been back time and time again. The big pull is the camaraderie of like-minded friends and seeing those friends doing what they do best. ‘I'm a comedy fan,’ says Cook, ‘and you're surrounded by so many great shows all day, every day.’ The highs of a great show, a sell out night where the audience really responds, it’s a buzz that can’t be matched. 

The greatest measure of success according to almost everyone was, of course, audience reaction. Hagen holds a lot of value in other comedians coming to see her show. ‘Just because I'm often so scared that I'm not considered a decent comedian. But if they show up, it means I must be good. (Or really, really, really bad).’ Cook observes audience reaction is all that matters. ‘If you go to the festival expecting fame and fortune then you will probably have the most stressful month of your life.’

So how do you build a great Edinburgh hour? Hagen summed it up when she said, ‘compelling shows are honest and real. It doesn't matter the theme or the structure or the concept or style of comedy. If the comedian allows themselves to be vulnerable and take a risk - and make it worthwhile for the audience - it's a good show.’ 

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Published: 22 Aug 2017

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Past Shows

Edinburgh Fringe 2001

Gordon Southern

Edinburgh Fringe 2003

Gordon Southern: My Drums Hell

Edinburgh Fringe 2006

Gordon Southern: The Solutions

Edinburgh Fringe 2007

Gordon Southern: Stamp Stamp

Edinburgh Fringe 2010

Gordon Southern: Borders

Edinburgh Fringe 2013

Gordon Southern: The Kerfuffle

Edinburgh Fringe 2016

Gordon Southern: Long Story Short


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