Facing the Fringe

Liam Mullone strikes a pose... then starts fretting about it

Nothing says commitment to performing at the Edinburgh Fringe like paying for an advert in the Fringe programme – especially when only the most absorbed comedy fan has even heard of you. I find myself wondering how on earth it's going to stand out from all the other ads in there, each of them shouting from 92x117 millimetres of space - is that including the bleed, or do I add the bleed? What the hell is bleed, anyway? - about how bleeding wonderful THEIR show is. There were 614 comedy shows listed last year, plenty more chose not to pay for a listing.

Buyer’s remorse is pretty much inevitable when you earn £100 on a good night and you’ve just spent more than £1,200 on thin air. But with an ad in the Fringe programme there is a whole raft of questions you have to face. Does my ad say ‘funny’? Did I capture an unmistakable, singularly expressive sense of jollity? Is the lighting right? And most of all, am I pulling the right sort of face?

I'm sure that everyone else who is planning to perform comedy at the Fringe this year, and is right now busily designing posters and flyers with their digital cameras, crayons and construction paper, is wondering the same thing. Everyone in comedy wants to be a pioneer. But everyone wants to look funny. So everyone wants to look funny in a slightly different way.

But the problem with looking funny is that the camera is a sledgehammer, not an sculptor’s chisel. Looking ridiculous is easy, but few of us can capture a sense of post-modern drollery in one shot - especially in public, with a Kodak on a ten-second timer. And so looking ‘funny’ really means choosing from a broad pallet of silly expressions.

Just in case it’s helpful (I’ll save you time: it isn’t) here is a breakdown of the facial preferences made by comedians last year, using as an indicator the paid quarter-page and eighth-page ads in the Fringe Guide:

About 28 per cent of comedians decided to advertise their show by pulling a silly face, by which umbrella term I mean any hammy, pseudo-theatrical pose, the holding of dubious smiles, and gurning - either accidentally or on purpose. Mr Rob Deering, I think, was the best in category last year. I should add that, in the field of comedy, the word ‘silly’ carries no pejorative payload. I’m not knocking silly, it’s the heart and soul of the comedian's art. And the ad for Mr Deering’s Charmageddon was one damn fine silly face.

Just over 21 per cent of comedians last year decided to have a stab at smiling naturally. Best in category: Mr Patrick Monahan and Ms Lucy Porter. But then, they’re smiley people. If I try tod smile when nothing funny’s happened, I look like a swarm of bees are prospecting for jam in my nethers. I am preternaturally disposed to look pissed off. Which is why I sympathise with the comedians who last year tried to look easygoing and amiable just for their flyers, but really shouldn’t have. I’m talking Ian Stone here. Keep it real, Ian: People like us can’t ham it up. Note: This is the only time I will ever presume to compare myself to Ian Stone.

The same numbers went for the thoughtful/pensive/serious look, and the best in category last year was Mr Terry Saunders, the increasingly feted Major-General of Melancholia. This look has rocketed in popularity; there were only 13 such expressions in the 2006 Fringe Guide but 40 last year. The 2007 Guide also featured six per cent looking downright angry/hard/sneering. Best in category: Ms Francesca Martinez, who manages to look sultry at the same time.

The last 24 per cent, for reasons of outré artiness or - more likely - being put together at the last minute, didn't feature comedians' faces.

So what does all this prove, and why am I not spending all this time on my Fringe show? Well, I wrote this year’s Fringe show as a much-needed escape from performing last year’s Fringe show and – surely this is important? - we can see that silly faces are still very much the lead strategy for selling your hour to the masses.

That straightforward approach that says: ‘Look at me! I'm crazy! Come and see my show if you think you can handle this much stupid!’ is still the most honest tack. But I think, with comedy's increasing Whimsical Revolution – storytellers, confessionals, Josie Long-style playfulness - the thoughtful look may overtake it next year. And so this is the one I've gone for in 2008. I want to get with the trend.

I was happy with this decision. I chose my pic. I look haunted/distraught in it, which ought to serve me well, because after the first two weeks of the Edinburgh Fringe this is how everyone looks. I Photoshopped it. I sent it in. I paid for it…

But then, the other day early in the AM, I was walking from Euston to King's Cross (in the wrong direction, as it happened) when I bumped into that nice Dan Atkinson. We were both heading home after gigs in far-flung corners of the Kingdom, and we got to talking about our respective Fringe campaigns. He told me that he had gone for silly (again) this year. In his opinion, the ONLY face to pull is a silly one. A silly face says, louder or clearer than any words can, that your show is funny (or at least MEANT to be), and saves it from being mixed up with theatre or - God forbid - dance. He added that the growing rash of thoughtful, serious or angst-ridden poses is, in his view, somewhat pretentious. ‘It's trying to push your comedy into art before you've proved it's funny,’ he said.

To my chagrin, these wise words made a lot of sense. I could already feel a public backlash building against pensive poseurism. Maybe I should have done a silly face. I mean, I'm trying to play to my strengths this year and, Lord knows, I can DO a silly face. I'm older than most comedians of my level, so my face is more rubbery and weathered. Even among my own peer group I have VERY few teeth. I'm sure I could knock other silly face pullers into a cocked hat, as my uncle Martin (who could also do a great silly face, especially after the accident) used to say. So this year I'll just look at their posters and seethe ‘I could do that MUCH better than you if I wanted to!’

But then maybe it's best to keep my powder dry. There's always next year...

Liam Mullone's Edinburgh show, In a Dead Man's Hat, will be at the Gilded Balloon from July 30 to August 25 (not August 11 or 12) at 6.30pm.

Published: 7 May 2008

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