'We want your bums!'

Tara Flynn on the lot of the lesser-known comic

When you’re in the thick of the madness of the Fringe, it can be easy to forget that what’s happening around you is a festival. Festive! Fun! A celebration of the arts in general and – as far as comedians are concerned – comedy in particular.

If you’re one of the many shows that doesn’t quite hit stride and wriggle its way into public awareness in the first week or two, however, the whole thing can feel funereal…without even the “fun” bit at the beginning. So, it’s just “ereal”. And that’s awful.

There you are, performing away every day, all by yourself. Well, by yourself apart from the two mates who’ve dropped in, a random tourist who doesn’t speak much English and a kindly member of box-office staff who can’t put off coming for another day and still look you in the tear-stained face.

You’re so grateful that they’re there, you buy them all a pint and blow any takings you may have had. When you set out to do a solo show, you had no idea of quite how alone you might end up.

One of the joys of the Fringe, the thing that takes the sting out of the exhaustion, the financial doom, the distance from the real world, is getting to perform your own work every day. But very few of us want to do our thing in private: otherwise, we’d do it in our bathrooms and have done with it. We want it to be seen. We want to share the love.

Apart from the runaway success stories (of which there are a number every year) most Fringe performers operate at a loss financially, no matter how well their show does. Bums on seats may go a small way to addressing that, but that’s not really why we’re after your bums. We want your bums to witness the fruits of a year’s hard, hard work and, having witnessed, applaud. We’re even happy if you leave the applauding to your hands, so long as your bum comes along in the first place.

It’s an old irony that a well-stocked, anticipation-filled room is easier to play than a half-empty one that isn’t sure what to expect. Yet comedians don’t get to play such large rooms until they’ve paid their dues in small, indifferent, or even borderline-hostile ones. It takes a lot of skill to play a room of under 20 people who’ve never heard of you. In a tiny sweat-box. In the rain.

I’m not asking you to make allowances for weak shows. However, I believe that if audiences realised how tough it is to take a near-empty room from blank expression through amused smile all the way to laughter, they’d realise quite how much value they were getting for their money. Working a tiny crowd, devoid of the excitement that the presence of a telly face brings, or without the guffaws of a nearby co-spectator giving you ‘permission’ to laugh, isn’t something they give out awards for. But they should.

So bear in mind that just because a show isn’t selling out doesn’t mean it’s not good. A lot of the heat surrounding the more well-attended shows comes directly from actual bodies. Just so you know.

  • Tara Flynn’s Big Noise is on at the Gilded Balloon at 20:15.

Published: 5 Aug 2010

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