I Put On a Hit Edinburgh Fringe Show in Just One Day
It's really not that hard, I don't get what all the fuss is about.
Photos: Peter Butler
There are some things everyone secretly believes they'd be great at if they were just given the chance. Tennis, singing, being an incredibly well-paid psychiatrist. But do a quick poll of your mates and I'd imagine the one thing that comes up more than anything else is stand-up comedy, because everyone thinks they're funny. But they're not, and they probably wouldn't be any good at stand-up. Like any skill, it needs tuning and crafting before being taken onstage.
This is something I feel quite strongly about, as I've always felt like I could do stand-up comedy. I've even got a concept for a show: "Impressions of Rory Bremner" – an event exploring the Black Forest Gateau-layered mind of Britain's finest impressionist, through the medium of impressions. I'd have already put it together, but Britain doesn't have a stand-up scene like New York or Boston, where you can just jump up and do a tight five every night. Apart from one place for month of the year: the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Considering the 42,096 shows that take place over the month, there has to be room for a 42,097th? Yes, Edinburgh, this year you're getting "Impressions of Rory Bremner", and I'm going to put the whole show together in one day.
Putting together a stand-up show takes months – sometimes years – to perfect, and I only have a day. Where to start? At the end, of course. I'm heading to The Mash House to see the surrealist comic Johnny White's finished article, the sold out "Really-Really: Pigeons".
From descriptive sections about walking through a world where the heads of people who don't like Christmas are exploding, to a heartfelt reunion with Godzilla, White's set is a lush, bizarre landscape coloured with non-sequiturs. But there's a presence at the heart of its funniest sections I'm fascinated with: James Nesbitt. White manages to capture how Nesbitt would doubt the existence of wheat intolerances, or passive-aggressively behave on a stag-do, quite perfectly, despite never meeting him. I need to do the same with Bremner – to truly get inside his head – so I catch up with Jonny after the show for some tips.
"[The James Nesbitt material] all came from when I was doing a gig in the evening," he explains. "I'd been at somebody's house, then another person's house. Then I slept-walked really pissed, arguing with people about how to get out of the flat. I woke up with a horrible hangover, realised I hadn't done my tax return that was due, decided I wasn't going to do it, then got really, really pissed and wrote all of that material in one evening.
"It's weird, actually. My friend who vaguely knows him told me – and this is the most boring rumour ever – that he actually is the kind of guy who I've painted. The kind of guy who would slam his hand on the table when eating chicken in a restaurant and say, 'This is the best fucking chicken I've ever had,' and everybody reacts as if he's actually doing that, because what's the difference?"
I say farewell to Johnny, incensed. If he'd written material so representative of a person in just one day, maybe my show could be doable. I just need to lose myself within Bremner. I need to do to Rory Bremner what Rory Bremner does to anybody who isn't Rory Bremner. I sit in a café and study him on YouTube – study him until I can take no more, and have to go for a walk to clear my head, to find inspiration elsewhere.
But I'm getting nothing out of the street mimes and pseudo-CKs. Frustrated, I head up Castlehill and inspiration strikes.
Perhaps I've been overanalysing this…
Yes. Becoming Bremner means to contort one's being to the most extreme. Thinking inside the box, not outside of it. All of a sudden, it pops into my head: I know exactly what "Impressions of Rory Bremner by Oobah Butler" is going to be. Now, it's time to get this show on the road.
Bounding down Canongate at around 4PM, I realise I actually need to sort a venue, a slot, promotion, and all for tonight. I run into the first venue I see.
"Who do I speak to about putting on a show here?" The guy looks at me indignantly.
"Right, so I'm doing an experiment where I try to put on an Edinburgh Fringe Festival show in one day. I'm looking for a venue to host the show in."
"Yes," he cuts me off. "Sounds decent. You can go on at 8:45PM but have to be done by 9:15PM as we have something on after." I can't believe it – literally the first place I try. My dream! It's happening!
With a time and place nailed down, now comes the most important square on the patchwork quilt of Edinburgh Festival culture – effective marketing. Walking around, it seems like quite a soul destroying thing to do. Earlier on I walked past two men busking a version of Electric Six's "High Voltage" with the lyrics: "Danger! Danger! / Loud Marketing! / Take a flyer…" Two hours later, I walked back past and they were still doing it :(
I speak with Matt, 28, who is flyering a show that will take place in 45 minutes. He says the most effective thing to do is go to a place near the venue shortly before your show and just shout about it. Furthermore, it helps if the flyers are clear – and if it's free, tell people.
So I quickly put together something very simple and head to nearby printers, Printsponge, and head back out onto the street.
"Free stand-up comedy!" I yell. "Impressions of Rory Bremner!" A man in his late-forties sniggers to himself. I'm ignored. I notice somebody speaking on their phone in German, so I head over to them.
"Hello!" I say, in German. "I speak German! Where are you from?"
"Oh, I want to live in Berlin! Do you know Rory Bremner?" She does not. But, entertained by the question, she decides to come. We have our first guest!
Soon, I realise that stage time beckons. I need to get in the zone. I need to become Rory Bremner.
With just minutes until curtain, I'm limbering up. I feel a cold tingle in my scalp, like somebody's squeezed a wet flannel out over sunburn. The idea of not doing Bremner justice is killing me. This show is about him, not me: I need to embody the man. To be exactly as he is. I take a breath, one last look at Bremner and head out.
"Hello everybody! My name is Oobah Butler, and this is impressions of Rory Bremner." I pick up the Bremner Box, and put it onto my head.
"Movement one." I take a deep breath and go feet first into my first Bremner impression: the man himself, straight-up.
It's met with silence. I'm not going to bomb, am I? Is this what all the greats talk about? It's time to pull out the big guns: to do his most famous impression – his Tony Blair.
A snigger at the back of the audience. Another at the front. The audience is getting into it! I knew I could do stand-up! On the cusp of brilliance, I go for the grand finale. Something topical that could divide the audience: Bremner's Donald Trump!
This one really gets people going! There are genuine laughs.
After three-and-a-half minutes, I'm done. I say my goodbyes – the show is over. I'm Tim Key; I'm Stewart Lee – I'm going to set the world alight!
And now the audience reviews are in. Let's see them:
"I was laughing a lot. Were you in pain up there? You looked like you were going to burst an eyeball." – Ryan, 23.
"I don't know who Rory Bremner is. Those may have been great impressions, but it's hard to say as I literally have no idea who he is." – Danielle, 22
"I have no idea who Rory Bremner is, but that was probably good!" – James, 13
There you have it. I knew I could do it. Thank you to all my fans, family and friends for their support through this. I couldn't have done it without you.
Until next year, Edinburgh.