Edinburgh, egos and King Lear

Mark Watson’s hairy experience of life as a stand-up on the Edinburgh Fringe.

Ah, late July. If you're anything like me, your thoughts will have turned in the direction of the forthcoming Edinburgh Festival Fringe. But the chances are, you're not like me - you're probably not a professional comedian - and you've scarcely given Edinburgh a thought.

There is probably no event to rival the Edinburgh Fringe when it comes to the gap between its importance to the participants and its importance to the general public. Those of us who give a month of every year to it fondly imagine that the wider world is following it breathlessly, the way it did the World Cup. In reality, whether your show is the biggest hit of all time or a turkey, very few people south of Carlisle will ever know. It's as if the Spanish squad had come back triumphant from South Africa and, instead of greeting them with a heroes' welcome, everyone had said, "Oh, so you've been away, have you? Was it hot out there?"

Don't have a heart attack

Still, for the duration of time you're in Edinburgh, nothing else matters. Whether you're a punter or a performer, the Fringe has a way of erecting a bubble around your brain, so that ­international current affairs matter less than a unicyclist swallowing fire. If you told the average Fringe participant that the Prime Minister had been caught in a compromising embrace with a swan, they would distractedly reply: "And how many stars did he get in the Scotsman?" Almost any activity performed in Edinburgh in the month of August is automatically seen as a performance. It would be a terrible time to have a heart attack in public. People, instead of helping, would stand around and say things like: "We've seen a lot of this stuff done better by other cardiac victims."

Destructive criticism

You need a thick skin to deal with reviews; well, either that or a revolver. Comedians tend to react differently to criticism, depending on their mindset. Some become self-righteous and say things like: "Well, what right has she got to criticise me?" But the answer to that is pretty simple: the reviewer has a perfect right to criticise you because he or she is being paid by a newspaper to do just that. It makes no more sense than asking what "right" Jeremy Paxman has to quiz politicians, or, for that matter, what right a lollipop lady has to help people cross the road. Some comics become even more belligerent. There's a well-told story of one who found the reviewer's flat, dropped his trousers and shouted: "REVIEW THIS!" But again, this carries certain risks. There's always the danger the critic will take you at your word, and a two-star review in that situation is a lot more crushing to the ego. So, I tend to adopt what I think is the most well-adjusted attitude to unfavourable reviews: internalise them for a period of several months, then eventually cry myself to sleep in a hotel in Liverpool.

Singular audience

But there's always someone worse off than you. At the Fringe, this comforting rule of life is embodied by the underdogs who crowd the Royal Mile, trying to interest members of the public in one of 34 productions of King Lear, or lying, with flyers outstretched, in the path of passers-by, who tend to live up to their names by, well, passing by. For every show that's packing in the audiences, there are ten packing away the rows of empty chairs, with the director saying things like: "Let's push the start back five minutes. I'm pretty sure it'll fill up a bit" - while the theatre staff glance meaningfully at their watches. There was a play a few years ago whose cast found itself, midway through a less-than-stellar run, playing to just the one person. Twenty minutes in, the sole ticket-holder left, never to return. Not knowing what to do, the actors emoted their way through the remaining hour to nobody at all. There's also a story about an am-dram company that ploughed through a couple of hours to another solo audience member, only to find, when the lights came up, that it was actually a coat slung over an empty chair.

Way past bedtime

Most of Edinburgh's comedy programme doesn't get going until 6pm or so, and goes on until well past midnight. Alongside Scotland's relaxed licensing laws, this means most people at the festival fall into disastrously unhealthy body-clock patterns and lose the ability to distinguish day from night - sometimes permanently. The Fringe's venerable tradition of shouty, hostile, late-night gigs continues to seduce younger comics, but as you get older, this aspect of the festival tends to lose a little of its appeal. Early in your career, an on-stage time of 2.20am seems thrillingly rock'n'roll, like being allowed to stay up past your bedtime. You realise you're getting old when you stop thinking, "Look at me, on stage when most of the nation is asleep! I may as well be Bill Hicks!" and start thinking, "If the compère stops faffing around and brings me on stage, I might still be able to get my full eight hours tonight."

A diet of chips and gin

Ego, delusions, financial and psychological meltdowns: Edinburgh has it all, and all of it played out on a diet of chips and gin, in accommodation at "festival rates" (slightly more expensive than staying at Balmoral) and under a sky that normally stays slate-grey for the whole month and produces a rain shower every 38 seconds, on average. Why do so many of us put ourselves through this nonsense? It's a bit like asking why some people run the London Marathon every year. You might be tired and disheartened, you might fail humiliatingly, and even if you do succeed, you may find yourself wearing an animal costume. But it's a habit that's nearly impossible to shake. And you get a nice T-shirt afterwards. Although that last part applies more to the Marathon.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 02 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Politics and comedy