COMMENT: Publicity or Bust
First published August 2000
Publicity or Bust
Edinburgh or Bust purports to be a documentary about aspiring stand-up comedians and their experiences at the Edinburgh fringe festival. In fact, it's a back-scratching deal organised by those with most to gain - namely, Karen Koren's Gilded Balloon venue, around which most of the programme revolves, and Channel 4, who sponsor Koren's events in the first place.

As far as we're concerned, any comedian who allows him or herself to be filmed for Edinburgh or Bust is - with a brief quote-nod to Hicks - off the artistic roll call forever. Which is no big loss, because shows of this kind inevitably attract the very kind of person the comedy world could well do without - vain, insecure, glory-hunting, chutzpah-sweating, pop-eyed, smirking, over-confident little shits, disgustingly at home with the media they wish to monopolise, passing vacuous, say-nothing asides to the crew in an attempt to appear like scampering mavericks, despite the fact they are subordinate PR puppets who will do what they're told once the money comes in. And that's just Adam Bloom.

So, in case you happen to miss any of this year's instalments, allow SOTCAA to keep you up to date...

Episode 1 (11 August 2000)

Same old opening titles - an epilepsy-inducing montage of ticket stubs and pavements, tinted blue and accompanied by something Richard Thomas put together in his lunch hour. Under Jenny Eclair's nobody's-listening-so-I-can-say-anything-I-like prattle about the number of shows and venues on offer at Edinburgh this year, there is another montage - this time of posters being pasted, scaffolding being erected, and anonymous theatre staff mugging cheesily to camera. The person who invented digital editing created a monster.

Throughout the show, we are introduced to the following acts, all of whom mine new depths of depression and banality.

Brendon Burns - original host of The 11 O'Clock Show, and 'Fringe veteran' (ie, can't get any proper work) since 1994. An Andrew Dice Clay for the Andrew Dice Clay generation, his act consists of having wacky hair and shouting. He picks on a young woman in the audience: 'You're fucking gorgeous,' he observes. 'So congratulations - you're the star of my next ten wanks!' He is interviewed, and says that this year's festival will showcase his strongest set to date (which is convenient, eh readers?), since it is more 'comedically mature'. As a get-out clause, lest anyone should think he is dull enough to actually care about his comedy and talk about it properly, he laughs drunkenly afterwards, burps, and says 'wanker' again.

Elsewhere, a couple of kids called Noble (not Ross) and Silver are preparing for their Edinburgh debut. They were 'lucky enough' to be booked by the Gilded Balloon, and Karen Koren is good enough to predict that they will be a 'big hit'. Their comic prowess is demonstrated by a prank phone call, in which they hilariously say a swear-word to a receptionist. Much issue is made of this being 'illegal', even though it's obviously not, and the receptionist's voice is re-dubbed by an actress. They both corpse after their handiwork, in a manner resembling Kevin Eldon's London Shouting Jerky Boys parody. Back in the pub, the duo enjoy a not-even-remotely-earned pint, their stubble wobbling gormlessly up and down in time with their opinions. (The pub is the Hen & Chickens, incidentally - home to Barratt & Fielding's Boosh and little else.) Noble and Silver represent the most repellent by-product of this comedy age - pretty boys who are keen to act the part of being comedians rather than exist as either (a) funny people in their own right, or (b) people who actually want to work hard on their material. Much amusement is made of the fact that they only have one joke to fall back on.

Paul Wagner is from Boston, and has chosen to bore Edinburgh with a series of dreary, work-a-day non-characters that we wouldn't wish on The Kids In The Hall. All improvised, naturally, with the characters uttering some 'dark' non-sequitur whenever he can't think how to end something. We see him discuss his future with PR guru Martin Hunt. We see him walk into his improbably huge venue and turn his nose up at it. We see him make a joke about his sandwich not being to his satisfaction, and pointing to it - you know, in that way people do in documentaries when they're afraid to actually talk about their craft or do anything worth watching.

Julia Morris, though, was arguably the worst of the worst. A failed Australian chat show host trying to find work in the UK, Morris' act consists of mentioning sexual practices and reacting incredulously to them. She knows nothing of comic presence, pacing, delivery, timing, funniness, originality or wit, but she does know Rich Hall, which kinda helped. 'I wonder if I'll get reviewed?' she ponders, in the company of a camera crew from a national TV station.

Russell Peters is a big name in Canada. Which is good, because he can fucking well stay there.

Ed Byrne popped up sporadically, offering the only non-gushing contributions to the show. Rather tellingly, he seemed keen to point out the mechanics and one-upmanship prevalent at the festival, without resorting to silly face-pulling or nervy little giggles at the end of sentences. Byrne actually has enough talent to justify a joky interview persona, but he eschews the temptation, and - as such - his interview snippets are kept to a minimum. He was probably only included at all because he was the only semi-famous person who'd talk to them.

Over the end credits, we are updated on what the stars of last year's Edinburgh Or Bust have been up to. Very little, it would appear. Cathy Dunning has co-devised 68-part daily quiz show, which was nice of her.

Anyway, that's the first episode. See you same time next week...

Episode 2 (18 August 2000)

This week's instalment, we are warned, contains not only strong language but 'strong opinions'. Strong as in stewed tea, presumably. A day earlier, the excruciatingly dim contestants on Big Brother had been reeling from the revelation that there was cheat in their midst, someone who had - shock, horror - not been playing by the rules. Said housemates would probably have been more at home on Edinburgh Or Bust, where boats are left unrocked and everyone is a brainless team-player.

New titles this week. Well, they were the old ones, really, but they've been inter-cut with stock footage of the Edinburgh tattoo to give it that unique flavour of nothing. Jenny Eclair tells us that 250,000,000 pipers walk past the Royal Mile in this traditional ceremony, which marks the start of the festival.

It's press day at the various fringe venues. What does that mean? Well, very little, obviously. Rich Hall, in character (just) as Otis Lee Crenshawe, introduces Brendon Burns, who performs a snatch of his dismal stand-up routine to the completely correct response of no laughter whatsoever. Russell Peters tells the camera crew that be is 'the human link between reality and all the bullshit out there', saying that it doesn't matter 'how different you are, it's how good you are that matters'. Fine sentiments, until you see him do a British-people-eating-curry-when-they're-pissed routine that we wouldn't wish on our worst enemy. Who is Karen Koren, obviously.

We see vox pops of audience members leaving Peters' show. All of them say positive things. For God's sake, people, educate yourselves! If they were to gaze at Sarah Payne's corpse for half an hour, they'd still say it was 'absolutely brilliant!'.

Quick interview with Bill Bailey - like Ed Byrne, he clearly gave a serious interview about his experiences at Edinburgh, but - realising that this wouldn't fit in with their 'wahey, it's a madhouse up here' vision - the editors cut his views into very small bits. In contrast, this is followed by two minutes of Paul Wagner pointing at his sandwiches.

In the Peppermint Lounge, Julia Morris is losing her voice. As Basil Fawlty once said, 'I wish it was an ingrowing tongue...'

More positive vox pops about Morris' show then mix into Brendon Burns again. He opens his show by squatting on a female audience member's face and singing the Cameo song 'Word Up'. The audience, who are clearly meant to think 'Gosh, how outrageous' and 'What a frightfully witty post-laddish satire on seedy rock gestures' visibly look very uncomfortable and scared. As does Burns himself.

Next up is the Edinburgh Or Bust video box, where the public get to sum up Edinburgh in one minute. Sponsored by Missed Opportunities plc, this enterprise merely results in lots of plummy, giggly-girly nose-stud 'let me be in the media, I promise to have no opinions' twatgoons doing their audition pieces. In five years time, these people will be running the industry.

Back to Noble and Silver. We see them at home, making a joke about their socks, and on stage, doing an complicated and tedious trick involving televisions. After this, yet more positive vox pops. 'It's stuff you wouldn't see attempted anywhere else,' says one man, who has clearly never seen any comedy in his life before.

More sandwich-pointing from Paul Wagner, and we see a glimpse of his act - he performs his 'preacher' routine to an enthusiastic audience of about 25. But he is not happy, saying he is used to standing ovations back home. Hey, maybe we can have a whip-round to get him his ticket?

Lastly, we see Julia Morris at the Gilded Balloon's 'Late & Live' evening. Legend has it that this is a brutal, take-no-prisoners, bearpit venue, where only the strongest, booziest, swearingest survive. No it isn't. It's full of the same polite, Red-Bull-and-vodka crowd that invest every other venue, and they will happily tolerate Morris' non-joke meanderings about dancing to a Dannii Minogue CD until The Bert Fersheners come home.

So that was Episode 2. There's a reward on offer for anyone who can find our will to live.

Simultaneously to this travesty on C4, BBC2 were broadcasting Edinburgh Comedy - a show which also featured Julia Morris and her assault on the art.  According to RT, next week's (concluding) Edinburgh Or Bust is scheduled a bit later, presumably to avoid split loyalties in the Russell Peters fan camp.

We could go on like this, on a weekly basis, pointing out the flaws in all these people's acts, but - to be honest - we're starting to wonder if it's fair. It's certainly pointless. After all, how much are these people actually to blame for their elevation? If it wasn't them, others would fill their place quicker than you could say 'Boothby Graffoe'.

The rot is bigger and more dangerous than Edinburgh Or Bust lets us believe. In fact, the way the show is edited lulls us into accepting that the limp state of today's comedy is the fault of the stand-ups themselves, rather than a more general attitude problem which has infected the whole industry.

Have another look at the acts, and compare them to the hopefuls on display about a decade ago - the Simon Fanshawes, the Rhona Camerons, the Jenny Lecoats, the Jeremy Hardys. As talent goes, they are about equal. What's changed is the performers' motivations. Simon Fanshawe wasn't very good, but at least he was just an amiable little toff, pottering around the fringe with good intentions towards his craft. An act like Noble and Silver, on the other hand, know the form - they understand the media far more than their predecessors did, and are able to mould it to their advantage. The duo are not without talent - they know how to deliver a line, and can feed off each other in a way which resembles 'chemistry'. But what use is this, and how much of a pleasure is it to watch? They're phoney and we know it. Their voices are fixed firmly in the Paul Powell / Armstrong & Miller / Simon Pegg register, as if they've been to an evening class in How To Talk With That Voice. They're po-faced pawns, rather than people obsessed with and infused by the hot sticky ecstasy of comedy itself. They're no fun whatsoever.

And Edinburgh Or Bust will have the last laugh. Take this piece, for example. Last week, we said that Brendon Burns was rubbish. Lots of people agreed. But so what? This feeds the bullshit, rather than destroys it. Comedy fans are being brought up to believe that (a) the problems in the comedy world are at the hands of individual performers, when in fact it's a by-product of the way the media bollocks machine dumbs down everyone's standards, and (b) it doesn't matter if you're shit, because Karen Koren and C4 will give you a break anyway.

Rob Newman wrote a piece in The Guardian the other week, bemoaning the lack of genuine political satire at the festival - he argued that the Spitting Image idea of topical comedy was intrinsically reactionary, because it suggested that individual rotten apples were to blame for the ills of the world, when in fact it was the system itself that was corrupt. The same is undoubtedly true in comedy, and it allows the PR twats a neat little escape clause: after all, if the public aren't taken in by the latest piece of spin - 'Ricky Gervais is a good TV presenter and worthy of a Comedy Award', for example - they can always claim that the faults were Gervais', rather than the comedy world in general. Result? They take Gervais out of the picture and get the chance to start again until they find someone who does hoodwink the world.

Edinburgh Or Bust should be crucifying these people on a regular basis. How DARE Karen Koren insult us all in this way? They shouldn't be selecting the vox pops who say nice things, they should be holding Koren and the morons she employs accountable, like puppies being shown their own excrement accompanied by a firm 'NO!'.

So what do we do? We're talking to you, the actual SOTCAA audience. Come on, there's a hundred of you hitting on us every day, and we never see you in the forum. Don't blame you, obviously - it's full of blokes with bobble-hat pseudonyms dipping into the site for a 'bidduvalaff' during their lunch hour. They're no use to anyone, and they don't read anything on the site anyway. (Wait and see how long it takes them to notice this bit and then start a useless thread called 'Our ears are burning', last post 28 Aug by Winky Wanky Wonky.) It's you we're talking to, the real readers - how are we going to change this? Send us your ideas, your gossip, your theories, everything. We cannot let this situation continue - if we sit back, the world will eventually be run by self-serving wannabes like Charlie Brooker rather than people who understand comedy. Can you honestly look at Edinburgh Or Bust and feel proud of your comedy heritage? Is this honestly the best we can do? People say we're arrogant, but we reckon we're nowhere near arrogant enough.

Oh, by the way, it was only 7,000 pipers, not 250,000,000. Did you notice? Don't worry - neither did Jenny Eclair.