In New York and Los Angeles, depending on the day, a well-caffeinated stand-up comic can perform upward of six or seven sets in a single night. That kind of show-hopping, however, is a mere sprint compared with Edinburgh Fringe, the ultramarathon of comedy.
Fringe is, quite simply, the world’s largest arts and culture festival. People fly in from all over to attend. Held every August in Edinburgh, the nearly month-long, mostly comedic extravaganza sees thousands of performers doing just about every conceivable genre of show in 300 venues across the relatively tiny city.
The stakes are high, too. A comedian might return from a successful tour of duty at Fringe with a new ability to play shows in far-flung locales around the globe—and who knows, maybe more. They might even become the next Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who scored big in 2013 with her performance of a show called Fleabag. (“Everyone here is trying to be the next fucking Fleabag,” one attendee grumbled to me.)
Attached to this opportunity, however, is a cost. Doing the same show, night after night, in front of internationally diverse crowds who may not be properly calibrated to any given performer’s sense of humor, can weigh heavily on the soul. Audiences might not show up. Reviewers might not be into it. Hecklers might heckle. In Hannibal Buress’s 2016 documentary, Hannibal Takes Edinburgh, viewers follow along as the festival rookie bumps up against exhaustion, boredom, and cultural clashes, proving that even a comedian who’s already famous in America has his work cut out for him performing 26 hour-long shows in a short span at Fringe.
As the 2019 edition wraps, Fast Company spoke with four comedians who attended for the first time this year about the glory and the grind, and how expectations compared with reality.
Emmy Blotnick is a former writer for Late Show with Stephen Colbert who has done several late-night talk show spots, a Comedy Central half-hour, and released her first album, Party Nights, earlier this year. Her Fringe show, also called Party Nights, is based on her standup.
Catherine Cohen has appeared on Late Night with Seth Meyers and HBO’s High Maintenance. Her podcast, which she co-hosts with comedian Pat Regan, is Seek Treatment. Her Fringe show, The Twist . . . She’s Gorgeous, involves her signature mix of music and comedy.
Jamie Loftus is a TV writer with credits on such shows as Robot Chicken, an illustrator, an acclaimed performance artist, and the co-host of The Bechdel Cast. Her Fringe show, Boss Whom Is Girl, is a satire of corporate feminism.
Liza Treyger has appeared on Late Night with Seth Meyers and several other late-night talk shows, and put out an album, a Comedy Central half-hour, and an episode of Netflix’s stand-up showcase The Degenerates. Her Fringe show, In the Weeds, is based on her standup.
Edinburgh on the horizon
Liza Treyger: I’ve wanted to go for years. It’s a privilege and a gift to be able to do an hour every single night in front of a new audience. But then it was always, like, ‘Okay, well, fill this out and do this and you have to do that.’ And I was like, ‘I’m not going.’ But this year I had producers and Live Nation and Avalon [her management company], who said they’d take care of everything. So of course I came.
Emmy Blotnick: My manager thought that the material I was working on would play here. I was working on Late Show until February and then suddenly I had this big open space in the schedule to travel, so as soon as my manager suggested it, I was like, ‘Oh, hell yes.’
Catherine Cohen: I came to Fringe in summer 2013 to [pass out] flyer[s] and I just fell in love with it. It was the most magical place I’d ever been. I knew whenever I had the right thing, I would want to make it work, and I would want to come here.
Jamie Loftus: I didn’t think this was going to be the year it was going to work out. I didn’t know I was coming until May. But this show is what is really important to me in 2019, when corporate feminism is just everywhere, and it felt like if I didn’t do it here this year, I probably wouldn’t ever do this show at this festival.
What to expect when you’re expecting to do Fringe
Blotnick: I’d sort of thought Edinburgh was, like, you had to do Nanette basically: A storytelling show with a beginning, middle, an end and a heartfelt moment and all that stuff. I had a few friends, though, that had gone and done an hour of standup. I didn’t set out to do a show for this festival specifically but it has turned out to be okay even though I don’t have a big revelation that I’ve been murdered or whatever at the 40-minute mark.
Loftus: What I knew was kind of based on the few friends I had who had done it previously. Everyone at the Lyric Hyperion [an L.A. venue where Loftus workshops her shows] is kind of going off of Natalie Palamides’s experience at Edinburgh, because she had done it in 2017 and 2018 and really loved it. She was the North Star for a lot of us in terms of someone to consult for advice.
Cohen: I’m so glad that I went to London last fall and did my show there, because that just helped get everything in motion. Also, Lolly Adefope, who is a comedian from London, was really instrumental and introduced me to the right people and kind of let me know what the experience would be like.
Putting the show together
Loftus: I ended the show five or six different ways in the time I was workshopping it. There’s such an emphasis here on having a precise show arc and, even though some people do stand-up shows, there’s this kind of expectation that there has to be a very theatrical arc. I knew it couldn’t just be like any dumb ending. I had to figure out a story-based, cathartic ending to this very goofy show.
Blotnick: I put out an album in May, and my show is like 40% stuff from the album and then 60% is stuff that I’ve been developing since then. A lot of it is anxiety, depression, neurosis, how being a woman is not wonderful and how being a man seems better. It sounds pretty bad when I say it like that, but so far I think people like it.
Treyger: After I taped the Netflix half-hour last year, I kind of stopped doing all that material, and so I started working on all the old stuff that wasn’t in it and some new stuff. When I decided to go to Fringe, I looked at everything I had and figured out a focus that would tie [it] all together.
Cohen: I’ve been doing different versions of [The Twist… She’s Gorgeous] since 2017. It changes every month depending on what I’m working on. So there’s a joke I wrote in, like, 2014 and then there’s also a joke I wrote last week.
Treyger: I was prepped for not a lot of people coming at first, because no one knows who I am or anything, but I was shocked by the true small numbers. When I walked out to the first show and it was like 12 people in a room for 76, I thought, ‘Oh, wow. Yeah, this’ll be Fringe.”
Blotnick: The venue is super intimate. It’s a couple of shipping containers fitted together, and it has about 70 folding chairs in a sort of in-the-round style. You can see people’s faces and watch them react to things. There was a night of figuring out what things they were interested in and where the lulls in the set were. I have a couple of crowd work-y bits, and I figured out right out the gate that the Glasgow accent is almost too thick for this world. There was one Scottish guy who was saying the word ‘bird,’ and it sounded very much like ‘butt,’ so I was like, ‘You like butts?’ And he and everybody else was like, ‘He said birds!’ And I’m like, ‘Oh my god!’
Loftus: I’m performing in a shipping container; some of my really good friends are performing in a different shipping container across the city. There’s no backstage area. It was really bizarre, getting there and being like, ‘Oh, there’s nowhere to change.’ So you just develop workarounds.
Cohen: I was pleasantly surprised at how warm my crowds were. I was a little nervous the first night, but there was a lot of warmth. I also was just surprised at how difficult it was. After the third or fourth show I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m gonna do this.’
Lost in translation
Blotnick: A few of us performed at the Vodafone Festival in Dublin first, and that helped me quickly figure out what references didn’t make sense. And how much they love or don’t love the Jewish people. I found that, in Ireland, stuff about being Jewish didn’t really land because I think there aren’t a lot of us there. The festival has tons of people from everywhere, though, so it’s a much more worldly audience. Three old people told me it was brave of me to tell people I’m Jewish.
Treyger: I’d have someone in the audience be like, ‘It’s not called Shark Tank here, it’s Dragons Den.’ Things like that. Some audiences would give helpful tips for some jokes that weren’t hitting as hard as I wanted them to here.
Blotnick: A few of the things that didn’t land were just very simple things like Trader Joe’s. You just have to do a tiny bit of research to figure out things like what’s their version of a C-Town [a chain of independent grocery stores in the greater New York area]. I’ve also been able to tweak some of these slightly to explain, like they have Foot Locker here but not Lady Foot Locker, so that only took a small amount of explanation.
Loftus: I’m making a lot of Silicon Valley references in the show. There’s a fair amount of Silicon Valley literacy in the U.K., which I honestly wasn’t totally sure if there would be or not, but it was all pretty well understood. I used to have a joke about making a wish at 11:11, though, which I thought was a universal thing, but apparently it isn’t.
Cohen: I have a song about going to upstate New York that I normally do but I cut that. I didn’t think it would translate. Otherwise I just do the normal stuff. I mean, audiences are smart. They get it.
Adapting the show on the fly
Cohen: I’ve taken out jokes that aren’t going over well and improvised more, depending on the crowd. If there’s a crowd and they’re kind of cold, I’m probably gonna stick to the script, but on nights we’ve had really electric crowds, I’ve been able to kind of just riff a lot more and that’s always the most fun.
Blotnick: I watched a few YouTube videos of people explaining the Scottish accent and how to do it, and I’ve practiced indoors. Every time I do it out loud in public, it feels horribly offensive. My Scottish accent sounds like a pirate, but I think my comprehension of it has gotten steadily better.
Treyger: It’s figuring out a different order of where you throw things. Stuff that I was either closing with or figuring out is now up top, or this joke was part of a different chunk but now works better in this chunk with that joke. Finding where the jokes hit the hardest.
Loftus: There’s a portion where I ask a man in the audience to name women for three minutes. Those interactions have changed just because the social mores of the country are different. But if I don’t know what they’re talking about, I’m playing a very American character, so I just tell them I don’t know what they’re talking about.
Scary stories to tell comedians in the dark
Blotnick: I’ve heard about people ending up with a crowd of like five or fewer and still having to do a full hour. It hasn’t happened to me yet, thankfully, but it very easily could. I also know a few comics who have gotten really badly heckled. The venues are staffed by very young, gentle people, and it’s not like at [New York’s] Comedy Cellar where a very muscular person will just toss your ass out onto the street.
Treyger: I keep hearing about hecklers, and I just haven’t had them. I’ve had some people who it’s like positive heckling, where they’re commenting. But I hosted late night shows at the Comedy Cellar for about two years, and that helped me figure out how to shut that shit down.
Loftus: One night we had pretty much a full house, but I think most people were there because it was raining outside and not because they actually wanted to be there. So they were just like wet and like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ And I got them eventually, but for the first 15 minutes it was just, ‘Oh my God. They’re just wet and stinky and upset.’
‘Oh, I’m somewhere else.’
Blotnick: What’s been helping me is just staying very present with the given group of people that ended up in this box with me. My show is starting to get more freewheeling toward the end of this festival. I’ve been starting with a growing chunk about Edinburgh that I won’t be able to use at home most. I say Edinburgh is kind of like Rome for people who are less sexually active. There are parts of it that look like Rome just because it’s so old but it’s not as romantic. There’s a lot of rain, and there are a lot of places where you can go see bones. And then I’ve been singing little stupid songs like last night it was [to the tune of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears] “Everybody looks like Simon Pegg.”
Loftus: I’ve found myself the past week being able to do the show while also thinking about something else at the same time. It’s reaching a level of familiarity with something that you can just do it and not really even have to think about it. Then, in the moment where you know you’re with the audience and you’re talking to people, it’s very interactive, and you’re super present. But in the opening monologue sometimes I’m like, “Oh, I’m somewhere else.” I don’t think anyone can tell, but I’ve never had an experience like that before.
Treyger: I’m pretty desperate for constant laughs. That’s why I run to crowd work all the time, because I want a laugh every 15 to 30 seconds. While I’ve been here, though, I really wanted to take the time to dig into some topics or thoughts or things from my past that don’t have real punchlines. I know the audience here is trained to sit for a minute without a laugh, so I’ve really been focusing on getting rid of my desperate need for constant laughs and talking about something that I hope will be funny, and making it funny, but like also digging into topics that fit into the show that aren’t really funny yet.
Stick your head in the box of butterflies
Loftus: I think the most I’d ever done any show was two days in a row before this. I was really nervous to do it so many times. I was afraid of getting super sick of it. We’re like 18, 19 performances deep now, and I’m not that sick of it. I’m a little sick of it.
Cohen: My main concern going into it was my voice. Otherwise, I didn’t give a shit about stamina. So the first few weeks I didn’t go out or party or drink at all, and that’s a huge part of Fringe culture. But I kind of knew that I’m coming here to do the best that I can possibly do.
Loftus: I lost my voice the third night we were here, and I talked to Cat Cohen about vocal preservation, because that’s very much her department. I’ve definitely had my ass handed to me by my body.
Treyger: I keep thinking I’m going to go crazy and I haven’t yet. We’ll see what happens this week.
Cohen: It’s just fucking exhausting, but it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, because now other shows are just going to feel like a breeze. Whatever my schedule ends up being next, I’m going to be so confident because there’s nothing that compares to doing this. It’s just grueling. But I think I’ve gotten much better at it. It was mostly a mental thing. My anxiety was crazy, and now I’ve had to tackle it full on. Fringe is like . . . if I was scared of butterflies, it’d be like sticking my head in a box of butterflies. That’s what I’m doing, and butterflies are actually beautiful if you think about it. But they are bugs.