Tall stories: performers on their wildest Edinburgh moments

·18 min read

Tim Key

Mark Watson’s first 24-hour show was the maddest thing I’ve seen. Midnight, Edinburgh, 2004. Mark ambles on, skinny, an underdog, mic in one hand, vague plan scribbled out on a pad in the other. Fifty people there, not knowing precisely why. The “plan” was to freewheel until it got to midnight again. I was in that room, bewitched by it all. Mark was unheralded, not yet famous, you wouldn’t necessarily back him to get through the first 45 minutes. But he’s a mad scientist, and the following day his show had turned into its own universe. Plates were spinning, storylines had caught fire. Mark’s comedy heroes had joined him on stage, laughing, weeping, in thrall to this new kid. It ended with Mark proposing to his girlfriend, more tears (she said yes), champagne fired into the audience, Mark was lifted out through the crowd, now a deity. It was astonishing, the essence of everything good about Edinburgh. Someone bursting through, doing something no one had done before, in the only city where it could have happened. Tim Key is at the Pleasance Queen Dome, to 17 August.

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Sindhu Vee

In 2017 I was still quite new to Edinburgh and doing four, five, six, seven gigs a day. I had this gig in the back of a pub, where I was doing 10 minutes. There were three people in the audience: a husband and wife and their teenage daughter. They were about a foot away from me. I always started my set with “Hello, I’m so happy to be here”, which is ludicrous to say when there’s three people in the back of a pub, but I had no other opening lines. And the teenage girl said: “I don’t want to be here.” And the mother looked at me and said: “I don’t want to be here either. We’re only here because he thinks it’s a good idea.” The husband looked away, he wouldn’t even make eye contact with me. So my response was to go: “Well, my mother always thought I was too dark when I was growing up and she … ” I just went into my material. I did my whole 10 minutes. Nobody laughed. And the daughter was furious the whole time. But that’s the extraordinary thing about Edinburgh. As a comic, this is how you come up. You’re not allowed to choose. You can’t bail out of a gig. And, by the way, if I was in that room today, with those same three people, I’d make them laugh because I’ve learned. Sindhu Vee is at the Pleasance Courtyard, 16-28 August.

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Jayde Adams

2012 was the second year I’d ever done comedy, and the second year I’d gone to the fringe, and I was offered a 150-seater venue on the Grassmarket. I’d seen how busy the Royal Mile was and thought, “How hard is it going to be to get people in, really?” Turns out, really hard. The most I had was eight and that was after six hours of flyering. I tried everything to get people in: opera, beatboxing, shouting, falling on the floor. I even made an outfit out of my flyers and catwalked – some say this is where RuPaul got the idea from. One night, I set my stage up and waited for the audience to arrive. Front of house opened the door and made a cut throat gesture to tell me no one was coming. Back then I used to dress up as a leopard. And I found out that there is something worse than no one turning up to your show, and that’s no one turning up to your show and you’re dressed like a leopard. I learned loads about putting on a solo show that year, and it took me a further four years to do it again. I took compilation shows up on the free fringe, and then I went to the fringe in 2016 with a solo show and was nominated for best newcomer. Jayde Adams is at the Pleasance Courtyard Cabaret Bar, to 28 August.

How hard can it be to get people to come to a show? I tried shouting opera

Jayde Adams

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Flo & Joan

In the spirit of celebration on Edinburgh’s 75th birthday, let us tell you about the glorious day that we saw one of the first ever productions of Six, the now global phenomenon of a musical. It was 2016, our first year taking a show to the fringe, and we’d spent most of a day flyering in the rain, so were looking for any show close to us where we could dry off for an hour. We saw a poster on a bin for a musical about the wives of Henry VIII and although we were sceptical, we were also damp, so that was good enough. It is hard to now picture that show playing out in a conference room, where Linda from accounts had endured a boring seminar a month earlier, but even then it was an amazing musical that left us feeling surprised and excited. We’ve since tried to sell them the slogan “From bins to Broadway” but it never caught on. Anyway, fair play to them. Long live Six. Flo & Joan are at the Assembly Roxy, Central, to 28 August.

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Arthur Smith

Malcolm Hardee was a former jailbird turned comedian who was not much of a standup but had an anarchic, dadaist spirit that suited the fringe perfectly. He famously drove a tractor naked through [American actor] Eric Bogosian’s show, worked out how to smuggle a review of his own act into the Scotsman and got me to write it for him – needless to say no one has ever had a better review than that. His shows were always called Aaaaargh it’s Malcolm Hardee, which guaranteed he would be the first name in the fringe programme. On my late-night tours of the Royal Mile he would call the police as the tour started, which eventually led to the brilliant comic Simon Munnery and myself getting arrested by St Giles Cathedral at 3am. Malcolm drowned in the Thames one night 17 years ago, but I always think of him as I arrive in Edinburgh. Arthur Smith is at the Pleasance Courtyard Cabaret Bar, to 14 August.

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Stewart Lee

I think the experience of seeing a bill of Arnold Brown, Arthur Smith and Norman Lovett, at my first fringe in 1987, gave me the cross-bred standup style I started with; and year after year the Russian physical theatre clowns Derevo reshaped what I thought a performance could be. But in 2004, at my 13th festival, I saw Will Adamsdale’s devised comedy Jackson’s Way, and then I saw it a dozen times more, and it changed my life. Nominally a parody of a Life Coach presentation, the titular Jackson’s advice to treat everything as significant, and to attempt to override the supposed rules of reality whenever possible, actually worked, despite the suggestion that some kind of mental trauma had caused him to become a guru. Still caught up in the magic of the show, I took a wrong turn leaving and found myself in a dead-end alleyway full of overflowing bins. Superb! I had performed a Jackson. Outside the area of things that have a point was a vast resource of pointless things, and this was the area we should explore, and gladly. Stewart Lee is at the New Town theatre, to 14 and 17-28 August.

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Reginald D Hunter

In 2004 I was doing my second Edinburgh. I was given the key to the flat that I was going to be staying in. I got to the second floor by elevator and went to the door. The key got stuck a little bit and I had to knee it but it opened. I didn’t dig it much – it was cluttered and even though no animals were in the apartment, you could tell that cats lived there. On the first night I just made a little pallet on the floor [to sleep on]. I didn’t want to be touched by anything in this apartment. The person who ran the promotion agency discovered that she had given me the wrong address: the right address was the flat across the hallway. I’d been sleeping in the wrong people’s flat for two days. And I was complaining to the promoter: “I had to shake the door to make it open with the key.” It just shows you how flimsy those doors were. They were really flimsy. Reginald D Hunter is at the Assembly Rooms Ballroom, 7, 9-14, 16-21 and 23-28 August.

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Paul Foot

The weirdest show I ever did in Edinburgh was called Swimming with Comedians. The first weird thing about it was that it was, well, in a swimming pool. The second was that the audience (which was understandably relatively small) were all wearing swimming costumes, sitting on the side of the pool. The third weird thing was that the host/organiser was having a nervous breakdown. As she was introducing me to the stage/slow lane, she said: “I thought it would be a brilliant idea to have a show in a swimming pool, but it doesn’t really work. I’ve been doing this for three weeks now, and I can’t take any more of it. Now, will you welcome Paul Foot.” I performed my comedy while doing the breaststroke up and down the pool. It went down surprisingly well, especially as the host was clearly still in a compromised state in the paddling pool area, being consoled by a lifeguard. To add insult to injury, this was my 18th show that day, as I was attempting to break the world record for the most comedy shows performed in 24 hours. I did break the record, with 25 shows, but the Guinness World Record people turned it down on health and safety grounds, because “I might knock into someone rushing between venues”. Perhaps they would have been happier if I had done something that didn’t endanger the public, such as lying on a bed of nails, or jumping over 28 double-decker buses on a motorcycle. Paul Foot is at the Underbelly, Cowgate, to 15 and 17-28 August.

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Tim Crouch

My play The Author was at the Traverse theatre in 2010. Ten minutes into the action a planted audience member walks out. Little did we know how premonitory this staged act would be in Edinburgh. During the first preview 10% of our genuine audience got up and left. The play was in the Traverse’s smaller studio space at the bottom of a flight of stairs. An usher was stationed at the top of those stairs to deal with latecomers and leavers. For many performances that usher was my 19-year-old daughter. Outraged audience members would pour out their indignation to her as they left and it was all she could do to refrain from saying: “That’s my dad’s play, that is!” The company members were heroic. I have an image in my head of us in the Traverse bar tag-fielding provoked audience members who just wanted to tell us what we’d done to them. The Author won the Total Theatre award for innovation that year. That Edinburgh run is the most intense experience I’ve ever had in the theatre. Truth’s a Dog Must to Kennel by Tim Crouch is at the Royal Lyceum, 7, 9-14, 17-21 and 24-28 August.

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Nina Conti

In 2003 I was doing three shows. First a split bill of half an hour each with Micky Flanagan. He did his famous “out out” and I made my Monkey puppet hump a pint glass. Second was a walk-on part in Arthur Smith’s show about Dante, where I dressed as a dominatrix and hurled abuse at him. Third was a play by Henry Naylor called Finding Bin Laden. I played a fiercely earnest journalist disgusted with the sanitised taste and decency of the press. I was 29 and I had a new boyfriend and a new career as a ventriloquist. I was partying hard but I felt a bit funny and my tits were swelling up. I took a pregnancy test in the downstairs loos of the Gilded Balloon and lo and behold I was pregnant. My world changed in that cubicle and I never pass it without solemn salutation. It was time to throw the paté out of my fridge, fill my beer bottles with water and grow the fuck up. But I couldn’t think about all that in the moment: I had to strap on a dildo and go shout at Arthur Smith. Nina Conti is at the Pleasance Courtyard, to 15 and 17-28 August.

I took a test in the loo of the Guilded Balloon and it turned out I was pregnant

Nina Conti

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Simon Munnery

It was 1992, I was in [sketch troupe] The Dum Show and it was truly awful. It was Stewart Lee and Richard Herring, Patrick Marber and Steve Coogan, and me. The plan was to meet every day for breakfast to try to improve the show. On this particular morning at breakfast in the cafe there was just me, Marber and Coogan. Suddenly Steve flopped over, planting his face in his porridge; me and Marber laughed. It seemed a wonderful piece of clowning, a physical embodiment of how we all felt, but he wasn’t joking, he was having a heart attack. We were going to call an ambulance, but my car – a Cortina Crusader – was outside and that was the quicker option, so I drove to the hospital. I went the wrong way down a one-way street just to get him there, risking all our lives and those of others. After we’d dropped him off and returned to the flat we had trouble convincing Lee and Herring what had happened because we couldn’t stop laughing. Post-traumatic laughing disorder. That night we waited in the Pleasance Courtyard unsure if he would turn up for the show; he arrived in a taxi and we all cheered. Turned out it wasn’t a heart attack but hyper-low blood sugar level – he’d been on the charlie which lowers it, as does the prospect of eating. This incident occurs in Coogan’s autobiography but in his version Marber drives him to hospital and I’m not mentioned. It’s bullshit. Simon Munnery is at the Stand, to 14 and 16-28 August.

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Bilal Zafar

I took my debut hour-long show, Cakes, to Edinburgh in 2016, after only three years doing standup. When it got nominated for the best newcomer award, my life changed. I was on such a high at this point that every gig felt like it was going perfectly. I was brought back down to earth a bit when I did the infamous Late ’n’ Live gig at the Gilded Balloon. The audience seemed fairly tame at first, but then the act before me decided to stage-dive after a set of aggressive anecdotes that he shouted into the mic. My very downbeat demeanour and story about a cake shop, which required a bit of focus even at 2am, was challenged from the start. The entire audience seemed to just be shouting at me. It was a somewhat harrowing and totally new experience. After initially feeling rattled, I found the way to manage it was to act like a teacher and tell them I would wait for them to be quiet until I started talking. Staying completely quiet and calmly looking at them was making them even more aggressive and I absolutely loved it. Bilal Zafar is at the Underbelly, to 14 and 16-29 August.

Feeling rattled, I found the way to manage it was to act like a teacher and tell them I would wait for them to be quiet

Bilal Zafar

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Lou Sanders

My most memorable fringe moment was going on a fairground ride, fancying the guy next to me and then being sick on myself, and him. But on the upside, the ride was awful. So I’m glad I made my point. If I was Margot Robbie I think I could get away with it; the guy would have held my hand, stroked my hair and told me how good I was in Neighbours. When I went to the funfair, I was trying to escape the mania of the fringe and do something a bit different. I guess I did achieve that by sicking on a stranger and getting a ride stopped early. The one nice thing was that somebody in the fair recognised me! Not from comedy, but from being the girl who just retched over someone’s dad. I’m not sure why I was sick, I had indulged in a little fake meat and two ice-creams, but that’s not out of the ordinary. So I guess popping myself straight on a high octagon ride like a five-year-old was what tipped me over the edge that day. I did get the guy’s number though! For the dry cleaning bill. Lou Sanders is at Monkey Barrel, to 16 and 18-28 August.

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Matt Forde

I’ve seen so many memorable things at the Edinburgh festival, I’ve forgotten most of them. In all the years I’ve been going, one show stands out. Pappy’s Fun Club were consistently the best thing at the festival (along with Tim Vine). Ten years ago, they performed their astonishing Last Show Ever. It’s the only show I’d give six stars to, and I’ve seen Oasis three times. Not only was it the funniest show that year, I sat in awe at their ability to make comedy so tender and emotional. They played older versions of themselves and when it turned out one of them was dead, I broke down in tears. Maybe two of them were dead, I can’t remember, I was sobbing with total grief. You have to believe me; it was way funnier than it sounds. Obviously, this is actually the second most memorable thing I’ve experienced at the fringe. The first was a lasagne pie I ate on a bridge but that makes me sound thick and pathetic, so I thought I’d mention the clever comedy show first. Matt Forde is at the Pleasance Beyond, to 28 AugustHe is interviewing Gordon Brown on 7 August, Anas Sarwar on 15 August and Joanna Cherry on 22 August. More info and tickets at mattforde.com

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Fascinating Aïda

This is my 38th fringe! So many shows have imprinted themselves on me. Christine Bovill’s Piaf was absolutely the opposite of a tribute show, the simplicity, passion and truth of her singing breaks my heart in the best possible way. She’s doing a show called Paris this year and I can’t wait. Anda Union are Mongolian musicians and throat singers who gather traditional music from the many Mongolian tribes and create absolutely unearthly beauty and thrilling sounds. My Uncle’s Shoes are Brazilian clowns telling the story of a lumpen nephew learning his uncle’s skills and becoming a great clown, all done in total silence. I loved it so much I went twice. Which immediately makes me remember the 2004 production of Letters of a Matchmaker, from the epistolary novel of the same name by John B Keane (Fergal’s uncle!). A sublime two-hander – the story of Irish country folk hidebound by geography and left behind as the country emptied through emigration, desperate to find someone to ease the loneliness. Hilarious and absolutely heartbreaking by turn, I saw that twice too. Bloody marvellous. Dillie Keane, Fascinating Aïda member. Catch them at the Assembly Gordon Aikman theatre, to 13 and 16-27 August.

* * *

Rob Auton

Two of my most vivid memories from Edinburgh have come from flyering. In 2012 I was doing a show about the colour yellow called The Yellow Show. I flyered for the show by sitting in a yellow paddling pool wearing a yellow coat surrounded by yellow objects on the Royal Mile from 11am til 3pm every day. I had a yellow foam swimming noodle with a slot cut in the end that I’d put flyers in and hold up for people to take a flyer. One day a gang of Edinburgh youths were mocking me and eventually grabbed my noodle and ran off with it. I ran after them down the Mile, a struggle ensued, and I got my noodle back. A more positive memory from 2009, I’d been flyering in the same spot from 9am-11.15am every day for an 11.30am show called The Big Comedy Breakfast on the Grassmarket. At the end of the run, I went into the Last Drop Pub near the venue, the landlord put his hand over the bar and said “Shake my hand, you’ve been flyering out there every day in all weathers, respect. Well done, sir.” It absolutely made my month. Rob Auton plays The Assembly Blue Room, 3-15, 17-29 Aug.

* * *

La Clique

Since our first fringe in 1996, there have been many memorable, funny, excruciating, bizarre and extraordinary things, too numerous to mention but including:
– Costumes lost in transit between venues so La Clique artist appears on stage naked, to wild acclaim. It inspires a new reverse striptease act.
– Staff regularly finishing “after-work drinks” just in time to open the doors for the first children’s show of the day.
– An alto saxophone left in a Leith Walk chippy. On collection the shop owner asked: “Do you want chips with that?”
– Portable toilets used as dressing rooms, rendezvous locations and occasional crash pads.
– Spiked feet through sneakers from climbing Princess Street Gardens fence, a regular injury treated at the Edinburgh Infirmary. (Just ask A&E)
– Couch-surfing as an art form … how many different couches in three weeks? A serious competition.
– Set and stage changes that would normally take four hours reduced to 15 minutes. Easy!
– Unidentified knickers found on the bar the morning after ... but never claimed and origin never discovered. David Bates, Spiegelmaestro, La Clique. Catch them at the Underbelly Circus Hub on the Meadows, to 14, 16-21, 23-27 August.

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