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Bob Slayer: A Heroes perspective on the evolving comedy Fringe

By | Published on Monday 8 August 2016

Bob Slayer

Debate about the commercialisation of the Edinburgh Fringe is nothing new, though that discussion evolves, and in recent years, the relationship between the free show strands and the paid-for venues has been a big talking point.
In amongst all that Bob Slayer has been building his network of Heroes venues which reinvented ‘free’ as ‘pay what you want’, while also seeking new ways to champion the independent comedy community, and the innovative and alternative comedy acts – veteran and new – who reside there.
As his 2016 season gets under way, Bob reviews the comedy Fringe landscape as he sees it…

As the Edinburgh Fringe got under way this month, the ‘ones to watch’ lists in various publications were again full of acts who are performing in the three Heroes venues. It is wonderful to see but also ridiculous that over the past five years the big venues have let a barely sober man slowly ‘steal’ all the best acts… Why is this? Well it’s equal parts what we have done right and how much they continue to get wrong…

The current comedy industry was created off the back of the act-led revolution that was Alternative Comedy. As comedy became big business, so agents, producers, venues etc took over. But for a long time they haven’t been listening to what punters and performers have been crying out for, particularly at the Fringe… We know this because they consistently tell us so.

Like any creative business, the corporate comedy industry likes to encourage competition: “Show us how much you really want to Make It”. This immediately puts the performer in a subservient position, perpetuating a self-serving system that thrives on haves and have-nots. Spendthrifts are rewarded. Artists’ money is wasted. And the risk-averse industry is always looking for near copies of previously successful acts, so that there feels like a quota of anything outside the perceived norm.

There is little motivation within this environment to assist developing performers to actually earn a living. In fact performers are routinely told: “Don’t expect to make money at the Fringe” and “You need to invest in your career…” Everything is focused on aspiring to become a ‘star’. The end result is that although more money is generated through punters being charged higher ticket prices, this money tends to end up in the pockets of third parties, with most Fringe performers being lucky to break even.

Contrast this with the independent scene which encourages creativity, cooperation, and resourcefulness. As this grows and more alternative networks are established – including independent venues, clubs, promoters, fanzines and fans – then there are better outlets for comedians to develop confidence and connect with an audience.

The new, exciting and boldly different are all highly prized, and comedy legends that the industry often seems to pass by are respected, and they can find a place where they can continue to grow and reinvent themselves. Importantly, the greater efficiency of independent comedy leads to cheaper tickets and yet, with fewer people taking a cut, there is more chance for performers to actually make an income. Independent comedy puts creativity and punters first.

So as more and more comedians demand to be treated like individuals and alternative models like Pay What You Want are steadily spreading across the Fringe, a subtle shake-up is happening. We live in interesting times. Support independent comedy.

Bob Slayer performed 24 different shows and produced ‘Iraq Out & Loud: Reading The Chilcot Report In Full’ at his BlundaBus at Edinburgh Festival 2016.