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Brendon Burns, Fringe Guru: Top five tips for what to do when your numbers are low

By | Published on Monday 24 June 2013

Brendon Burns

Fringe legend – or “guru” from this point onwards, in fact – Brendon Burns returns to the pages of ThreeWeeks with some advice for fellow performers from the comedy community.

When I started at the Fringe the average audience attendance was just three people. As the saying goes: you learn more about yourself as a performer in front of three than you do in front of three hundred. As a seasoned performer I can honestly say some of my most rewarding experiences were in front of single figures… but if it happens this year I’m going to kill myself and everyone in my venue – because this is mostly a lie to put new comics at ease.

So, if this is your first Fringe here’s how you cope. Or, more aptly, here’s everything I did wrong. After all, a wise man learns from the mistakes of others, an average man from his own and a comic after losing £10K two years straight.

NB. I feel compelled to stress that this is a guide for new comics; if you’re in a play the following is mostly woeful advice.

1. Don’t spend your show complaining about the numbers
This is the single most important rule. The people that didn’t turn up aren’t there now, are they? You are basically whining about imaginary people that can’t hear you to a group of people who paid you the compliment of turning up.

It’s nearly the opposite of preaching to the choir. If opposite means telling the choir that it’s all well and good but where the fuck are their friends they’ve never met.

Save your whining for the car, your bathroom or a pet, but never another human being: your show is fantastic, your numbers are great, you’re having the time of your life (repeat as necessary).

Remember, all three of the lovely individuals in your audience have showed faith in you, so shower them with gratitude and sweat. Make fans of them.

2. Get to know them
What was a show just became an awkward dinner party, so ask your guests their names, what they do, etc… put them at ease. This is like a blind date for them. They’re stuck with you for at least fifteen minutes before they can leave and their phones are (hopefully) switched off so they can’t even text a friend to get a safety call.

My friend Adam Bloom has a great story of the time he played to just one person: he was killing it until the guy went to the toilet. Adam didn’t know whether to keep going, follow him or just wait patiently.

A genuine quote from my first Fringe to illustrate the point:

“How was the show?”
“Okay, I guess. Half the crowd walked out but Alan and Elaine really seemed to dig it.”

3. Do your own flyering
I’ve lost count of how many comics have told the anecdote where they were flyered for their own show. When they ask the flyerer about the show the kid barely removes their headphones to shrug ambivalently: “dunno, it’s on at 9”.

No one cares as much as you. Flyering is the best way to hand-pick your audience. Imagine: no stag nights, hen dos or twats with hats that require some form of electricity. Just people you like the look of.

Use reverse psychology by yelling “not you!” at anyone you don’t think will like your work, thereby fulfilling your own prophecy.

4. Eye contact
This might sound obvious but working a small audience is a lot like giving head. Some eye contact is good, staring is just plain creepy and if you must look at your watch do it surreptitiously.

NB: Icch! The previous joke is an example of why I used to play to only three people.

5. Presence
I don’t mean stage presence, I mean presence presence – my favourite thing about the Edinburgh faithful is that they demand acknowledgement that you’re in a room with them. This is not a TV spot… you can’t rattle out your material as if it’s bullet proof. This technique just bombs in front of a small Scottish audience who will soon be muttering amongst themselves: “She hasn’t even said hello!” “Why won’t he look at us?” “I feel weird but there’s only three of us and I don’t know how to leave”.

Brendon Burns’ shows ‘Brendon Burns Hasn’t Heard Of You Either’ and ‘Brendon Burns And Colt Cabana Sit In A Fifty-Seater Around Midnight And Provide The Commentary To Bad Wrestling Matches’ were both performed at The Stand at Edinburgh Festival 2013.