ED2014 Columns ED2014 Comedy

Caroline Kaplan: Twelve Lessons I’ve Learned About Comedy After Seeing 34 Shows at the Fringe

By | Published on Wednesday 20 August 2014

As we near the finale of Festival 2014, how about some thoughts from an American first-time Fringe performer and attendee?

Caroline Kaplan

Take it away Caroline Kaplan from ‘The Cleek’…

1. Sometimes the most talented performers don’t get the glory
One of my favourite picks from this year was Baby Wants Candy, the American improvised musical group. What astounded me the most was the wittily named Yes Band, who control the show from the sidelines. Watching the keyboardist change his body language to indicate the tone of the song to his fellow band members was just as entertaining to me as watching the talented performers sing on the main stage. Weeks later, I’m still humming along.

2. Be big and unforgettable
An obvious lesson, but the significance of making big choices has hit me square in the face on a daily basis at the Fringe. So many performers here have inspired me to dare to be bold, both in life and in my own performances. While I still haven’t decided whether or not I liked the Red Bastard’s form of hazing and probing the audience to be vulnerable, I haven’t stopped thinking about his provocative performance. It taught me that if you go big, you will at least be memorable.

3. Comedy does not always have to be ‘in your face’
Watching earnest comedic performances like Will Adamsdale’s ‘Borders’ and Yisrael Campbell’s ‘Circumcise Me’ felt like stepping into story hour, which was a surprisingly nice hiatus from all the ‘louder’ performances I’ve seen.

4. Go see the same performer in multiple shows
At first, I tried to see as many different performers with as little repetition as possible, but I soon found myself seeking out the same performers in multiple shows. In ‘Voices In Your Head’, I watched Deborah Frances-White as ‘The Voice’ masterfully orchestrate four other improvisers, then listened to her recount a narrative about the search for her birth mother in ‘Half A Can Of Worms’. I saw Amy Cooke-Hodgson improvise a Jane Austen novel in ‘Austentatious’, then watched her perform a puppet musical in ‘No Strings Impro’. I now find myself trying to watch the performers I like in as many different things as I can to watch them take on various styles and showcase their talents in new ways.

5. You can’t go wrong with a creative and unique premise
Even before the performance began, the audience at ‘Shit-Faced Shakespeare’, myself included, were already tittering with excitement to find out how much alcohol one of the performers had had to drink prior to the show. As the four performers took the stage and began dancing in pairs, waves of laughter erupted little by little as the audience slowly recognised which performer was “shit-faced”. By the time the dialogue began, we were already howling.

6. It is always fun to watch people play their opposite
One of my favourite shows was ‘Crosstentatious’ (The one-night-only performance from the ‘Austentatious’ guys in which the boys dress like girls and the girls dress like boys). Watching the talented and adorable Cariad Lloyd portray a mean-spirited “tiny brute” of a man who kicks people in the face and poisons them, while Amy Cooke-Hodgson slung chairs over her head just to flaunt her new-found masculinity, never ceased to entertain the crowd. Luckily, the group also created a full and hilarious arc of a story to boot, and didn’t just rely on the cross-dressing aspect of the show to provide all the laughs.

7. Transitions, transitions, transitions
As a performer, I’ve struggled with making the transitions between different sketches and improv games seem fluid. In ‘Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind’, the Neo-Futurists masterfully put on a fast-paced one hour show comprised of 30 different plays, leaving the order up to the whim of the audience, who shout out numbers at the end of each sketch. In ‘Birthday Girls’, Beattie Edmondson, Rose Johnson and Camille Ucan take a different approach, using “try-hard dancing” (a term they coined themselves) to indicate transitions between sketches. The girly, fun choreography is just downright entertaining.

8. Self-deprecation + a bit of cockiness = perfection
Jessie Cave’s joke – “I’m too shy to walk naked from the shower to the bedroom… but I know I’m going to win an Oscar some day” – struck the perfect cord with the audience. Sara Pascoe, and the lads of ‘I Am, I Am’ (Harry Mitchell and Lowell Belfield) also hit this balance beautifully.

9. A quiet audience does not mean they aren’t enjoying the show
As a performer, it is hard for me to not judge my performance by how many laughs the audience gives me. As an audience member, I realised that I am often so interested in what the performers are doing and saying that I almost forget to laugh because I am so deeply invested in what they are saying. In my favourite stand-up show, ‘Sara Pascoe vs History’, I was leaning forward the whole time, making sure not to miss one second of her hilarious and intelligent rants on pubic hair or why small-chested women aren’t extinct. To be fair, I did crack up many times throughout her show, but I also learned that the times when people aren’t laughing doesn’t mean the material isn’t funny.

10. Standing in the queue before a show can be a great place to make friends
Trying to find the right queue with ten different ones snaking their way around you at any given venue forces you to talk to many different people. I’ve found myself essentially doing PR for the show I’m about to see (before I’ve even seen it) as people in line for other shows curiously lean over asking you to explain “What is this ‘Kraken’ thing everyone’s in line for?” Plus, when you’re  searching for the right queue and your first words to a stranger are “Are you here for Shit-Faced Shakespeare/Circumcise Me/Sex With Animals?” (etc) you inevitably break down any semblance of formality or discomfort right away.

11. Sometimes you get more than what you paid for
The phrase “You get what you pay for” does not always ring true at the Fringe (luckily!). Some of my favourite shows have been free. ‘Birthday Girls’, ‘Jeff Leach: Fit’, ‘Cariad And Louise’s Character Hour’, ‘Katia Kvinge presents Karacters’, and Lizzy Mace’s ‘Overlooked’ are all top-notch freebies, just to name a few.

12. The first row myth is true
If you sit in the first row, the performers are probably going to interact with you. Because I beg people in my own show to move close to the stage, I try to pay it forward in other comedians’ performances by sitting front and centre. Luckily, all of my interactions as a front-rower have been fairly tame (I was instructed to put a pair of fairy wings on a performer at ‘Voices In Your Head’, put giant foam fingers on Spencer Jones, and was asked to rattle off different emotions for Cariad Lloyd to embody in her wig). At ‘Kraken’, however, I barely escaped being used as a prop when the woman next to me was asked to crowd surf through the audience with sweatpants tied around her head to look like an elephant. So if you want to stay invisible, moving toward the back might be a safer bet.

Caroline performed in ‘The Cleek’ at Just The Tonic at Edinburgh Festival 2014.