My participation in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year was very much a research trip. I wanted to see how it all worked, how my show would go down, if I could make money, things like that.
Beyond all that, as my show was a musical comedy show, I planned to check out the “state of the art” of musical comedy in general. I wanted to see what kind of material, styles and genres other people were performing, what audiences responded to, and what I can learn from each act, good or bad.
I found that many acts fitted into one of these categories or genres of musical comedy:
- Lyric replacement covers of existing popular songs.
- Style covers of popular artists or groups with a lot of jokes about music itself.
- Standup comedy sporadically punctuated with short songs played on (if female) a ukelele or (if male) a small electronic instrument, without much musical or vocal skill.
- Original songs in a specific style.
Not hard and fixed categories, but helpful for me when thinking about the acts. Aside from that, there were two other questions I’d ask myself when watching the shows:
- Do I feel like I got to know the artist personally? Are they doing songs about generic topics or about their own experiences?
- How spontaneous is this act? How much is scripted and how much is improvised?
In regards to the first question, personally I prefer to get to know an artist as a person, not just as a performer of funny material. The second question I’m fine either way, as long as it’s funny!
So here are some of the shows and artists I saw in Edinburgh, starting off with some favourites and then working through some of the categories above. Photos taken with my iPhone.
Christian’s show, Lost in Music, was part of the PBH Free Fringe, and was really good. Not only was it the best musical comedy shows I saw at the Fringe, it was one of the best shows in general. Christian sings “in American” and puts on the character of a better-than-you rock star. The best part is that he can back it up with fantastic musical talent and hilarious songs and equally funny patter in between.
My own first Saturday show was packed, standing room only, and I had a good show. I went to see Christian’s show the same day, and likewise it was packed. It had the atmosphere, not of a comedy show, but of a rock concert. The following Wednesday my show was back to an average audience, so I went back to see Christian again with a mid-week average audience, and it was still just as good. He had more time for an extra song, which was cool.
The show itself is a mix of lyric replacement covers and style covers. While these genres of musical comedy aren’t usually to my taste, Christian makes the conceit a major part of the show, and plays to the strengths. With just a guitar he does convincing style covers of diverse genres, from Iron Maiden to Jay-Z, rather than resorting to backing tracks to express himself musically.
***** 5 stars
A friend, only in Edinburgh for 32 hours, told me that he’d seen Abandoman before, and that it was the best thing he’d ever seen. Not just the best comedy show, but the best thing ever. That’s a big claim! So I bought a ticket for a few evenings later (it was selling out every day) and asked about for more opinions. Others said it was a very good show, but not the best thing ever. Expectations suitably set.
It was, in fact, a genius show. I mean, I’d never seen anything like it before. Abandoman is, it seems, a three person act, but it lives or dies by the talents of the frontman and main vocalist Rob Broderick. Remember how I said I prefer to feel like I’ve gotten to know the performers by the end of the show? This was the show that seemed to fall shortest of the mark of all the musical comedy acts I saw. The three guys arrived on stage with no personal introduction, and began as though I should already know their names. I didn’t know their names, of course, so I felt a bit stranded.
The show is formatted as a song writing challenge by a virtual Jay-Z, and the group have an hour to write a new hit hip-hop track. The guitarist and keyboardist/drummer provide the backing track (and singing hooks) and then Rob does freestyle rap with comedy lyrics over the top. The topics come from audience suggestions expertly selected by Rob during some very well executed banter and interaction, based on prompts from Jay-Z. Like “What is your most prized possession?” or “Who was your first childhood celebrity crush?”
After an open question “What is an award you once won?” I shouted out “Pancake flipping competition winner!” And so the team wrote a Nicki Minaj-style track on the topic. Which was fun. I must admit that it was probably the least entertaining song they created that evening, probably due to the quirky nature of the topic. It’s probably easier to come up with genuinely funny stuff about a more mundane topic (like being a hydroelectric engineer). They had a camera crew in though, so in the future I might be able to find the track composed about me on YouTube or a DVD or somewhere.
The show itself is genius. Rob is a genius. And overall it was one of the funniest and most entertaining shows I saw at the Fringe. However, I don’t think I need to see the show a second time. The show’s structure is set. The structure and style of each new track is set. The kind of topic requested for each song is set. The only difference each night is the audience banter and the freestyle rap part of each song. “Only” is being unkind, as that is what the show is about. But remember what I said about not getting to know the artists? And wanting to? This show is purely about the audience. It’s a reflection of the audience, with seemingly no colour added by the artists. Like I said, I didn’t even know their names.
So by the end I’d had as much as I wanted, but felt no desire for any more. The “trick” is very, very impressive, but the show felt like a one trick show. Other shows that I saw which were one-trick shows based around audience interaction (like The Dark Room and Come Heckle Christ), I wanted to go back and see a second time to see how they would be different with a different audience (and it was the second time I’d seen The Dark Room). With Abandoman, wrongly or rightly, I felt like I’d seen everything they had to offer in one show.
Still, ***** 5 stars.
From freestyle rap to the extreme opposite! I’d seen extracts from Baba Brinkman’s Rap Guide to Evolution before, so I thought this would be similar: clever and funny. Turns out this doesn’t fit well in this blog post at all. I thought I was going to see a musical comedy show, and it turns out this show was a rap-theatre-storytelling hybrid. While it was funny in places, and the stories themselves quite amusing, it simply wasn’t a comedy show at all.
It is, however, very good. It’s an hour of intricately scripted rap translated directly from Chaucer’s original middle english language stories. And, because it wasn’t based on style covers of currently popular music, instead on music and material the performer is obviously passionate about, I felt I got to know Baba way better than other performers, even though he was telling stories not based on his life. That he chose the Canterbury Tales, and the tales he picked, and the messages about life he got across, opened up his own personality far more than other acts.
And I guess this is the lesson to learn from this. For example, two other musical comedy acts did a lyric replacement song based on Crazy Horses by The Osmonds. Both funny enough songs, but what does that song, a novelty pop song itself, really mean to them? Good for a throwaway joke? Or a kind of music you want to base your entire show on? And is a Nicki Minaj-style track what three guys from Ireland really want to be emulating in their show, if they could pick any music at all? I think there is a strength to picking your passion and forming a show around that.
So while not terribly funny, The Canterbury Tales Remixed gets **** 4 stars.
A cousin of a friend was flyering for David O’Doherty’s extra 11pm show one night, so I bought 3 tickets and we all went along. They turned up late, and due to the entire box office system going down that day, the extra show was oversold. We three had to sit on the steps between the seats.
I’d only ever seen David on YouTube before, and really loved his mastery of the small electronic keyboard and spontaneous-sounding lyrics. He showed that off at the start of his show, riffing to the cheesy beat about it being an extra show, the show being oversold, and other topical stuff. It was very funny.
Then he switched to standup comedy, which was also very funny. And the structure of the show was genius too, and could probably be extended out long past an hour, or tightened up, or even the material within the structure replaced entirely by other observational comedy.
But I was disappointed by the musical comedy in the rest of the show. Gone were the fun cheesy beats and the frantic delivery. Instead David stuck to the cheap sounding piano sounds, and it’s very hard to satisfy me musically with cheap. Worse yet, only one of the songs was laugh out loud funny. The others were just daft, had nothing to do with the structure of the rest of the show, and only seemed to be put in to keep happy the crowds who came because they want to see “the funny guy with the child’s keyboard”. But the rest of the show was strong enough without it!
Normally when I see a show live, and have also seen it on video (say on YouTube) I say “Much better live!” But with this show, only talking about the musical comedy section, I’d say just check out his greatest hits on YouTube. The standup comedy is well worth seeing live, of course.
For the whole show: **** 4 stars. ** 2 stars for the musical comedy bits.
Talking of standup comedy punctuated by music played on a small instrument…
I didn’t get to see Ria Lina’s full show, as it clashed with mine, but I did see her perform in a midnight cabaret show. I didn’t take a photo.
So while male comedians with little musical talent seem to be drawn towards small electronic instruments, female comedians with little musical talent stick with ukeleles. I can’t remember all the examples I saw at the fringe, but the phenomenon is perfectly illustrated by fellow Berlin musical comedians Sticky Biscuits:
Very funny, of course, but music is entirely secondary to Ria’s show. Or so it seems. Many of the acts and shows I’ve seen feel like someone is musically talented first, and comically talented second. Or, to put it another way, if a comedian didn’t have a high level of musical talent, their show wouldn’t work at all as it relies on that talent.
But with many comedians with small musical instruments, the musical talent on display is what you’d expect from someone who started learning the instrument a mere few weeks or months previously. And if the comedian has been playing for as long as they’ve been performing comedy, they are either affecting an amateur style or just don’t care enough to learn to be more competent and/or do anything even remotely interesting compositionally.
No star rating because I didn’t see Ria’s full show.
Not pictured: Gareth Richards holding a small electronic instrument. He does that three times in his standup comedy show. The music properly punctuates the show too, as the songs follow on from the preceding standup material. It was the first show I saw at the fringe though, so I don’t remember much about the songs a month later. Something about hearing your mother had died from someone on the bus. Funny stuff.
And the musical instrument? Perfectly designed for someone with little musical talent! Mash a touch sensitive strip while holding down one button and it makes everything play in tune. Very handy.
*** 3 stars.
Jacky Wood has a show that is described as “Musical comedy meets character comedy in the debut solo show from stand up and improviser, Jacky Wood. It’s sharp, satirical and in a variety of keys… Also includes talking.”
The photo above? Not Jacky Wood. I went to see her show, only to discover she was only performing the first two weeks of the Fringe, and I’d left it three days too late. I’d already bought a drink and it was a free show, so I stuck about to see Luke and James’ Secret Show. Or half of it. The first act (Luke? James? I don’t remember) started off nervous as it was only his third day at the fringe, but 5 minutes in turned really funny, and I enjoyed the next 20 minutes. Then the other guy got up and performed bizarre “character” “comedy” bits. It annoyed me immediately, and I walked out as soon as I could.
It was the only show I walked out of during the entire fringe… but I had gone to see another show entirely!
You know, I saw plenty of female performers doing rude/crude/lewd songs while looking pretty/innocent/sweet/MILF in late night cabaret and comedy shows, but I wanted to see a full show that wasn’t based on the incongruity of those things together on stage. Jacky Wood had a full sized guitar and more than one character, so I’m sorry to miss her show.
Talking of late night comedy shows, I saw Jonny Awsum headline Spank (“we love it”). He headlined the show, and won over a very rowdy, very drunk audience. His lyric replacement songs were perfect for such a crowd because, with just the concept of a song implanted in their brains (our brains, who am I kidding?), sing-alongs were inevitable. And that’s exactly what such a crowd wants and needs! The sing-alongs were so inevitable that Jonny had to tell everyone “Don’t sing along to this one, it’s cleverer than you think!”
I was going to go see his show, but then I read the description, which included “How can Jonny and his audience win the X Factor? (Groups category!) Who in the audience is a true Man of the World? And if you had one shot at playing the triangle could you do it?” It’s not that such a show didn’t appeal to me, but things he’d put in the description, what I’d think of as the highlights of his show, I’d already seen in his 20 minute headlining set. And the title song for his show, Sexy Noises (a lyric replacement cover of Crazy Horses)? He’d done that too.
I’d been burnt by seeing a really good shorter set from a comedian and then being disappointed by the full show, so I decided not to chance it this time. It’s fine for a free fringe show, but not for ten quid, and not when I’ve probably seen the best half of the show already.
What can I learn from this? When performing for a drunk late night audience, find something for them to sing along to. Considering I have only one lyric replacement song, and only one original song that I get people to sing along with, I know I can work on this for the future.
No rating as I didn’t see Jonny’s full show.
Another “awesome” musical comedy act. I’d only seen these guys before on YouTube, and I’m sure that’s how most people first heard of them (it’s a point they bring up in their show).
The show is based on the interaction and banter between the three musicians, with goodnatured ribbing, typically about how short the keyboard player is compared to the others (only so funny because he’s not especially short). I say “musicians” but really only two are musically talented; Benny (keyboard) and Lee (guitar). Particularly Benny, who is as good at the keyboard as Lee is on guitar, but with by far the best singing voice. Jordan struggles with most of his vocals. Ironically, he’s the lead singer.
The songs are lyric replacements and style covers, with a few real standouts and a few that felt like filler. They did mention it was a mix of new and old stuff. “How to Write a Love Song” got a great response, but then I knew it would because it was one their tracks I’d seen on YouTube. Like I said before, much of the best comedy didn’t come from the music itself, but from the interaction. It then felt weird when Lee, the guitarist, wandered off once or twice. Was he just not needed? Not sure. And big parts of many songs didn’t involve him at all.
What I thought was a throwaway joke in the “Nobody Knows How To Dance To Dubstep” bit led to the biggest laugh of the whole night (for me) much later in the show, in a section that I thought was dragging on a bit. I love surprises like that.
Four Chord Song was their “last” song, and while they had updated it with new Four Chord Songs from the last year or so, it kinda felt like they were going through the motions. Then it all came together with the final song, a rock song about Game of Thrones called something like “I read the book!” The angrily shouted lyrics suited Jordan’s voice and persona perfectly, and Lee could show off his skills on the guitar (that seemed wasted up until then in the show). And it was a funny song too. Why not more like this?
Also remember when I said I like to get to know the performers? It took until them plugging their tshirts and CDs at the end, when there was no script. They came out, and just chatted, and for the first time it felt truly genuine. I mean, if it wasn’t for comedy introductions, would they pick Katy Perry’s Roar? Would they do intentionally shit music? And pick out intentionally shit and cliched musical ideas for ridicule? I don’t think so. There’s a passion for music in the group, but it seems like it’s subsumed into kinda generic comedy music. I’m not sure if trying to do something more musically interesting, or something Benny could be more proud of, would be more commercially successful, but at least they might look more passionate on stage.
*** 3 stars.
Again, someone I’d only seen on YouTube. I only went to see the show as someone who had seen my show said some of my song titles could be from his show. Really? Here’s the track listing from his latest CD:
- A lonely want in a Travelodge
- That’s why I’m voting UKIP
- Craig had pubes when he was nine
- Period pants
- Five people died on the M25
- What’s the point in burlesque?
- The abortion song
- Women love a bastard
- The cure for depression
- When’s it OK to have a wank?
- I think I might be middle class
- My bumrape place
- Britain’s got talent shows
I do have a song called Pubic Hair Removal, but generally I try to be a bit more subtle.
Künt was at the Fringe for two nights only, and performed for a few hundred people both nights in a bingo hall (see above photo). Normally, when a Fringe comedian asked the audience “Who here is from Scotland?”, only about 5% of the audience would cheer. It’s normally quite an international/British crowd.
But when Künt asked the same question, the response indicated a 95% Scottish audience. This made perfect sense to me, as Künt really wasn’t doing a Fringe show. It had an interval, and each half was about 40 minutes. He was doing a full evening show to a totally different crowd. It was for his local fans. To put it bluntly, working class locals instead of middle class fringe visitors from out of town. He performed a perfect working mens’ club show.
A very, very rude show, too. Unapologetically rude, of course. Utterly puerile and offensive songs sung to very cheesy 80’s-style electronic backing tracks. I think one or two tracks were covers, but mostly it was original music.
And he was very funny. Maybe I should feel bad for being entertained by such low-brow fare, but I’m not. When someone commits so strongly to a single style, it means they can keep going until they find the perfect example of that form. Künt has reach platonic ideal of puerile offensiveness in musical comedy.
Which is why, as an artist, he reaches the same level as Baba Brinkman, even though the delivery and subject matter are direct opposites. Evolution or wanking? Canterbury Tales or Period Pants? History of Religion or Craig had Pubes When he was Nine?
*** 3 stars.
Ben Champion’s flyer said “he may well end up rivaling the musical comedy heavyweights” but, to be honest, he isn’t rivaling them yet. There’s a lot of promise, as he has a handful of really good songs, but more than half of his show felt like filler. Even though this was one of the last shows I saw at the Fringe, I only remember two positively, and maybe three in total. There just needs to be a higher hit rate.
For example, there’s a way of presenting a “joke song” where you do a dramatic intro and what sounds like a first verse, deliver the punchline and then stop dead. That’s the end of the joke and song. It works because the punchline is funny, but the cutting off of the music is itself a surprise, and prompts an extra hearty laugh. It’s not funny when you explain a joke, but that is a very standard format of joke-to-music. Many of the musical comedians I saw at the fringe used the sudden-end-to-short-song idea. Ben did it twice in a row at the start of his set, and a few more times throughout. By then it loses any effectiveness.
Other things I can learn: make sure to have a sturdy keyboard stand. When it wobbles around like that it looks cheap. Also: make sure your guitar my guitar is in tune. Ben looked far more comfortable playing the guitar on stage, and was far freer in performing too, but the out of tune-ness was really off-putting for me.
All of that could be excused though, if, in the end, I felt a personal connection to the performer. But I didn’t. I wanted to, as I’d chatted with Ben a number of times while flyering for my own show, but Ben seemed to be hiding on stage. Hiding behind his musical instruments and also his musical material. He seemed to hurry from one song to the next. And when I wanted something personal, or personable, the song subject choice was too often generic and trivial. It was about a topic, rather than about how Ben felt about that topic. And that’s a big difference!
In a few years time Ben should be far more comfortable on stage, have more than one facial expression when singing.
** 2 stars.
Jollyboat’s show clashed with mine, but one evening I got over as soon as I could and saw the last few songs. Lyric replacement covers and style covers. Very funny!
And… holy shit, I just checked out a video of theirs on YouTube and they do exactly the same lyric replacement joke based on Yesterday as I do. Leprosy. Bits keep falling off all over me. I’m not half the man I used to be. And that’s my only lyric replacement song. Admittedly I wrote it a decade ago…
Well, I guess from this I learn that I should stay clear of such material. If I write new stuff from my own head based on things unique to me, I’m not going to tread on anyone else’s material.
I didn’t see the full show, so no rating for Jollyboat.
I think that’s about it! I’m not going to mention all the cabaret singers who did mildly amusing stuff, because when hosting a show or doing a short spot it’s difficult to get a handle on it, and I didn’t take photos or keep notes or pick up flyers.
What did I learn?
- Have some material that’s suitable for drunk people.
- Stick to a style of music I really like.
- Avoid obvious lyric replacement songs (except to get drunk people to sing along).
- Be personable and write songs from a unique point of view so the audience can get to know me.
- Audiences get to know a performer via banter as much as the music. More so, probably.
I learned loads more than that, of course, but I should stop writing before I reach 5,000 words.