This Thing On | Edinburgh Summer 99
The Comic Bible, July 2000
This Thing On?
The Good, The Bad, and The Very Ugly
About Comedy in Foreign and Familiar Places
I had already
done comedy in many cities, states and towns all up and down the
East Coast and in and around the whole Los Angeles and surrounding
California area. But, I had never done it, comedy that is, in another
country. I have to admit, there have been times when I have worked
in the South, when I was clearly convinced that I was in another
country. It wasn't the physical landscape that appeared foreign
or unfamiliar to me. It was the intellectual or psychological landscape
that really threw me. This variance in landscape causes the same
awkward and exciting gaps of silence that two people from two different
countries experience when they are initially introduced or exposed
to each other. They silently and subtlely, in some cases blatantly
take each other in and size each other up. The dialogue begins with
the body, before the mouth. No two countries know this better than
the male and female countries. Let's face it, we are two different
countries. Since the beginning of time we have been trying to understand
the language of our foreign gender counterparts. "What is he thinking?"
"What did she say?" "I don't understand him." We've been stumped
for centuries, dissecting the language of the other. It's all so
exciting…and frustrating. Our desire to be understood and or be
heard is what keeps us in the game.
As I approach any new city, town or country, my interest is to hear
them. I approach the place and the process like a sociologist. Who
are these people? What makes them tick? Why do they live here? What
is life really like here? What would my life be like if I lived
here? How is my life different? Who are the rebels and what are
they rebelling against? Where are the good restaurants in town?
I love it. I don't want to breeze in and breeze out. I want to delve
in deep. I love to be exposed to as much as possible. I want to
go to every small town and every big city that I can. This sociological
research is a life long project.
I love the South. I immediately feel at home, like I've been here
before. No matter what the town, I feel some sense of familiarity.
My initial feeling is always familiar. As I pulled into the hills
of West Virginia with a few other comics in tow to do a college
gig, I knew we were onto something. The physical landscape was stunning.
The lush green hills, the full view of an endless mountain range,
the lovely quaint Victorian homes were idyllic. Yet there was a
real "Twin Peaks" feel in the air. So we decided to play that cozy
Southern game, "Whoever finds the dead body first, wins." We all
felt there was one nearby, we just couldn't find it. As we pulled
into the local Seven Eleven, to pick up some supplies, every face
in the place turned towards us, sizing us up and down. It was in
that moment that the familiarity faded and the foreign fumes oozed
from everyone. It was obvious that everyone in the place not only
knew each other, but knew a lot about each other. Oddly enough,
they also knew about us. Hmm…what's that about? They knew we were
the comics from the North to perform comedy for the night. Oh no,
we're going down. I hope the dead body we find tonight is not going
to be one of our own. I do not need to take the fall for one of
my Yankee forefathers. I wasn't there. They weren't even there.
They were in Ireland. I had nothing to do with it. We asked where
the hopping spot was in town. Everyone echoed out from every corner
of the store, "Oh, you got to go to The Stray Cat." Oh my God this
is a setup. We are not going to find the dead body. We are going
to be the dead bodies at the Stray Cat. I hate it when my own game
turns on me. Still, my sense of adventure was rearing its ugly head.
It demanded that I not only go to The Stray Cay, but I will be there
with bells on. I quickly yelled out, "Oh yeah, we are going to be
at The Stray Cat. You can bank on that." What was with my sudden
Southern accent? You can call it silly or survival. But, I was ready
to fit in with my new friends. I'd rather be in on the dead body
game then be the dead body in the game.
Comics are the bungee jumpers of the entertainment world. We risk
our lives every night. We also risk our egos, our integrity and
our art. But it's the risk, the challenge and the thrill that keeps
us coming back. We are the true thrill seekers. Every comic wants
to kill, not be killed. The only thing worse than dying on stage
is dying offstage. Offstage you don't get another chance. So as
I stood on stage doing my act that night, I really wasn't trying
to be funny, I was just trying to live through the set, literally.
I had the distinct feeling that I was going to be bum rushed or
raped. I don't know why. It was just a vibe. Maybe I was being paranoid.
Either that or the fact that one of the students told me as I was
waiting to go on stage, that the last comic that came to town, never
made it through his set. They bum rushed him on stage, beat him
up and "Sent him home running." Wow, I could have sat there all
night listening to his wonderfully vibrant and colorful stories,
but it was show time. So while I was living out my last few minutes
of life on stage, I had this weird physiological reaction. It was
a reaction I had never had before or since. The right side of my
body was pouring sweat. No, not your average sweat. It wasn't like,
"Hey look, I'm a little damp." No. I was projectile sweating on
the right side of my body. Balls of sweat were heaving out of my
body. It was as if each ball was in a contest with the other balls
to see who could get out the fastest and who could be the biggest
ball of sweat ever. It was ugly. My mic was drowning and so was
I. My clothes on the right, looked like they were in the rinse cycle.
They were moving around in a wet dramatic twist. Meanwhile, my left
side was dry. No, not your average dry. It was arid, parched, begging
for moisture, a dollop of spit perhaps, anything. My left side was
yelling to the right, "Help!" I felt like a low rent beach resort.
The right side was the ocean, the left the sand, but it was a place
that no one wanted to be. As I passed the soaking mic on, I watched
my fellow comedians, stage hogs by nature bail on their sets. Everyone's
twenty-minute allotment of time managed to dwindle down to twelve,
ten, even seven minutes.
Once out of there, we all longed for the warmth of the Stray Cat.
It was a dance place after all. I couldn't think of a better way
to release stress than to dance. Maybe a couple of dance moves could
help me to even out the sweat distribution on my body. I was hoping
the sweat thing was really obvious to me, but perhaps quietly passed
by the others. No such luck. They all mentioned it. As we walked
into "The Stray Cat." It was empty, dead empty. Uh oh. The only
dancing we were going to do, was dancing in the dark, because that's
where we were. I knew this was a set up. As we stood there silently
in prayer, we could hear the faint sound of dance tunes. As we followed
the music, it led to a door. Lo and behold, there was a "disco"
before us. Actually it was a barn with a disco ball above. There
was a teeny dance floor. I don't know why, but there was a pool
table in the middle of the dance floor. I saw three teeth in the
disco, and they were mine. But the tunes were amazing and that's
why I was there. It was the most happening barn disco I had ever
been to. It was the only barn disco I had ever been to. As the night
wore on, I didn't wear down. I couldn't stop dancing. My body had
a mind of it's own. That was obvious after the sweat escapade. I
was doing moves, I didn't even know I had. I was having an out of
body dance experience. I was leaping over and around the pool table.
I was told later by my Yankee comedy posse that people were coming
at me angrily with pool sticks. I never noticed because I was deep
into my dance trance moves. I was now completely fearless on and
off the dance floor. One of the locals came up to me. He didn't
say a word. He didn't' have to, his body language was loud and clear.
He was the dance king in town and I was dancing in his territory.
I was showing him up. This was war. He was ready to face off with
me, man to man or man to woman as it were. He didn't pull a gun.
He pulled dance moves. It was a dance or die dance off. His people
were on one side of the dance floor and my Yankee comedy posse reluctantly
got on my side. He started with a few spiffy moves. Please, I threw
a few back. It was head to head. Then his brother yells out, "Wait
'til you see this!" My rival leaps into the air and lands into a
split on the ground. Without my even knowing it, my limber body
leaps into the air, jumps into a serious right-sided split, lifts
an inch off the floor to make way for my left-sided slamming split,
then I finish with a fierce full-blown straddle. As a finale, I
plop my head on the ground, grinning like a winner, mid straddle.
Then I leap up with ease. Who am I? What is going on and what is
the deal with my body? I was a gymnast five thousand years ago.
Who knew I had such easy access to these Nadia moments? As the crowd
went wild, we went home, knowing that we shouldn't push our luck
here. As our van pulled away, some disgruntled local came after
me with a broken bottle in his hand. It's good to know when it's
time to go.
As I read the paper the next morning, delving deeper into the psyche
of the town and the people, I couldn't help but feel that our trip
was too short. I had only just begun to dance in this town. I haven't
even come close to figuring these people out. The booker from the
university interrupted my thoughts. He had come by to pay us for
the gig. He asked about our night, which gave me the opportunity
to go off about The Stray Cat and how much I loved it. He then mentioned
that several people had been murdered there throughout the years
and that it was one of the most dangerous bars in all of West Virginia.
I knew there was a dead body in there. He said that he used to hang
out there. He also managed to tell me that he's a Rage A Holic,
so much so that he would black out at The Stray Cat and do things
that he didn't remember. My sociological studies continue. "What
type of things?" I ask. "Once when I woke up from a blackout rage,
I had a bicycle chain wrapped around a guys neck. The last time
it happened, I had pulled a guys finger off and woke up with it
in my hand." Up to this point, he was the mildest mannered Jesus
mentioning man I had ever met. What is it with this town? What is
in the air at The Stray Cat? People do things they don't remember.
Or they don't know how they did it. I'm dancing in a way I can never
duplicate; he's pulling off fingers. Everybody has a hobby. Did
my sweating piss him off? I really like my fingers. There's nothing
like waving. I hope he liked our show. I didn't hang around long
enough to find out. I was high wheeling it out of there so fast.
Sociological study complete. Sense of adventure intact. On the road
The Comic Bible, July 2001
Edinburgh Summer '99
I was feeling
a bit dodgy in LA, desperately wanting a change and a creative adventure.
So I decided to shake it up and headed to Europe for three weeks.
I was starting in Edinburgh, ready to spend a week seeing shows.
Edinburgh is the biggest creative kick you can have. It truly is
the Disneyland for theater savvy adults. You meet theater voyeurs
and participants from all over the world. Many Europeans and nearly
every Brit heads to the festival at some point to party and to check
out the new hot shows. A lot of shows will preview in Edinburgh
before heading to the West End in London, to Broadway and other
prominent theater venues worldwide. It is a dreamy place to see
the best and the most shows, all at once. You will see everything
from avante garde theater to comedy to clown. This is the place
to see "it," before everyone else does. There are many favorites
from comics to companies that return to the festival year after
year. Their fans and friends also return each year to see what they
have been up to. It's a checking in place for both the audience
and the artist. Having been both in Edinburgh, I too feel the need
to check in on level and return each year.
The show in Edinburgh starts when you step off the train. I feel
fully engaged from the time I step off the train until I step back
on a week later. There's no place like it. The English are so well
behaved, they queue up for an hour and a half to wait for a cab.
After a twelve hour flight, an eight hour train ride without a seat
I could call my own and an uphill walk in the rain with more luggage
than I remembered packing, I was in no mood. I tried to gather a
crowd to scab a cab on the streets, but no one would budge. It was
then that I knew, I was along way from home. Ahhh, let the adventure
begin. There is such a deep appreciation for the arts in Edinburgh.
You could meet a homeless man on the street and have a profound
conversation about literature or collide creatively with your cab
driver who will not let you out of the cab until you fully discuss
the socio political relevance of a show. The streets are teeming
with activity and people. Just as London has started to serve a
savvier more international fare of food, so has Edinburgh. You're
a cobblestone away from any and all ethnic dishes and restaurants
imaginable. Of course you are sure to find your classic pubs, where
smoke and conversation mingle in the air. The people are warm and
lovely, but don't let the shared language fool you. It sounds as
though their tonsils are having a fight with their tongue. You can
only go on hearsay on how your dialect is being perceived. No worries.
After a few drinks, you will be laughing and toasting to God knows
what. You don't need to go to a show to see the characters or play
one in Edinburgh. They are everywhere.
You must book your accommodations well in advance as the city completely
books up by early in the summer. Every hotel, university, hostel
and B& B is completely booked with a waiting list. I was hooked
in at the last minute at a "B&B," or so I thought. I emailed and
phoned several times to confirm my booking, to the point that I
was told I was being very American, only to arrive and find that
they did not have a room for me. "Herzmark," the woman of the house,
and a crazy "artist" put me in her "art gallery." I was told by
my Mom, that because I was a single woman traveling alone I would
definitely be raped and robbed, it was just a matter of when, where
and by whom. The details would present themselves over time. I was
so glad that I had spent the better part of the previous 24 plus
hours in my travels on planes, trains and automobiles, meticulously
guarding my luggage and myself, to then randomly hurl my luggage
into a public gallery, right by the open front door. Neat. I woke
up the next morning to people not only viewing the artwork, but
me in my sleep. I was off to a promising start. For the remaining
nights Herzmark put me on a mattress, on a floor in a kitchen and
in the attic. Neat. I guess B&B stands for Beat it or Be okay with
it. The two guys who lived in the attic whose kitchen I apparently
was invading, conveniently walked in every morning in search of
a shoe. When I took a bath, which is all you can take in Edinburgh,
they managed to walk into the bathroom in search of the same shoe.
Apparently this shoe had a foot, because it was obviously getting
around. Neat. It didn't matter. I would wake up, watch them play
the missing shoe game, bathe, watch the game continue and then head
out all day and all night to see shows and play. I saw twenty six
shows in a week. No matter how many shows you see, you always feel
as though you have missed something. If you only had another day,
a week or even an hour, you would have fit them all in. As I frantically
ran in the rain from venue to venue in search of my next show, I
had to remind myself that I was on vacation.
If you're looking for some edgy comedy fare, The Gilded Balloon
offers the infamous 'Late 'N' Live.' This legendary late - night
pick of the best comics from the Fringe and the best live bands,
makes for a great late night. This is the last stop of the night
with comedy, music and dancing. It's a smoky and decadent scene,
where the crowds can get pretty rowdy. They not only allow heckling
in the UK, they actually encourage it. It's not what we experience
here in the states with an individual heckler or two. The group
as a whole, will collectively start to heckle. It can be both frightening
I was hard pressed to find a woman doing stand up @ the festival,
but was so delighted to find Judith Lucy, a big name out of Australia.
She was hilarious! Her show was so dense, as every word was a pearl.
She was sharp, smart, quick, opinionated and incredibly likable.
She said that she would love to sit in a barrel of beer at a movie
theater while telling jokes, so she could do her three favorite
things at once. I loved her.
There are many "can't miss" acts each year. Sean Cullen, from the
Montreal Comedy Festival is also a huge hit overseas. His act is
very original with musical strangeness and surreal improvisation.
Ross Noble is another surrealists. He is noted for his high quality
material, and for his unstructured improvisation. Rich Hall, already
a huge success in the states, has stormed the London scene. He was
playing his character Otis Crenshaw to sold out houses every night.
Lastly, but probably the most talked about act of all was Al Murray,
The Pub Landlord. He is touted as the funniest act in the country,
the best character comedian in England. You know an act is good
when every comedian is talking about them. I did not meet a British
comic that did not sing his praises.
"I caught a number of solo shows, all very different in style and
story. "Pussy Galore's Flying Circus" was a solo aerialist show
at Graffiti, a beautiful church. It was death defying circus theater,
where Verity climbed thirty feet and talked about her relationship
with her gay brother. To see Philippa, (Verity) unravel down a piece
of cloth as she and her story unraveled, was stunning. So sad, so
A true highlight was to see the tour de force performance by Linda
Marlowe in "Berkoff's Women," directed by Josie Lawrence at The
Assembly Room. Having worked with Steven Berkoff for the past twenty
five years, this work is a compilation of some of he most rewarding,
exciting moments of Berkoff's female roles. This was truly one of
the most exciting pieces of theater I have ever seen. Linda, a fixture
on The West End, clearly knows her way around the stage, and how
to delve deeply into any role. She would weave in and out of characters
from a total diva to a street woman in seconds. She had the whole
audience eating out of the palm of her hand. The dialogue was brilliant.
There wasn't a word wasted. Every word and every moment was riddled
with meaning. Breathtaking!
I am a huge fan of clown and commedia and was so thrilled to see
Farces "Fantasia," from St. Petersburg Russia. In "Fantasia," a
group of people, set out to fly a kite and get lost in a world that
is both bizarre and brilliant. Farces play with politics, philosophy,
music, high culture and clowning to produce a physical, enchanting
and funny show that gives wit new meaning. I did not want this show
to end. Whimsical and wonderful!
I think my favorite show was Lee Hall's "Cooking With Elvis." Just
as "American Beauty" has turned middle America, on its ear and given
us an all too familiar look at what happens in the typical family
unit in a small suburban town, "Cooking With Elvis" achieves the
same, but with even more humor and darkness. Part knockabout farce,
part cookery course, part philosophical investigation. This production
is a provocative and hilarious look at disability and an homage
to the king of over consumption. A delicious play with music for
the emotionally starved. I desperately want this show to come over
to the states, as I want to see it again and again. The four cast
members were dazzling and raw. As shockingly over the top as the
show was, it never lost its sense of reality. Lee Hall's writing
was unbelievable. On every level, the direction, the writing and
the acting...BRILLIANT! BRILLIANT! BRILLIANT!
So run, don't walk to next year's festival. You will see the best
theater and comedy in the world. It's the type of theater that I
wish was on Broadway, but rarely is. We can only hope.
My last night, "Herzmark" was so excited to show me my new room,
the closet. I have heard of coming out of the closet but going into
one. As I laid down to sleep in my closet, I thought, it doesn't
get much better than this.
This Thing On | Edinburgh Summer 99