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Edinburgh Fringe 2018 – Days 6-13

On Monday, I had a much-needed day off from both of my shows.

HTWAPQ continues to be a delight and is sold-out nearly every day, with Stop the Press proving to be a hard slog.

Before Sunday’s STP, the couple of hours of heavy rain meant I was unable to do much flyering without getting utterly drenched.

With my day off ever-nearing, I hoped no-one would turn up just so I could start my day break early and have a think about ways to improve the show.

Seven people did arrive, including a couple who witnessed my heroics earlier in the day at HTWAPQ.

Sometimes, performing in front of seven people can be a lot of fun. Unfortunately, this wasn’t one of them. I struggled to connect with both my material and the audience, with everything falling flat.

In the back of my mind, I just wanted it to be over so I could reach my day off. This is perhaps the worst mindset to have for any gig, as the chances of you enjoying it are pretty much zero. Consequently, the audience are even less likely to enjoy it.

People made an effort to my show and what I provided was perhaps one of my most shambolic performances ever. Even when things are going badly, I usually at least get a perverse kick out of it. This time, I hated every second. I think it is probably going to be my lowest point of the Fringe.

So, when things aren’t going well, you have two choices. Either you give up, or you make an effort to improve things.

To find somewhere quiet to go through my set, I returned to the terrace at The Place hotel, which was where my shows were for the past couple of Fringes.

As lovely as Stand 2 is, I do miss that terrace where I could just sit and relax after my show. I would also often be bought pints by my audience, which is the main thing I’m missing this year.

I went through my set did a bit of editing, changed a few things around, and cut other bits. Then as if by magic, Tuesday’s show was significantly better. A break did me good and it was reassuring to know that the last seven months I’ve spent writing this haven’t been a complete waste of time.

I’ve realised the difference between why one show goes so well and why the other doesn’t tend to. A large part is down to certainty and assurance in the material. I know HTWAPQ works, so even if it sometimes takes the audience a little while to get on board, I know they will eventually. STP is still taking shape before my very eyes and I’ve yet to do a gig where everything works exactly as intended, so I will do my best to fake certainty and assurance in the meantime.

The show is not where I want it, but it’s improved since the Fringe began. It will be a relief when I’ve finished the STP run, although I would happily continue HTWAPQ every day for at least another six months.

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Edinburgh Fringe 2018 – Days 4-5

Five shows into HTWAPQ and all is well. Every show is either selling out or getting damn close and the audiences have all been superb.

But you don’t want to read about my successes, do you? Be honest, what you’re here for is to read about my pain and suffering. The last four Fringes have gone a little too well and as a result, this blog lost a little of the edge of the early days.

Well, I have some good news on that front, because I am doing another show this year that is taking me back to my roots. Admittedly, I find much more motivation to write when things are going badly.

So here it is. I have had a couple of tough shows with Stop the Press. On Monday, I had the largest audience the show has ever performed to, with around 25. However, it was a hot room and there was no energy.

A good third of my audience were pensioners looking tired, bored, disappointed or just falling asleep. Another bloke poked his head through the curtain ten minutes in and said he was coming in, but not yet and just stood there awkwardly for a few minutes, telling me to carry on. This made building any sort of momentum trickier in what was already proving a struggle.

Half-way through, I had to resort to opening the door at the back of the room just to let some air in and people dozing off.

Somehow, I kept going. When things aren’t getting much reaction, it’s a natural reaction to let it deflate you. But once you do this, you’ve lost. If you maintain your energy throughout, you’ve at least got a chance of winning them around. My persistence paid off and the biggest laughs came towards the end of the show, but it was a hard slog and pretty far from what I would call a success.

Yesterday’s gig was difficult for different reasons entirely. I had about eight in, with three recent journalism graduates, three older German ladies sitting at the back and two old hacks who used to work at local papers sitting nearest the front.

One of the hacks proved my most troublesome audience member so far. He kept interrupting and asking questions about where exactly I was going with my material, pointing out that the bits that weren’t relevant to local papers. Twice during the show, he left to go to the bar as he said he wasn’t interested in what I was talking about. In short, he was a total arse.

When I said a bit about A Mixed Bag getting a one-star review, he pulled out a reviewers pass from his jacket. I don’t know if he’s going to actually write one, as he didn’t seem  to have any interest in the show, missed large chunks due to buying drinks, and his interruptions made me have to cut a load of stuff from the set.

But if he does write one, I don’t really care what he has to say. If you can’t be bothered to engage with what I’ve written, then I am more than happy to return the favour. Reviews really don’t matter as much as you might think, much less from people who haven’t even seen the full show and also totally disrupt it.

I am trying to avoid counting down the number of shows left I have for Stop the Press. I’m still convinced there is a good show in there and I hope to get it to where I want it during the run. Just 15 to go…

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Edinburgh Fringe 2018: Days 1-3

Edinburgh Fringe 2018 is now underway and I am going to avoid using the obvious pun of saying it’s been A Mixed Bag so far, because it’s actually been pretty good.

How to Win a Pub Quiz has been selling out pretty much every day so far, which is amazing. I’m in Stand 2 this year, which is one of the very best rooms at the Fringe.

Nevertheless, I am missing the terrace out the back of Stand 5, where I would sit for many an hour after my show and was often bought pints by audience members. But from a time and health perspective, it’s something that I can’t really do this year.

The three HTWAPQ shows so far have all been really fun. The new set is getting there, but I’m still tweaking with every show. There is still room for improvement, but it doesn’t require quite so much drastic editing as last year.

For Stop the Press, I Want to Get Off, I’m back at the Kilderkin for the first time since 2015, with a brand new show for the first time since 2014. When I left there, I was playing to packed rooms and turning people away.

Then for my first show Saturday, I had ten people in and two walked out. It didn’t feel quite so much like a triumphant return to my spiritual home, especially as it was a Saturday. But I have to detach myself from comparing it to HTWAPQ. This show is a different animal, albeit a less successful animal. And you really don’t know how something’s going to go until you give it a try.

One disadvantage I have this year is that I have to get the room set up every day an hour before my show starts, which cuts into vital flyering time. I need to figure out a way around this.

The first show itself was a good start. The eight people laughed a decent amount at mostly the right points, I didn’t let the energy dip and made it through the entire set without looking at my notes or even writing my set on my hand.

The second show was much better. I must have at least 20 people in and they were great. There were some big laughs throughout. The show isn’t quite where I want it yet, but it’s getting there with every performance. And it now feels as though I have an actual show on my hands instead of an unsuccessful side-project.

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Out of time

There are now no more previews. The next time I perform both of my shows will be in Edinburgh and the Fringe will have started.

I was meant to have a third and final preview for Pub Quiz on Friday night, but there was no audience.

The weekend before, I was in Beverley in East Yorkshire previewing both of my shows. And I’m pleased to report that I had a much bigger audience in for Stop the Press than this past Friday night, a 500% larger crowd. This is putting a positive spin on saying that I had five people in.

Performing in front of five people is certainly useful practice for Edinburgh, as I’m fully aware that this is something I could be faced with this Fringe for my new show. I’ve been spoilt for the past four years with Pub Quiz and am fully aware that there may be days when I don’t get any audience for my new show that doesn’t have such a strong a gimmick, let alone the double gimmick this year of the 90s.

Nevertheless, the exciting thing is that I genuinely don’t know how Stop the Press is going to go. As it’s on the Free Fringe, I don’t have any sales figures. It’s going to depend entirely on whoever shows up on the day. It’s going to add a more unpredictability to things. I’ve spent seven months writing it and am pleased with where it’s going, but it isn’t quite there yet. I’m looking forward to have the show properly honed during the run.

Meanwhile, for what turned out to be the final How To Win A Pub Quiz preview in Beverley, I had about 20 in later on. They were good fun and it was useful to try out some new bits. The material is coming together, but I could do with a few more previews to get it properly ready.

For the first preview in Oxford, I decided to drop the sketch that’s become a cornerstone of the show. It didn’t feel quite the same without it. In Beverley, I brought in a new one that sort of worked, but felt too much like a retread of the previous scene that works so well. I’ve since scrapped it and written an entirely new scene, which will be performed untested at the Fringe. I have the advantage that I have a pretty good idea of what will work for the show, so it’s not quite as big a risk as you might think.

I’m also still trying to decide on what the final track should be in the music round. Last year, I thought it would be hilarious to have the final song being Paul from S Club 7’s metal band. Audiences didn’t find it quite so amusing, so I scrapped it after the first couple of shows.

The other thing to add is about my sales figures for How To Win A Pub Quiz. I have sold more than 100 tickets than I had last year and I’m in a 50 seater instead of a 60 seater. As things stand, I’ve sold round 70% of my tickets before the show has even started. This is pretty astonishing. But it just goes to show that if you want to get an audience, get a good gimmick. If you want to sell even better, get two.

When I write next, I will have arrived in Edinburgh and the 2018 Fringe will be underway. I don’t know how the next month will unfold, but I am looking forward to it whatever it may bring.

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The Fringe ever-nears

I had my first show in 2018 for How To Win A Pub Quiz. It was in Oxford and I managed to get a decent sized crowd.

It’s a different set to previous years, or at least meant to be. As with many gigs, time conspired against me and I didn’t have enough time to get my set together. It wasn’t quite as much of a manic rush as the Newcastle show in October, but it wasn’t far off.

I ended up only doing ten minutes of material at the top and forgetting a large chunk of new stuff I’d supposedly written. It was a nice gig, the quiz was fun, but I felt a little rusty. It’s certainly motivation to make it better, especially with time running out.

I have been toying with the idea of dropping the traditional film sketch just before the quiz begins, but have since realised that it is an integral part of the show. I’ve written a new one, so hopefully it’ll be as well received. But the previous one had been honed over four years, so it may take a few attempts to get it to where I need it.

I was also meant to have a previous last week for Stop the Press…, but it was rescheduled after England ended up doing far better in the World Cup than anyone ever expected. But due to the lack of time to promote the show, the rescheduled one ended up being pulled too. The show is getting closer to where I went it, but it’s not quite there yet.

I’m previewing both shows in Beverley, East Yorkshire, on Saturday, which at the moment will be my last one for Stop the Press before I return to the Kilderkin.

Then I have one more Pub Quiz at the Hollybush in Cradley Heath next Friday. I’ll keep an eye out for others, but that may the last stop before Edinburgh and I’ll have bypassed London for previews for the first time ever.

I’ve been trying to get a final preview sorted for my hometown of Stroud on the last weekend of July, but I think I may have left it too late to get anything organised and promoted effectively now. There is only so much emotional blackmail you can do to friends in a short period of time.

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Three more previews

Since I last wrote an entry on here, I have done a further three previews for my new show.

There is still much work that needs doing before it’s ready for the Fringe, but it feels like I’m slowly getting there.

The first third is coming along nicely and the final third is close to where I want it. At the moment, it’s the middle section that needs the most attention and there’s still time to get this sorted. There are plenty more ideas that keep popping into my head, which is a good sign.

That said, it didn’t feel much like my show was progressing when I was performing outside a pub on the grounds of a train station. Trains were either going by when I was about to get to a punchline, or my set would get interrupted by an inebriated local.

I should have played around with the absurdity of the situation a bit more, as it is the sort of bizarre environment I would usually revel. However, I wanted to give my show another run though. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a place for structure and narrative. And callbacks aren’t really effective when half of your audience didn’t hear the first part. I had to abandon large sections of the show and not exactly play the room as it lacked walls, more playing the site.

I currently have three more previews booked for Stop The Press, I Want to Get Off and hope to pick up a few more.

I have yet to even start How To Win A Pub Quiz warm-up shows. I’ve started writing the show and have plenty of ideas for this year’s version. I had a couple of previews in the diary towards the end of July, but have just this week got one booked for 8 July in Oxford. It’s given me the jolt I needed.

What’s slightly odd is that as things stand, it’ll be the first year since I’ve been doing the Fringe that I won’t have done a preview in London. Not only that, but I have yet to get one booked in Manchester either. Hopefully both of these things will change. I shall have to check the availability of performance space at one of the train stations.

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Grafting

This year, I am prioritising getting new material honed over paid gigs. It’s just as well, because otherwise driving a 175-mile round trip to Birmingham on Friday night for what turned out to be a reduced set of five minutes at a spoken word night might seem like a complete waste of time.

The other side of this is that I’m getting offered barely any paid gigs, but I’m also not actively sending requests for them. After eight years of plugging away, a logical person might consider this to be a pretty shocking failure.

When things aren’t going well, it’s all too easy to blame other factors such as the audience, the way the gig is run, not getting enough sleep, or needing a poo before the gig and there being no soap or toilet roll. But after a while, these just become justifications for your own failures. Either you get bitter, or you can keep trying to get better. It’s just one vowel’s difference and cheesy as hell, but I do love cheese.

Also, I’ve done two official sold-out runs at Edinburgh Fringe. So shut up, logical person. Admittedly, this does put me among pretty exclusive company among the circuit stragglers.

On the flip side of this, the new stuff has been going really well for the most part. I’ve suddenly got a lot more stuff that is getting to the level of where it needs to be. This has been achieved by writing, trying it out, writing some more, trying it out again slightly differently, then more writing and more gigging. There’s no secret to it other than hard work and that’s the key thing. I have been far too lazy in the past few years. I’ve not been booking up enough gigs or writing and performing enough.

The other thing behind this is that I am writing and testing stuff for my new hour show. It definitely helps to have a focus and a target to aim for. In August, I will be returning to the Kilderkin for Stop the Press, I Want to Get Off.

When you’re planning a show, it’s useful to have an idea of the venue in mind and there are few rooms I know better than the Kilderkin. In fact, I am fairly sure it’s where I have performed the most number of times. A quick calculation suggests that this is around 80 times from four runs at the Fringe, with only Walthamstow’s Ye Old Rose and Crown coming anywhere close to that and those were monthly gigs over six years. This isn’t something I’d ever thought of until now.

I’ve done two previews so far. At both, what I thought would be an hour turned out to be just over 40 minutes. This was fine at the second as it didn’t matter if I ran under. However, at the first one, I was part of the world record attempt for the longest running comedy gig and had to make sure that I at least did an hour. Fortunately, I had my notebook and was able to pick out bits of material to ensure I went the distance. My comedy accomplishments are now: two sold-out Edinburgh Fringe runs, a world record, and a white sock from all those dodgy nights in Tooting.

My new show still needs a fair amount of work, but I like the direction I’m going with it. I’ve got another preview on Thursday, but definitely need to book up several more.

Oh, and I’ll also be doing How To Win A Pub Quiz for the full-run at Stand 2 in August. I just couldn’t leave it alone.

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Reinvigorated

If you’re wondering why I’ve not written anything so far this year, there is no reason other than I’ve not really felt any need to. But for my first entry in 2018, I am pleased to report that I am feeling reinvigorated, at least as far as comedy goes.

For the first time in many years and not including the Fringe, I have done three gigs a week for four or five consecutive weeks before the snow interfered. Many of these gigs were also to trial new material.

A wise man once said: “It is better to die on your arse and learn from it, rather than coast along in a bubble of mediocrity.”

I may share a latop with this mysterious philosopher. I have recently realised that coasting along in this bubble is exactly what I’ve been doing for far too long now at too many gigs. I’ve become complacent and over-reliant on material that worked four or five years ago, but that I’ve since become disconnected with. When you become disconnected from your material, people tend to stop laughing at it and that’s never the audiences’ fault. I’m also a different person to the one that originally wrote many of these jokes. I mean, I am the same person, but I’m older and am no longer sleeping in a bin bag, covered in flea bites.

Another thing that brought this stagnated material issue into light was after one of my higher profile gigs last year that went okay, but not as well as I’d hoped. I went through my setlist and put the year the joke was written next to it. There was a worrying lack of material from pre-2014, which is no coincidence that this the last time I took a new show idea up to Edinburgh How To Win A Pub Quiz has been far more successful than I ever anticipated when I initially came up the idea. I’ve had so much fun with it and genuinely love performing the show, but at the same time it’s meant that I’ve not been writing anywhere near as much new material specifically for a show that I was doing in the years before 2014.

After this introspection, you’re probably wondering exactly why I’m feeling reinvigorating. Well, that is because I have been writing a new hour show for the past couple of months. I will be taking this up to Edinburgh Fringe this year. The provisional title was What Are You Going to Do?, then was A Decade of Life and Death, and it’s currently Stop the Press, I Want to Get Off. The show looks back on my time as a reporter for a local newspaper, then quitting to follow my dreams, and all the horrible things I’ve been through since then, i.e. sleeping in a bin bag while covered in hundreds of flea bites.

I have been trying out large chunks of the new stuff at various gigs, much of it is getting good responses and I’m getting excited by performing comedy again. Having an hour show to work towards is really helpful to focus the mind. I will also be returning to the Kilderkin, where my pub quiz odyssey began. It’s difficult to see my new show reaching the same levels of success, but it is a different animal. My main aim is to create a show I’m proud of and hope people enjoy it, but you just don’t know until you give it a go. The first outing for the new show is in a couple of weeks.

But never fear, pub quiz fans. I am taking up another show this year to Edinburgh, called How To Win A Pub Quiz: 90s Edition. I can’t leave it behind just yet. Coincidentally, I also need money to buy a house.

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Looking back at 2017

With a few hours left of 2017, I will now summarise what has occurred in the past 12 months.

There are no surprises to learn that the highlight of my 2017 was doing a sold-out full-run at Edinburgh Fringe. That this was also a year when many shows on the same side of town struggled for audience makes it all the more of an achievement. Being asked to do the show at Newcastle Stand was also a thrill, even if my journey there was an ordeal to say the least. Leicester Comedy Festival in February was another highlight of my year, and I really enjoyed my shows up in Glasgow.

I have also made the most money from comedy this year than possibly the previous six years combined. Outside of my hour show, I have done more gigs than last year and a decent amount of these were paid. But it still remains that How To Win A Pub Quiz is going substantially better than my progress on the main comedy circuit. This is partly because I’ve been doing the same material for so many years that I’ve become bored with it and also that I’ve not been booking up enough gigs in my diary. To rectify this, I am planning to do an hour of stand-up in Edinburgh next year without any quizzes, just me and a microphone. Hopefully I’ll have an audience as well. Forcing myself to do a totally new hour will give me a much-needed focus and motivation to write more, plus I’ll need to do more gigs to try stuff out. But do not dismay, quiz fans. I am also planning on doing a variant on How To Win A Pub Quiz in August. I don’t know what sort of state I’ll be in at the end of the month, but I’ll worry about it then.

It has been a good year for attending music gigs, as I’ve managed to see Guns and Roses once and Iron Maiden twice, plus Weezer, The Darkness and Jarvis Cocker. At the moment, 2018 is looking pretty empty on the music gig front.

In November, it was nice to do some reporting for the first time since 2009, when I was sent out to Finland to write a feature on an electric ferry as part of the day job, even if my shorthand turned out to be a little rusty. When I was a reporter in 2008, I was looking into last-minute trips to Scandinavia. I ended up buying a Playstation 3 and spent my holiday playing on it instead, which pretty much sums up what was the worst year of my life. While in Finland in 2017, I suffered from a severe bout of food poisoning, which is also a decent summary of my 2008.

Onto films, my favourite one of the year is probably Logan. I really enjoyed The Last Jedi as well, which has polarised opinions. I’m writing a more detailed assessment of this, so stay tuned. This should tie-in to my idea for a podcast, which I’m hoping to get up and running this year.

New Year’s resolutions: write more comedy, do more comedy admin, spend less time procrastinating on my phone. Every year, I also say that I’m going to learn a language. I’ve been learning Spanish for the past year on the Duolingo app and am going to be doing real language lessons next month.

I don’t know what the next 12 months will bring or where it’ll take me, but can at least be fairly certain that I’ll be writing a review of it in 364 days time.

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Madeira, oh dear ah…

For the past few years, I have taken a tactical holiday in November or December to get some much-needed vitamin D in the winter months, when it’s also cheaper and not overwhelmingly hot.

I have been heading towards the equator where the temperatures are still decent, with Malta and Gran Canaria my previous two winter holiday destinations. Coincidentally, these also seem to be locations where old people go at the same time.

This year, I had a look at the map and chose to put a year of learning Spanish on Duolingo to good use by going to Madeira, where they don’t even speak Spanish. Fortunately, I was able to become 18% fluent in Portuguese before I went, at least according to official Duolingo records.

I signed up for a mountain bike trek. I hadn’t ridden a bike in 14 years, but you never forget. It’s like… something I can’t currently think of.

Most things I book through Expedia are full of pensioners, those are just the rules. On the plus side, it means I almost always have superior fitness levels to the rest of the group. So it was quite a shock to get in the van to go mountain biking and be surrounded by young Germans and Swedish people in professional cycling gear. Then there was me dressed in cotton shorts and a t-shirt, with old trainers.

But it surely didn’t matter, because I’d ridden a bike all throughout my youth, mainly at Center Parcs as I wasn’t allowed out to ride in the road where I lived until I was 12. And I should add that when I was 12, I had a mountain bike with five gears. Five entire gears.

It turns out that mountain biking had changed quite substantially in the 21 subsequent years and I didn’t even know how to use the gears on my bike. The guide quickly saw my ineptitude and prevented me from going on some of the trails.

Despite my legs seizing up with cramp at various points and other members of the group literally pushing me along at others, I somehow managed to complete the 40km trek. I was completely caked in mud, but I’d made it.

It turned out to be a perfect metaphor for Brexit negotiations. I signed up for something I thought would be easy, only to be find myself in an uphill struggle that was way beyond my ability, surrounded by much more experienced and knowledgeable European people who ended up taking pity on me.

The next day I was unable to walk properly, with my inner thighs red and swollen. I was also bruised from falling over a few times and am naturally pasty. So I was at least red, white and blue to embellish the Brexit metaphor further. There’s your patriotism.

I did at least get a couple of days of sun before the clouds took over towards the end of the week. Then I rounded my holiday off by getting a norovirus on my penultimate day.

No prizes for how I spent my final day. Of course, I went on a sightseeing trip of the island.

Okay, I didn’t. I signed up for a sightseeing trip, but after having spent the night vomiting at both ends, I thought it was probably best to change my scale down my sightseeing to the inside of a toilet bowl. I even saw some local wildlife in the ants that were living in my hotel bathroom. A norovirus did at least give an edge to the flight home, like Russian roulette of the arse. I can’t think why the woman sitting next to me moved seats.

I’m now planning next year’s holiday. This one is going to take some topping.