I’m sitting in my hotel room in Edinburgh, looking out on a glorious Scottish morning, reflecting on an interesting experience. Last night, I performed a stand-up comedy gig to an audience of around 150, some of whom had just wandered in off the street, having seen the “Bright Club – one night only – free show” signs outside the Informatics Building at Edinburgh University, where the event took place. It came about after a phone call three days ago from UCL (University College, London). A friend asked me if I might be free on Saturday evening. Thinking it might be an invitation to an event with free beer, I checked the diary, checked with my family, and told him I was. “Great” he said “We’ll book your hotel and cover your train tickets. We’d like you to do a stand-up comedy routine in Edinburgh on Saturday night”.
OK, I thought. I do the occasional spot of stand-up, and being a speaker, use humour in my speeches. But I’m not a career comedian, and the Edinburgh Fringe is full of cracking performers. Would anybody come to watch? If they do, how will it go? But there was more. “By the way” said my pal “the other comics are all scientists. Can you do a science routine?”
So now I’m right in it. I’ve agreed to the gig, and I’ve got three days to write a ten-minute set of science gags, to be performed at an Edinburgh Fringe event. I pick up my pencil. Nothing occurs to me at all. I go for a run, and return with an idea for a riff about astronomy, featuring Patrick Moore and a few puns (“It may be no constellation to you….”). I work on it and find I’ve got about three minutes of material. I try it on my wife and daughter, and they both laugh. That’s a very good sign.
I then get an idea for a running gag based on songs with scientist’s names in; “What a day Faraday dream, Darwin-er takes it all, You were made Fermi…”. Alas, I get so interested in thinking these up that by the time I board the train to Edinburgh, I’m still around six minutes short, and I haven’t rehearsed. Luckily, it’s a four and a half hour journey, so by the time the train pulls into Waverley station, I’ve enough to fill the set, though I haven’t tested it on anyone (testing is a vital part of comedy). The gig is still 24 hours away, so I meet up with a good pal for drinks at a Fringe venue (he lives in Edinburgh and is a comedy veteran). We swap some stories, I try a few lines, and he suggests a couple of scientist song puns.
The next day, I wander around Edinburgh, buy a few gifts for my family, browse bookshops and linger over some strong coffees. It’s a very relaxing day, but my mind is still on the gig. As always, I wander over to the venue hours ahead of time (mid-day to be precise) to check it out for acoustics, lighting and “feel”. Like many Fringe venues, it’s somewhat rudimentary. I decide not to worry about it and at 3pm, head back to my hotel to rehearse the routine in my room. I find it helpful to run through routines out loud three our four times – the same discipline I adopt for speeches. Then I discard my notes and head off to the venue.
We’re due to start at 6.30, so I arrive at 5.30. The other performers arrive. None of them is even half my age, and they’re full of confidence. I agree to be the opening act, since they’re all local, and have their pals coming to watch, whereas I’m just the old guy from out of town. At 6.25, there are ten people in the audience. The MC, who appears to have just left school, suggests we delay until 6.40. It turns out to be a good call, as by then the barkers have managed to persuade around 150 people to come in out of the rain. I must admit, despite speaking to much larger audiences on a weekly basis, I’m a tad nervous. I need to nail this.
The MC does a ten minute opening session, and it’s clear that he’s well known to the crowd. He picks out a few familiar faces and has some saucy banter with them. I realise that there are a number of other fringe performers in the audience. Fine.
Then I’m introduced, so I leap on stage and go into the astronomy routine. The line about Patrick Moore being so large he has his own gravitational field gets a small laugh. Things pick up when I ramble about new names for constellations (Three stars – the Bacon Sandwich…Four points of light, all dim – Cheryl Cole). Then I’m into a story about the time I played a Scottish shopkeeper in an Italian soap opera (absolutely true). I can feel the crowd is onside now. I decide to drop the running gag about song titles, and finish with a longer story about getting my MSc in 1975 with a disastrous research project. They love it. I’ve found their funny bone. I finish with a gag from a pal of mine (which he offered to me for this gig – I would never use it without permission). It’s about the male morning-after pill. “It changes your blood group”. It gets a huge laugh and I’m off stage with a wave of thanks.
The other comics perform well. The gig ends at 7.30 and we repair to a restaurant for a meal of faggots and gravy washed down with single malts. All the performers, including me, are high on adrenaline. I’m pleased that it’s an early finish so I’ll at least be able to get to sleep after the euphoria wears off. In the event we head off to the castle and watch the military tattoo and fireworks at midnight before more whiskies.
In the morning (now as I write this) I’m amazed not to be hungover. Maybe it hasn’t hit yet.
So that was it. I managed to pull off a good gig at the Edinburgh Fringe. I’m not switching to a career in stand-up. It wouldn’t be an easy life. Bob Monkhouse used to say “My friends laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian, but they’re not laughing now”