'Comedian, author, explorer and air recycler' Tim FitzHigham is known for his bold shows. He's back in Edinburgh for his eighth solo show, and this one is about his most dangerous gamble ever: how to make a letter travel 50 miles in an hour, using only the means available during the eighteenth century. We asked Tim to explain more about the form of comedy he performs...
'Mike Wilmot started me thinking deeply' is a line I never thought I'd commit to paper. The Canadian turned to me backstage and said 'So I've seen you do 20 minutes but what is it you actually do for the hour shows'. I think it's a question that's baffled other comics, reviewers - and more than that - me, for the entire time I've been trying to get stories out of my system.
I thought, and the next day said 'I just follow a plan through with the commitment of a cartoon character, then attempt to tell the audience what I've done. Kind of like the continuing bad ideas of me.' Mike responded: 'That's a good name for a show. But that's what we all do.' But is it? He's right in a sense, that all comedy is explaining bad (and good) ideas...
Mike is a great example to use, as in his own words he says: 'I sit down, think what is it that pisses me off about this or that, and I write twenty jokes about it'; whereas in my solo shows I am completely committed to telling the truth, the audient (singular of audience) expects it. There is something different at work here perhaps. And that's what pushed me, a novice in the area, into deep thought.
Project-based comedy, storytelling comedy - I like to think of it as a sort of gonzo journalism comedy - I'm not sure anyone has yet given it a name and perhaps they shouldn't. I'd hope is just as valid a form of chuckle creation as classical stand-up. It's not for me to attempt some sort of cobbled together history of it as a genre but often in reviews there are a few of us who get tied together in different permutations: Tony Hawks, Mark Thomas (when he's explaining a project), Dave Gorman, Danny Wallace and Alex Horne among them. It's using as many different things available to us (pictures, forms, cartoons, phone calls etc) to tell the story that's happened to us to make people smile. An extension (in my case, I can't speak for anyone else) of Peter Ustinov or Spike Milligan's one man shows - they are what inspired me to make what I have... I know, really nailing the cool and current references here but stick with me, I'm not always brief but sometimes there's a point. Andrew Maxwell has summed it up with 'you're like Gonzo (from the Muppets), crossed with a great Victorian explorer trying performance art... a genuine old fashioned raconteur... oh, and you look like an old coin...'
If you write a joke, you are the complete master of its ending. You choose its course, its punchline, its complex and very specific wording, and command it to make people laugh (I can say this, I wrote one once). That is why there is nothing more pleasing than the slickness of good classical stand-up. I attempt shows where I take what Ian Stone rightly called 'a notion' and run with it, never giving in until either I break the idea or the idea breaks me (to date four or more of my shows have involved trips to hospital). I become the butler to the ailing master of a show, servant to the baffling will of the story (and often it's won'ts too). A spokesperson trying to explain the truth even if it's really not what I'd like it to be.
This year, this form of project-based comedy revealed the scorpion's sting in its tail.
On the morning of the 1st of August 2012, my show (Stop the Pigeon) had absolutely no ending. I woke up gripped with the gut wrenching terror that I'd be standing in front of a preview audience and finishing with the line 'er...well it sort of hasn't worked out this year but I'm not really sure... has anyone heard anything funny recently... anyone got an idea of anything more I can try?' before shambling off to the sound of my own shoes. My nightmares were only worse than my waking fear because I was saying the above not wearing any trousers in the nightmares. I'm not going to ruin the show for you by writing here how the morning of the 1st August went, or spoil the ending (or lack of one), come and take a punt on that yourself. I'm just giving you the facts and letting you in on the flaw in project-based truth comedy, sometimes (like, as you'd expect, in life) things don't go to plan.
It took me back to hospital and recovering after the first failed attempt to become the first person in history to row the English Channel in a bathtub (see the book All At Sea for details). Marcus Brigstocke sent me a message 'you know Tim, some people just write jokes.' He's right of course but for me the terror of not knowing what the ending might be is why I love making the shows so much. It's an epic version of the terror we all feel at the thought 'will this be funny?' The one off explosion of something unpredictable is a big part of the excitement of live comedy and this, for me, is its purest form. I could not make shows any other way. I just hope the audience get that, laugh, cry, wail and most of all enjoys the ride.
'Tim FitzHigham: Stop The Pigeon' can be seen at 7:30pm at the Pleasance Courtyard till the 27th August. Listing
Tim also performs in 'Flanders and Swann' at 2:30pm. Listing