"Fuck soup!" - Paul McDaniel
Anti-comedian Paul McDaniel isn't afraid to take on the big controversies of the Festival. He speaks in a dragged out Northern Irish accent. He often drifts into inarticulate noises like a confused, depressed chimp about to be cajoled into saying its first reticent word. He looks like a lonely IT section manager who has been drafted in last minute to read someone else's Fringe script. The only topic he'll take a stance on is soup. To give him his due, it is the most taboo dividing line this August. And his joke writing is as neat and as shiny as a little boy's wedding shoes.
With an energy akin to Todd Barry, McDaniel rope-a-dopes us with zigzagging gags. Every word is dialled into that sustained, almost pained stage persona. Only occasionally are his pull backs and reveals a bit dated and musty. Everything else is a superior textbook example of man-and-mic deflated humour. There is a Twix gag that is glorious. And his dicey Marvin Gaye routine (a whole routine - imagine the effort) sings with that symphony of escalation that only a secretly seasoned and assured comedy expert could pull off. There are longueurs where trust is essential and McDaniel garners it early and exploits it later to maximum effect. Forget the soup this lunchtime and enjoy a dour treat instead.
Slickness is never an indicator of true comedy, and I can see lesser, weaker reviewers wandering into The Stand-Up Horror Show and only seeing mismarketed disaster. That is merely the first joke though. The star act is missing and the shabby masked stand-in only has cheap joke shop magic tricks to fill the hour until the grand guignol finale.
Tom Short is a lo-fi and underpowered presence, unusually welcoming in his diluted enthusiasm. He knows how small and meagre the portions he is giving you are as he shows you the fake thumb and handkerchief trick with all the joy of a bus driver having to give directions to the nearest taxi rank. Or the flustered roll of his eyes as he explains how the tarot cards section is going to work. He picks his next mark with a smiley desperation, the fingernail cling of a man with dwindling return options.
Yet behind his venetian carnival mask there's the clear sparkle of someone living out their dream. His Tommy Cooper-esque 'shit magic on purpose' wildest fantasies. He has other tricks up his stained sleeve. A copy of Grimms Fairy Tales that dissects Goldilocks and Red Riding Hood with a certain degree of satirical acuity gains laughs. Yet even these he abandons mid-sentence and shuffles on to the next prop trick. And I suspect he might have pulled the plug on them as they started building up way too much energy in the room.
I'm a contrary goose and a show dependent on the audience giving far more than the act will often gets me fully immersed. I took a child's delight in saying the magic word ad infinitum and being picked as the stooge for a few turns. And this is an hour with cult potential. One that requires a big audience with a bit of booze in them and some optimism, probably a later night slot.
The pleasure of a show like Tom Short's is the audience slowly rumbling that the entertainment is often in hearing other people in the room tumble what the craic is and either getting on board or getting nothing. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled is convincing the world that The Stand-Up Horror Show would feature much stand-up and any horror. Tom Short is the festival's cheery, half arsed Keyser Soze.
There's a similar situation at the Bedlam Theatre this year. Rhiannon Shaw's Wedding Night contains some promising character comedy. The show is framed as a "Weeding Day" and everyone you'd expect to find gets their shot at the microphone to say their piece.
Despite some spirited and well controlled audience interaction it takes a while for Shaw's guests not to treat this as serious theatre and buy into it. Luckily the front row was game, even competent, in filling in for her during costume turnarounds. And later moments like her stern but horny Dumfries mother, Elsie McClutchie, and a clever proposal story out of character dominated the apprehension. I personally really enjoyed the parasitic French flower girl Caroline and the Aussie officiate who'd much rather be MCing a funeral. I'm sure TV executives will see much potential in this loose but silly showcase. One to watch.
An anarchic clowning act more developed and skilled at working her room in the face of initial pessimism and confusion is Cheekykita. An Octopus, The Universe 'N' Stuff often feels like dress up madness taken to the edge. Like last time you visited your eccentric aunty's house you had a bit of a giggle mucking around in the laundry basket and this time she has arranged and prepared a full scale production of misappropriated fabrics and elaborate costumes... and you were only meant to lend her your dad's drill and get back home for your tea. A fly who will haunt your dreams. A shark trying to be a nice fun guy until the Jaws theme kicks in. An octopus being stalked by a smitten documentary maker.
The wonder is experiencing over an hour the audience gradually binding. From a few couples bolting out the door when they realise what they've have walked into during the opening sections... morphing into a conclusion where all those who committed are unified into being an active part of a makeshift cosmos and singing uninhibited at the top of their lungs. We started in chaos and doubt, a strange woman mucking around in her sofa comfies, then we work our way up from irritating insects to intelligent sea creatures, and keep expanding into the infinity of creation. Like stepping through 2001: A Space Odyssey's stargate, only the portal is above the Three Sisters meat market mega pub. It is a journey. The ultimate trip where someone spends five minutes with a dotty bra over their eyes.
Dada. Punk. Cheekykita.
There are certain bands and musicians that if you mention them to a fellow traveller and they admit to being a fan... well, you instantly know that kid is alright. Super Furry Animals or Jeffrey Lewis or Godspeed You! Black Emperor spring to mind. Rob Auton feels like the Fringe equivalent of one of those bands. A secret handshake among laughter aficionados. A password whispered between the initiated. And even though I have known about him for years, life or show clashes or full houses (his) have always impeded me from actually seeing him do one of his themed hours. When he walks into the packed Assembly Roxy main room the applause thickens into a rally of synchronised clapping and I couldn't help but think... what year did this start happening for Auton? Am I the only person wearing black at the Barbie movie premiere?
This show is part spoken word, part poetry. Vivid in honest detail. Comic conceits that massage you with an elegantly convoluted vocabulary and their wholesome vibes. Like a silk drill tunnelling towards your feels but tickling you gently as it burrows its way in, in deep under your skin. The Rob Auton Show is solely about Rob Auton himself. About what makes him human (his wonderful parents, his school underachievements, his wobbly but welcoming initiations into the world of work) and what brought him to being such a uniquely thoughtful, careful stand-up (a memory of his grandparents' cat that means nothing to anyone but him yet the value of which is universal; the aggressive camaraderie he felt as a teen kitchen porter; the work experience job in advertising that unlocked his sense of humour). It is a biographical show which criss-crossed with many of the same events in my own timeline: the utter fear of breaking someone else's game console; a fostering of lonerism from not caring about team sports; that first job as a KP washing pots and chopping vegetables.
Auton clearly relishes the grand space he has been programmed into. He makes no mention of the ramshackle tech and ushering delays of his previous PWYW venues. The military precision of the Assembly staff is the big time by comparison. The show is presented with thick plumes of dry ice, complex lighting cues and a blanket of twee handmade backdrops. Shades again of an indie rock concert. Atmosphere and experience. Maybe the watchwords of the piece. His sense of humour relies a lot on lateral thinking. Finding the most obtuse way to celebrate and disassemble the mundane and ordinary. And he finds real magic in doing so.
I am going to admit I appreciated The Rob Auton Show more than I laughed at it. He opens with highlights from all the previous hours and the jokes were so virile I almost kicked myself for missing them. The actual 2023 fresh material is heartfelt, witty and gently relaxing. How wonderful to see a comedian pitching his intelligence above and over his audience's heads and trusting they'll reach up to grab on? How admirable to see another fine example of positive masculinity walking abreast with Paul F Taylor and Ahir Shah's current offerings? So what that it felt very Radio 4. That it isn't my particular wheelhouse. I know I'll stick with Auton. See if he cannot convert me all the way over as well. This is a life affirming high water mark of what can be achieved in stand-up, beyond calculated tragic tales and pneumatic drill dick jokes. And if you are a fan of either of those there is, at the very least, a tale of a circumcision involving the tooth fairy that ticks those boxes. Allegedly it splits a room. Not on the afternoon of communal adoration where I first enjoyed Rob Auton. Good for you, the Crabcake Kid.
The lesson Auton learned from school cricket was: "Stand your ground, if you are good at it, it will come to you." And maybe that says something about differing approaches to the Fringe. There seems to be two roads to success. The high road is to come out of the gate all guns blazing with a blistering debut, a full PR and marketing campaign, propelled not just by a staggering amount of financial investment but also a certain degree of predestination from the powers that be. The Big Four venues, the big PR names, the major agencies, the awards judges (though they are actually the most unruly, unpredictable variable) and, us, the comedy press. We kinda do, for sake of ease, all collude to give the anointed few such a head start that those who are never invited up to the high road feel resentful. And for those who don't race along the high road to success after all that push... well, they can feel permanently broken by the experience.
There is a low road. And it is slower. Auton is a shining example to all the names above. Do your own thing. Make it unique and definitive. Branding is important. Yet so is being a voice that is irreplicable. And then just keep at it. Keep improving every Edinburgh. Aim on getting press in, building a loyal following who'll circle you in the brochure each year and always be working towards a better venue or bigger room or a timeslot that suits you each August. It will be gradual but if every summer you see a small improvement in any or all these areas then you are on your way. It might be a writer who champions you or programmer who asks you what room you want next year or just one new audience member who enthusiastically keeps tabs on your output for the 11 months in between. The low road is graft and frustrating and not infallible but Rob Auton is a beacon for everyone who currently feels lost at sea. A guiding light on the horizon that the first few years of the Fringe aren't your only shot. Caveat: If what you are doing is precious.
If what you are doing is strange, unloved, ignored by the gatekeepers to start... Stand your ground, if you are good at it, it will come to you.