Si Hawkins Circuit Training

Circuit Training 130: Ed Byrne Peaks

Ed Byrne. Copyright: Idil Sukan

As late summer gives way to the early shivers of Autumn, we at the BCG post our annual list of the best-reviewed shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. And this year, amid the newer, younger, trendier names, was a familiar face, and voice. Ed Byrne's show If I'm Honest got some damn fine star ratings during August, and now he's touring it, as you would.

Circuit Training caught the extended version of that show at the Hertford Theatre over the weekend - one of Ed's favourite haunts - and the critics were not wrong. It's an energetic (he recently ditched the handheld mic) and empathetic look at the legacy we lump onto our kids. There are some memorable new Byrne bits in there, and we'll get onto how great routines happen, below. Other big subjects: his mountain-peak picture-posting, positives about the post-DVD era, cheat-laugh doubts, and Byrne's bad-review routine.

This interview happened before we saw the show, on the day of that big Boris-bashing supreme court thing actually, but we stuck to the comedy, just about - he keeps the shows fairly free of party politics these days (and explains why below, too).

So, let's head back to a Tuesday in late September. Lunchtime, in fact.

Ed Byrne. Copyright: Idil Sukan

Afternoon Ed...

Look at that, bang on 12.

Sometimes I do think 'shall I phone a few minutes late; pretend I've got other stuff going on?'

I mean, it's not a date, you don't have to neg me. Actually I wonder what that would be like: 'Well, you've been around quite a while and never quite made it...'

Where are you now then?

At home. I've boxed slightly cleverer on this tour; previous tours I've done six, seven nights a week - it sucks the fun out of it, you miss your family too much. Now it's four or five, occasionally six, and I take the school holidays off - which makes sense, because a lot of people who see me are parents too.

That's one of the show's themes?

The show is about me, but I kind of use the children as a device really, to talk about parenting, which I hope anyone can enjoy, whether they're parents or not.

It's about what you pass down? My brother and I definitely lost out in the 'parent's eyesight' lottery...

I don't get too bogged down by genetics, but I talk about not being very fit, or strong. I have a whole routine about the idea of me bodybuilding, at 47. I'm what they call a 'hard gainer'.

You're a great one for hiking though - your Twitter feed is an oasis of amazing mountain scenes.

I try to keep Twitter light now, I'm probably amassing a whole different type of followers - one of these days I'll say something about Brexit or the Labour Party and thousands of people will go 'I DIDN'T REALISE YOU WERE ONE OF THEM.'

In this show you actively joke about not doing Brexit material - is that from bitter experience?

I had a bit about UKIP, two tours ago, but UKIP and Brexit aren't the same thing - it was specifically about membership of UKIP. The analogy was that racism is to UKIP what vegetarianism is to the Green Party. The punchline is: if you're a member of the Green Party, at the very least, you're someone who's comfortable around vegetarians.

And I really liked that as a routine - I thought the logic of it was flawless, and surely the only people who'd be offended would be actual members of UKIP. But no: Braintree was the worst reaction, you could feel there was a conflation among people in the audience, by slagging off UKIP I was attacking anyone who'd voted Brexit.

You can see it sometimes on Twitter, if you slag off UKIP or the Brexit Party, 'you're slagging off the 17.4 million people...' No! If the Brexit Party had that, Nigel Farage would be Prime Minister. But people have become very tribal in what you can and can't slag off.

Ed Byrne

Brexit seems to have made the whole country become like Twitter - you're on one side or the other, no in-between.

Simon Evans made a good point - a lot of people label themselves on Twitter, define themselves in such a way... you wouldn't rock up to a dinner party wearing your 'I'm a hunt saboteur' t-shirt. Or a wedding.

When we interact socially, we try to figure out ways to get on with each other - if someone brings up something diametrically opposed to our political standpoint, we tend to let it go or argue it diplomatically.

On Twitter, there are all these accounts in their header or bio: 'atheist, vegan, libertarian' - come and have a go if you think you're hard enough. People are just there for a fucking row.

I'm sure it wasn't about that originally.

No, I remember when people used to slag it off, 'he's just showing what he had for breakfast' - I miss those days! So I'm still treating it like that. 'Here's a picture of the walk I did today.'

You've got some real signature routines - can you tell it's a big one when you're writing it?

No, no, and I'm very happy when I've done it, but I'm not really aware of it until afterwards. Obviously the Alanis Morrissette one, people still mention...

The kid-in-the-t-shirt bit springs to mind. And I was very fond your wedding one.

The routine about my cat: I know it's not the most biting satire, but I loved doing it.

If you love a routine there must be a whole extra level to the performance, too.

And particularly with a new show, there's something very satisfying about knowing where the massive laughs are.

A lot of the time it's one where there's a nice pause before it: laugh-laugh-laugh-laugh [pause] BIG LAUGH. That's wonderful, like throwing the combination of punches, and you know that the haymaker's coming.

There's a routine towards the end of the new show, about how important it is to me that my wife should have a friend who's married to a man who's fucking useless...

Ed Byrne. Copyright: Idil Sukan


It's because I'm talking about friendship, you aren't expecting it to be quite so shallow. But at the same time, it's so relatable: it's just one of those laugh bombs, and the routine that comes after is me describing it, talking about how my wife is never so beautiful than when she's complaining to me about the shitness of another woman's husband.

It's like when you've come up with a new greatest hit, and I won't deny, it is nice to know 'you still got it kid.'

Do you have that scary black page before writing a new show, or can you just tour when you're ready now?

I deliberately don't put myself under too much pressure to come up with new material. Every other year I go to Edinburgh with a new hour, and that's a good milestone to aim for, then I'll tour the show with a support act. That's a safety net, in case I come up short material-wise, then the second half of the tour it's just me for 90 minutes. Although I've already hit the material target this time - I don't need him! No, I'm kidding...

You were in our Best Reviewed Shows list from this year's Fringe.

Yeah, which is the first time I've ever made that list. Back in the day when I used to get good reviews, British Comedy Guide didn't exist.

I suppose when you're established, you end up with three stars a lot, unless you do something out of character...

I think also they're not comparing you to the rest of the field, but comparing you to your best work, which I personally think is quite unfair. But as you get older, it's harder to garner good reviews. If you're me, and you're doing stuff about being a married dad, all of the worst reviews I've had were people not in my situation: 'this isn't for me.'

I was talking to Catherine Bohart about this: everybody was quite appalled by a review that Catherine got on Chortle that literally said 'the audience seemed to enjoy it but this show's not for me, it's about feminism and being bisexual...' This bloke wrote this. Like, dude, do you realise what you sound like right now? It's an inability to evaluate something objectively, I thought it was terrible.

I've been on the receiving end of that many times, I've had a bunch of reviews, people whose lifestyle does not align with mine. The show I did at the Fringe last year, it was a good show and it got two stars from The List, someone who didn't want to hear stories about a dad.

Ed Byrne

Was it a really bad review, or just a bad star rating?

I'll be honest with you, I didn't read the review - when they're bad, I just get my PR to give me the Cliffs Notes. If not, you get annoyed. At the very least, admit that the audience were enjoying it.

Some critics do seem to enjoy slagging people off.

It's a lot easier, to be fair. I mean, Jesus, that's why I mainly do comedy about the stuff I don't like.

What happened this year then, why the better reviews?

I'm not gonna lie, I started work on it really early, November last year I started doing the new material nights. You've got to come up with the name for the show earlier and earlier, so in the early stages, I let the material find me out, and the first 15 minutes you've got written - that's your theme!

But a lot of the funniest jokes in the show, I hesitated to put in, because they were just what happened. One of them was something that my wife said to me, and one was something my kid said, and I thought 'that's just me reporting on something' - I feel like a cheat. But they're two massive laughs in the show, so...

You've got a few shows on NextUp, the streaming platform - you don't still make DVDs?

No, I've recorded [the recent shows], but I think the one format they've come out on is CD. But the last one, that's just gone in the can for BBC Scotland, they bought that one.

What about the people who always bought Ed Byrne DVDs for someone for Christmas...?

I never made a pile out of them anyway. The thing with DVDs, there's a real pressure to get the shows in the can and in the shops by December, and once it's out, it gives a shelf life to the show that means you can only tour it for so long.

Now, there's no pressure to record it and get it in the shops, so I'll probably keep going for 18 months or so. And it gives me a bit longer until I have to start writing the next one.

When does that process start - have you got ideas already?

God, no. At the moment any new material I write will still go into this one. I'm too eager to share.

Published: Tuesday 8th October 2019

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