Outside the Comfort Zone

As a fresh crop of ingenious formats dares comics to show us what they're really made of, Fest meets the people throwing down the gauntlet. There's no filter, no script – and no guessing what could happen

feature | Read in About 9 minutes
Published 25 July 2014

The body does some curious things when the brain makes it give up the truth. It’s early July in a London pub cellar, and the way some of tonight’s acts move on stage doesn’t suggest “jitters” so much as “nerve gas”. Each has agreed to jettison their usual sets, “to be honest to the point of regret”, and for those who enter into the spirit of things, the strain certainly shows. They sweat and contort and groan into their chests. There’s a lot of clutching of necks.

These are common sights at It Might Get Ugly, a new mixed-bill night that’s part group therapy, part truth-or-dare, and when it transfers to Edinburgh this year, it’ll be in good company. At recent Fringes there’s been a proliferation of innovative concept shows engineered to coax the comedian out of their comfort zone. Each creates an environment in which guests live or die by their skills as a comic, and no arsenal of solid material will help: they’ve got to be the real deal.

Chief among them is Set List, which was devised by Los Angeles comics Troy Conrad and Paul Provenza in 2010 and is about to make its fourth trip to Edinburgh. The idea couldn’t be simpler: a short phrase, nonsensical or suggestive, is displayed as a guest standup takes the mic. For the next few minutes, they must squeeze out of it all that they can. The level of comedians who’ve tried it (from Eddie Izzard to Robin Williams) is testament to the unique rush it provides. Building on its success, this year Conrad unveils its sibling, Prompter, in which comics read out previously unseen, TED-style educational talks expounding outrageously wrong-headed ideas. What's more, the autocue’s on the fritz – and when it cuts out (at carefully chosen moments), they must ad lib to keep the lecture going.

Closer to home, last year saw the Edinburgh debut of Joke Thieves, Will Mars’s London night where four acts reel off a trademark five minutes before an audience member pairs them off to recast each other’s work as their own. It’s a comedy crucible, exposing well-crafted routines to playful deconstruction and some not-so-subtle digs.

Finally, with This Is Your Trial, standups don the wig and gown for an improvised day in court. It’s a logical extension of prying crowd work, with guest “lawyers” summoning a random defendant from the audience, throwing an arbitrary charge at them and winging it until a verdict is reached.

So what itch are comedians scratching by shunning the safety of a standard mixed bill? For Troy Conrad, it was boredom. The nightly cycle of half-hour spots was getting old – until he dropped a fresh ingredient into the mix. Short-form improv games, adapted for a solo performer, reinvigorated comic and audience alike.

Recently Conrad got to see the effects of that stimulus in action. One of Set List’s open mic acts, a neuroscience PhD, had him take part in a study where comics had to come up with jokes while hooked up to an MRI scanner. Lo and behold, a whole other region of the subjects’ brains visibly crackled into life.

Of his newer project, Conrad says: “When the prompter goes out, I’d say a different part kicks in, the 'fight or flight' system, the amygdala – they call it the 'lizard brain'. And that’s why there are such creative, amazing performances.”

Both of his formats pursue that spark largely to serve jaded comics, and Conrad is full of violent analogies for the “visceral, meaningful experiences” they report. There’s a combative feel to Will Mars’s Joke Thieves, too – but here it’s between the acts partnered. Mars says a big part of the idea—rooted in his past life as a sales manager, having his team swap pitches to challenge the old hands—was to harness comedians' competitive nature.

“When you’ve spent ten years travelling up and down the motorway to forge a career, when you’ve spent all that money and lost relationships, the last thing you want to do is find out another comic can make your stuff funnier in five minutes.”

Hence the mutual mockery. But does it ever go too far? Mars insists: “No one’s fallen out permanently, but we have had a couple of bruised egos along the way.”

Meanwhile Karl Schultz, host and creator of It Might Get Ugly, says he was seeking a break from his character act, the outlandish Matthew Kelly, when the idea came about. He’d always admired straighter comedy but, he says, “once I decided it was time to do more honest standup myself, I found I couldn't get many gigs as ‘me’ for love nor money.”

So he went one better, booked a room and enlisted acts brave enough to take the mantra “be yourself” to the nth degree. Faced with having to air the dirtiest of laundry in public, some of them got cold feet.

“On the afternoon of the first night I was busy experimenting with various bath bombs for future reference when I suddenly got three calls in a row from acts demanding I talk them off a ledge,” says Schultz. “Much like the bath bombs, their fears fizzed and dissolved into their own unique solutions.”

Their apprehensions are understandable. What's in it for the acts? “To share something is healthy and nourishing," says Schultz. "Though the show's not intended as worthily as that.” Instead it’s about candour for the sake of “breaking new ground”, and the highs and lows of “emotional risk”.

These formats range from the fast and loose to the relatively structured, and none guarantees success. But each has its own way of creating the conditions for those little moments of magic. At one extreme, Set List has long made a virtue of its simplicity. These days its reputation precedes it, and perhaps a major factor in why so many acts swim rather than sink is its status as a rite of passage among comics. 

With IMGU, the brief might sound so flexible that more confessional comics could smuggle in established material. But Schultz assures me the audience can tell when that’s happening. From what I've seen, that, along with the implied sense of a pact between the guests, is what keeps the spirit of the night in place.

Will Mars speaks of how Joke Thieves feeds off the crowd’s sense of anticipation, with their attention in the first half split between absorbing the original sets and predicting how they might later be pulled apart. The comedians see the chance to reward that, and so part two arrives amid a riot of ever more inventive callbacks.

As for Trial, its creator David Allison says audience's knowledge of (inaccurate) legal dramas does a lot of the work in establishing courtroom decorum. But with the possibility of the accused derailing the whole process, it's been a wise decision to recruit a few steady hands – step forward, director Paul Byrne, judge Tim FitzHigham and court clerk Thom Tuck.

Out of all of these formats, though, Prompter involves the most supporting structure. Conrad says: “I feel responsibility to give the comics a really good, solid foundation so that they can tear the house down.”

And so there are 72 talks in the bank, each embellished with diagrams, stage directions for speaker and audience – and titles (eg 'Teaching A Foetus To Enjoy Pregnancy Intercourse') colourful enough to guarantee inspiration when the screen goes blank.

There's even a guinea-pig comic, Greg Kashmanian, who essentially road-tests each talk—improv and all—while sitting in a cafe. “He’s the guy in the winery who has the best taste buds," says Conrad, "and we know from watching him when it’s ready to go.”

When these various setups click into place, it can produce some pretty special sights. Conrad recalls a Prompter lecturer persuading two straight men to kiss as “one of the most hilarious and cringeworthy things I’ve ever seen”. At IMGU, I watched Harry Hill give a packed theatre not the TV Burp wackiness some came expecting, but a gloriously frank assault on the rotters who axed his X-Factor musical just a month into its run.

And at Joke Thieves an experiment with sketch—a weekly fixture this August—saw double act Short and Curly having to re-do sketch group Beasts force-feeding eclairs to one of their number. The latter being a trio, a ringer from the crowd was recruited. Guess whose turn it was to eat.

It’s highlights like these that keep the comics coming back, and across the board, the shows’ creators have been surprised by how few “deaths” there have been. They’re unanimous, too, on the subject of the crowds: in each case more supportive and game than your average night.

Though it’s always gratifying when the act you’ve paid to see turns out a precision-tuned set, formats like these prove traditional Fringe hours are only one side of the story. You just don’t know what your favourite comics are capable of – and often, neither do they.


Tests of wit

It Might Get Ugly, Pleasance Courtyard, 11:00pm – 12:30am, 30 Jul – 24 Aug

It's confessional comedy in the extreme as acts reluctantly offer up specially written material exposing an unsanitised, unflattering version of themselves.

Set List: Stand-Up Without a Net, Stand in the Square, 11:20pm – 12:50am, 1–25 Aug, not 5, 12, 19

When a nonsensical topic is thrown onto the screen, the guest comic has just seconds to turn it into gold. A global smash that's spawned a Sky Atlantic adaptation. 

Prompter, Gilded Balloon , 3:45pm – 4:45pm, 30 Jul – 25 Aug

Guest lecturers are forced to deliver god-awful lectures from a 'faulty' autocue. When it goes black, they just have to keep on digging...

Joke Thieves, Just the Tonic at The Caves, 10:30pm – 11:30pm, 31 Jul – 24 Aug, not 12 Aug

The comic equivalent of a swingers' party. Guests perform a set of their own, then try someone else's on for size.

This is Your Trial, Assembly George Square Theatre, 11:20pm – 12:20am, various dates between 30 Jul and 23 Aug

An improvised kangaroo court in which you, the audience, are the accused. But the heat's also on the comedian-lawyers who must build a case out of thin air.