If there’s one comedian who understands the importance of a director, it’s festival veteran Phil Nichol. Not only has the Edinburgh Comedy Award-winning standup directed dozens of comics’ Fringe hours, this year Nichol realised the value of direction the hard way…
"I’m performing my 20th solo show, which is a collection of the best bits from the other 19 solo hours," he explains. "Because it’s a 'best of' I foolishly thought I don’t need a director. But now I’ve realised it’s actually the show I need a director for the most. Fuck!"
Lucie Pohl, Kirsty Newton, Patrick Monahan and Addy van der Borgh didn’t make that same mistake. They all asked Nichol to direct their 2016 Edinburgh shows months ago, to act as a behind-the-scenes ‘comedy physician’, as Nichol puts it, and help "better enable the performance".
As comedy performers get ever more ambitious and innovative, collaborating with a director is becoming more and more the norm. Heck, even I—the writer of this humble article—have directed a comedy show at this year’s festival (Sunil Patel: Juicer, 2:30pm at the Cellar Monkey – go see) But what does a director of a comedy show actually do? Aren’t standups just up on stage being funny?
"When you’re directing an Edinburgh show your role changes a lot," says Tom Parry of sketch troupe Pappy’s. "You’re a therapist, you’re a cheerleader, you’re a tactician, you’re an analyst… It’s many different roles to help them get through."
Parry’s directing four shows this year: three sketch acts—Max & Ivan, BEASTS and Birthday Girls—and theatre company Sleeping Trees, who are crossing over into comedy. So what makes comedy directing different from theatre?
"I think it’s about ownership," says Parry. "With theatre, as a director it can be your version of the play. But with comedy, it’s the performer’s show and they have to feel like they have complete ownership over everything – it has to be theirs."
Vicky Jones has tonnes of theatre directing experience, including the smash-hit Fleabag and shows at Trafalgar Studios and Hampstead Theatre. But she hadn’t worked on comedy shows until her friend Robert Cawsey approached her to direct his alter ego, Simon Slack.
"I really ran with the idea," says Jones, "but I had to let go a lot, because he had these brilliant gags and I’d say, 'But that doesn’t fit'. So, for me, it’s been about holding back my judgment, especially on his ideas, and then realising they do work. It’s been an exciting realisation for both of us that we can make something that’s in between drama and comedy."
Hardeep Singh Kohli is more than directing character comic Maddy Anholt’s show Rent Girl – he’s co-written it too. Like Nichol, he found the value of direction through being directed himself. "For my first shows, because I’d been a director for 30 years—albeit mostly documentaries—I thought: 'What the fuck do I need a director for?' But, Jesus Christ, the difference he made! What you really want a director to be is someone who’s genuinely an external pair of eyes, so they can ask the hard questions. For me, it’s not about money, it’s a passion. Plus you’re much more likely to get a shag by saying, 'I’m the director of a show' than saying, 'I’m in a show'. I thought it was important to say that."
Despite the, er, apparent sexual advantages, being a comedy director comes with little reward or praise. As Kohli says, it’s not about cash or plaudits, and these four directors all have another thing in common: they’re all working with friends. Does that make having hard talks or giving truly honest opinions more difficult?
"It helps when you’re mates, I think," says Parry. "You can say, 'That bit isn’t working'. That’s an easy note to give. What’s more difficult is to give the note, 'I hate that joke'. If there’s something I really don’t like, I say, 'Make it essential to the show so we can’t cut it. If you love it, fight for it, because then that’ll make it better'.”
Nichol says most people he works with want him to be totally honest. "They know I don’t have an agenda. I’m not a critic, I’m a director. I have ideas, but it’s their show. In a standup hour, if it’s really good you don’t see the director in it, because you’re too busy focusing on the verse. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true."
Everyone around this table agrees that that’s the mark of a well-directed comedy show. Whatever approach or tactics used to make it as engrossing or funny as possible, the director should be hidden inside the work and the audience should never know they exist. But even though it’s the performer being reviewed and critiqued, that doesn’t stop the director feeling responsible.
"If the shows come here and there are things in it that are shit, there’s a part of me that thinks, 'Why have I allowed that to happen?’" says Kohli. "And if they get nasty reviews, I think, 'I missed something, I didn’t collaborate properly'," adds Nichol.
No matter what happens, both performers and directors have to absolutely love the show. But more importantly, the director has to love who they’re directing. As Jones says: "You’re holding them up. Your name isn’t going to be the biggest thing about the show, so you have to believe in them, regardless of their self-doubt or what goes wrong.
Always think of them as being brilliant geniuses and tell them that everything’s going to be okay. That way, if it’s only you and that person in the venue and nobody else has come, you still love them and there are bits that you still laugh at, genuinely. That’s ultimately what you need."