Opinion: In Praise of Previews by Luke Toulson

luke toulson

Preview season is well and truly under way. For comics it is a vital part of the Edinburgh Fringe dominated calendar. For punters, an opportunity to see their favourite comedians at knocked down prices. Though I think an equal number of audience members unwittingly stumble across previews, when what they were actually after was something other than a comedian unwittingly stumble through a notepad of half-written jokes.

That said, Edinburgh previews are my favourite gigs to perform. The longer stage time allows greater experimentation, while (hopefully) the audience's complicit agreement that not all of it is going to work, imbues a playfulness to proceedings, which is often missing from club gigs.

At least one of my final ‘polished’ Edinburgh shows, with all the rough edges smoothed away, never matched the untameable (dare I say) magic that my flailing attempts to plot a course through my unfinished show, routinely achieved during previews.

How many previews are enough? The big acts often clock in something in the region of 30, smaller acts sometimes struggle to notch up double figures, such is the buyer’s market of TV regulars offering their services to promoters at substantially lower rates than for regular gigs or tour shows.

In the absence of multiple previews, acts with a lower profile have to get a little more inventive developing their shows in 10 minute chunks at new material gigs or sneaking bits into their clubs sets. I have found that tricky this year as my show is based on the letters my Grandpa wrote during the war. With all the good will in the world, that’s never going to fly at Watford Jongleurs.

Instead, every Wednesday in July, I will be putting on previews of my show, ‘Grandpa, Hitler and Me’, alongside my favourite Edinburgh-bound acts, including Sara Pascoe, Paul Sinha, Carl Donnelly and James Acaster. Sara is actually preparing for Edinburgh 2016, and will no doubt whizz past the 30 previews mark before then.

To go off on a tangent, it seems a shame that club gigs in this country are largely one of two things; either made up of tight club sets or a couple of work-in-progress previews. For much of the year, there is huge conformity in the basic structure of UK club nights; an mc and three 20 minute sets. A newer act, taking their first steps as a pro-comic, does the same amount of time as the headliner. Many clubs even shy away from referring to the closing act as the headliner, implying that we are all headliners. Or, I suppose, none of us are.

While riddled with its own particular flaws, I am envious of the American circuit where it is the norm for headliners to perform 40 to 60 minute sets, forcing the best comedians to develop a set that can command a club audience’s attention for longer than the time it takes the average British male to require another pint.

Perhaps it is these longer headliner club sets which are responsible for routinely spitting out brilliant American comics, such as as my personal favourites, Bill Burr, Gary Gulman and Louis CK.

We of course have many touring shows but the environment of a theatre containing a relatively loyal audience is clearly different to that of the Saturday night late show at The Comedy Store.

The modern route to acquiring an audience to support a tour are panel shows and/or an edited version of a 20 minute club set on Live at the Apollo. The comics I would want to see do an hour long club set, the likes of John Gordillo, Bob Mills, Tom Stade, to name but three, don’t tend to be on panel shows.

Possibly the rough and ready previews in front of a rough and ready club audience, are the closest we will get to the extended club sets of America and the often cited unpredictability of the gigs during the early years of the UK circuit.

Luke Toulson is previewing his Edinburgh show Grandpa, Hitler and Me at the Crack Comedy Club in July and then appearing at The Stand from August 5 - 30. For more info go to his website here.



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