Opinion: "This year's Fringe was easily the toughest I've performed at" By Tony Cowards

Tony cowards

This year's Fringe was easily the toughest of the six I've performed at.

If I'm totally honest I went up slightly underprepared, my show was a bit of a mishmash with new bits cobbled together with some older bits from other shows.

The thematic bits I wanted to do proved to be less funny than I'd hoped and during the few previews I did before Edinburgh I gradually dropped them in favour of jokes that were tried and tested. Whether this was a mistake, who can say, but being an act who wants constant laughs from the audience, I, of course, went for the gags rather than the pathos.

The first week of the Fringe was like being trapped in some sort of Festival "Groundhog Day", every day I'd start doing spots at noon, I'd exit flyer and generally attempt to cajol people into coming to my show.

Half an hour before showtime I would turn up to my empty room, prepare to do the show and then, 10 minutes after I'd been due to start, pack my stuff away and laugh with the door staff that I could "have an early night" and "maybe there'll be some people tomorrow".

I pulled 5 of the first 7 shows because, literally, no one came. Not one or two or three people, zero.

In my previous 5 Fringes I think I've pulled one or two shows in total.

As the Festival moved into the second week, things picked up a bit, how could they not from such a low base?

Lots of people were wonderful and tried their best to help me and to those people, thank you so much, I'm not sure you'll ever know how low I was and how much you helped.

I got desperate and asked for help on social media to plug my show, I contacted some big name acts who were lovely and only too happy to help.

By now the show had become a different beast to what I had originally planned but, whenever I actually got a chance to perform it, people laughed... a lot.

I made audiences of a handful of people almost literally piss themselves, in fact one of my favourite shows was to 6 people who laughed at everything and asked me afterwards when they could see me "on tour".

I also played, a few times, to an almost full room (40-50 people) and, for those 50-55 minutes all was well in my world.

All the time I was doing a multitude of spots, including plenty for Masai Graham who almost single handedly saved my Fringe in so many ways. In all honesty, the spots, which invariably were fun and went well were an absolute lifeline.

A judge for the Dave Joke of the Fringe Award was at one of Masai's shows and I had a stormer, cramming in twice as many jokes as I normally would into a 6-7 minute spot. Afterwards the judge got in touch with me to clarify the wording on some of my jokes and put them forward to be shortlisted.

I'll be honest, although some comedians often denigrate the Dave Joke of the Fringe Award, it has been one of the main reasons for me to go up to Edinburgh. In 2016 and 2017 I featured on lots of the lists of best jokes in various national newspapers but failed to make the Dave list, it was an itch I was desperate to scratch. This year, I convinced myself I would make it into the Top Ten and even dreamed of winning it.

After the already tough start I'd had to the Fringe I have to confess that when I saw the Top Ten had been announced and, once again, my name was absent, it was like a dagger to my heart.

I'd tried to prepare myself for disappointment, logically I knew that pinning my Fringe experience on the lottery ticket of the Dave award was madness but even so, I'm not sure I've ever felt so low, so disenchanted with stand up and so down on myself and my comedy. I felt completely invisible.

I was barely getting any audiences, I had virtually no chance of getting any reviews and now I'd missed out on recognition for the one thing I believed I was good at, writing a joke. It hurt. A lot.

I had friends who'd got jokes on the list who I wanted to be happy for but I found it incredibly difficult. 
I hated myself for wanting the recognition and for feeling jealous of comedians who I considered great mates and who'd always been supportive.

That day was probably my lowest I've ever had since I started doing stand up. I had a long, dark teatime of the soul and wondered what I was doing, what I was even aiming for. In the end I decided I could either use this low point as a spur to work harder and smarter or I might as well quit. For a few hours the decision was 50/50.

Doing the Edinburgh Fringe is tough, I know it's not a "real job" and there are a lot of people who have it much tougher, but the experience of putting yourself out there continuously for 24 days of constant judgment is a drain mentally, spiritually and physically.

I was missing home, my wonderful girlfriend, her kids, the dog and cats, my family and friends. I'd sacrificed time, money and emotional capital in order to be almost completely ignored.

I'm not sure what changed to ultimately "save" my Fringe. Audiences picked up, a bit, the shows were fun, seeing my favourite comics doing great things started to make me feel good again. Even the sun came out! In Edinburgh!

Ultimately I think it was a massively valuable Fringe for me, I learnt a huge amount about myself, about what is actually important.

Edinburgh, I think I love you and hate you in equal measure but I'm grateful for the experiences.

Lastly, I just want to salute everyone who creatively puts themselves on the line, well done to you all, you magnificent beasts.

Follow Tony Cowards for gig news and jokes on Twitter: @TonyCowards

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