Picture Story: Altitude Festival 2013

The Altitude Comedy Festival returned to Mayrhofen in Austria last week, offering the perfect holiday for anyone who likes a combination of winter sports and gags. As ever the five-day laugh binge was a terrific opportunity to see Arena stars playing small theatres and clubs. John Bishop and Eddie Izzard both headlined Gala gigs in the relatively intimate - for them – 550-seater Europahaus, but also took the opportunity to get back to their club roots and do some smaller, intimate shows in the bars around town.

On Monday Eddie Izzard reunited with his old chums Stephen Frost and Andy Smart and Marcus Brigstocke for an improv set at the Pistetakers bar. In truth Izzard was a little rusty compared to his mates but the audience was pretty dazzled by his star charisma and glossy red nail varnish. Izzard was sharper during his own gig later that evening, when he previewed material from his forthcoming Force Majeure tour. You can read a full review of that gig here. Bishop (pictured right, all pictures by Anthony Upton) and Izzard also pitched up for Set List, the show where stand-ups really have to live on their wits and come up with new material on the spot Benny Bootinspired by curveball subjects that flash up on the screen behind them. Imagine a cross between Just A Minute and Christians being fed to lions. Izzard summed up the survival of the wittiest challenge when he walked onstage in his dapper high heeled boots and immediately said, "This is fucking hard." Luckily for him he got one of the biggest laughs of the night when the phrase "Sperm Overachiever" flashed up and he fired back with "I have a thousand children." I've got a theory about Izzard though. I'm not even sure if he is a real transvestite. I think he just likes an excuse to wear high heels because he is shorter than a lot of his fellow funnymen.


Other comedians who shone during the festival included Australia's Benny Boot (left), whose deftly crafted gags and inventive, unexpected callbacks put a fresh spin on the old Tim Vine/Milton Jones one-liner game. Terry Alderton (above, with compere Craig Campbell and annoying fan), as he has done pretty much every time I've seen him since he changed from primetime clown to weird, disturbing channeler of the voices in his head, divided his audience between those that adored him and those that were simply confused by him. One fan loved him so much he kept shouting at him during the gig and ended up wrestling with Alderton onstage. It was a bit of a laugh for the fan, but I suspect Alderton was quite happy to pin him to the ground and carry him off the stage. German stand-up Michael Mittermeier immediately had the entire predominantly British crowd (and one lonely Austrian) in the palm of his hand with an opening nation-mocking gag that involved laying his beach towel on the side of the stage. Campbell is always an excellent compere but he was particularly relaxed here as he spends as much of the winter as possible doing comedy in front of ski audiences so he knows how to give them what they want. As does Phil Nichol (left), thrashing his guitar to within an inch of its life.

The cult gig of the festival was clearly Paul Provenza's aforementioned Set List. The format has already been a hit in America, Edinburgh and London and has been televised on Sky, so maybe I've caught it on bad nights, but I've never been entirely convinced. I wonder if perhaps comedians enjoy it more than the audience. Particularly when they see one of their mates die a horrible death. On the night I was in acts of the calibre of Andrew Maxwell battled to stitch something together that made sense and was also funny. Maxwell just about survived and the audience enjoyed it but I think it made them wince as much as it made them giggle. 

Surprises of the festival? Andrew Maxwell (right) announced that he goes commando under his lederhosen, so that by the end of the night his scrotum shines as if it has been polished all evening. Brendon Burns revealed that he has recently been diagnosed as 30% deaf in one ear and has actually had hearing difficulties since he was seven years old. Which probably explains why heAndrew Maxwell has been shouting onstage for the last two decades. But the biggest surprise was how good comedians are at skiing and snowboarding. Maybe they have too much time on their hands during the day and gets lot of practice. Or maybe this is something to do with having good timing and rhythm. Or maybe it takes the same fearlessness to fling yourself down a near-vertical mountain as it does to stand on a stage and try to make strangers laugh, but most of the comedians in Mayrhofen seemed as confident on snow as they are onstage.

Terry Alderton might be an Essex man through-and-through but he has been skiing since he was a teenager, after him mum saved up to send him on a school trip. Canada's Craig Campbell, however, is probably better at it, coming from a part of Canada where learning to ski and snowboard is classless and comes pretty much straight after learning to walk. "There's a hill. I have a board. Let's go." It was no surprise then that Campbell won the annual clowns' race down the Ahorn Mountain, finishing just ahead of Joel Dommett (fourth), Benny Boot (third) and some Norwegian Pub Landlord lookalike who joined the race just for fun and had no idea of what was going on but came second. Daniel Sloss was so distraught at losing he threw himself headfirst into the snow in despair. 

Races like this were just one of the added attractions of Altitude. It is a festival with a chilled out vibe where one can bump into a comedian around any corner. Even halfway down a mountain. Comedians put this relaxed mood down to the fact that unlike Edinburgh or Melbourne or most other festivals there is no prize. It is almost as if they are working as hard as ever but are less competitive about it. And apart from myself and a couple of other writers there is not much reviewing, easing the pressure further. As Brendon Burns put it, "It's like Christmas Day in World War 1 when the British and Germans had a truce and played football."

And so Altitude 2013 came to an end. A couple of twisted bones, a lot of sore heads and some great memories. Like many others who were there I'm already counting the days to Altitude 2014. But before then of course, there is the Edinburgh Festival, where, no doubt, hostilities between comedian and critic will resume.


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