James Sherwood is an award-winning stand-up comedian and writer. He created the Radio 4 topical panel show ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It The News’ which aired in August and September 2009. He has also written for BBC Radio shows including the News Quiz, Look Away Now, and a Sony Award-winning series of The Now Show.
Why do you go to the fringe and do comedy festival shows?
To generate material and raise profile. Without the deadline of Edinburgh I would go for quite a long time without writing any new material. By doing Edinburgh every year I know I’m creating an hour of new stuff. I wish I could generate that amount of material without externally imposed deadlines, but I can’t. Raising profile is not just a case of getting your head down and working hard – though it is also about that – but it also requires large amounts of luck and money.
To save me from doing a lot of swearing at google, what is your history of Edinburgh shows?
First show 2004 – Andrew O’Neill and James Sherwood, apparently at the Underbelly
First solo show 2006 – I Know What You Did Last Sunday, straight stand-up, at the Holyrood Tavern
2007 – James Sherwood’s Somewhat Premature Review of 2007, stand-up and some musical numbers, FAITH nightclub ‘Holyrood Too’
2008 – Songs of Music, musical stand-up, Holyrood Too
2009 – At the Piano, musical stand-up, GRV (Five Pound Fringe)
2010 – One Man and His Piano, musical stand-up, GRV (Five Pound Fringe)
Do you choose themed shows or just a straight hour of stand up?
First solo show was themed around religion. Second show was a ‘review of the year’, so a concept rather than a theme. Since 2008, it’s been a collection of musical routines. I felt that the music was enough of a unifying element. This year I have a broader theme.
How do you choose a theme?
Religion was something I wanted to talk about, and something I thought I had enough funny stories about. Before I had written anything, I knew that some of the things I had to say were already funny, and I knew that what I wanted to say overall should be interesting. This year, it’s too early to say. I don’t even know if my theme will end up sounding like a theme. At the moment it’s just a writing exercise in which very subject I cover has to start with the same phrase, but the subjects are very disparate. Maybe this will create the perfect blend of unity and variety; or maybe it will make for a repetitive hotch-potch – who’s to say.
How do you assemble a show?
Previewing. I write enough stuff for a show, and then I start previewing. I don’t worry too much about getting it in the right order before the first preview. I listen back to it, and try to find some shapes that will be satisfying to the audience. I try to make a change – or preferably several – before every preview. If I do two previews in a row with the same script, then what was the point of having both previews in my diary? Change something, even if you’re pretty positive it won’t work. You will learn something.
Best piece of advice anyone gave you about the fringe?
“If you haven’t got a pretty good idea of what the show’s going to be by the end of February, you’re too late.” “Always have a day off.” My record of following the first piece of advice is patchy. But I have a 100 per cent record with the second.
What do you think the most common mistake acts make at the fringe?
Not flyering. You have all day in which to do nothing. Spend a couple of them flyering. You will save money on flyerers, and you will gain money on ticket sales. People on the Royal Mile are genuinely excited when they discover that they’ve just been flyered by the person whose face is on the flyer. The exception would be if you hate flyering and are dreadful at it – in that case, flyering might be counter-productive. But you don’t know if you hate it until you’ve done it. I assumed I would hate flyering before I started, but I don’t.
Also, not knowing why you’re there. Why are you doing it? It helps to have an answer to that question somewhere, because at some point during the festival you will howl that question at the moon. Then, in the morning, you can work out whether you’re getting what you wanted out of it and, if not, change something. If you don’t have the answer, you’ll spend a lot of time howling.
Most effective way of selling a show?
Flyering is the one I know. There are other ways, such as getting famous beforehand. But getting famous cannot be your marketing strategy and your objective. I know many, many people who got famous through Edinburgh, one way or another. I can think of only one person who got famous in time for Edinburgh – and I imagine he will be at Prince William’s wedding disguised as Osama bin Laden in a dress.
What’s your favourite memory of the fringe?
I don’t have a single towering moment. Every time I see a lot of people arrive to see my show, that’s special. Seeing the bar fill up ten minutes before my show time, that reassures you it’s not a waste of time.
Least favourite memory of the fringe?
The opposite. I don’t mind a bad review – they are interesting, and energising. They force you to ask questions about your show. If you can honestly answer the questions posed in a really bad review, and conclude that you are happy with the way the show is, then that’s a positive experience all round. A reviewer has given an hour of their time to see the show, then several minutes afterwards to write down their thoughts – the result of that is always, at least, interesting.
And I don’t mind a tricky audience. If the people in my audience need to be persuaded out of their hostility or indifference, then that is my job. I am there to win people over, and I can’t complain if that sometimes involves some effort.
No, the worst times are when very few people come. When you’ve put everything you can into getting people there, and they’re not. I’ve had that in other fringes (not Edinburgh) and it really tests your capacity for gallows humour. When my phone goes on a Friday afternoon, before I get into the car to drive a couple of hours to the gig, there’s always a little voice in my head that wants it to be a cancellation. Part of me – most of me – wants to do the gig. But a little bit wants a night off. When you’re having a run at a fringe festival and people aren’t coming, you experience a particularly joyless version of that sensation. You want people to come so much, but you prepare yourself for the possiblity that maybe no one will come. And that taps into the worst, most desperate, most self-doubting instincts you have. And you call into question the time, the effort, and the money that you have poured into making this thing happen.
So, if you meet someone who’s having a bad Fringe, be nice to them.
James Sherwood’s Topical Podcast is now on iTunes here, you can now listen to, download, and subscribe. There tends to be a new one every week.