Award-winning freelance journalist Jay Richardson’s writing credits include the Guardian, Sunday Times, Channel Four, Scotsman, Metro, Herald, Sunday Herald, Irish Times, Big Issue, Chortle and List.
How do you choose which shows to review?
A mix of things – previous Fringe shows, from watching preview shows and buzz from other festivals, the opinion of informed, trusted sources, a comic doing a show about a subject I’m personally interested in or a good stand-up making a step up from the circuit to do their first solo show. If I haven’t seen a comic that I rate for a couple of years then I’ll make a greater effort to catch them.
If a comedian is on at 1pm, I’m more likely to see them than if they’re on at 8pm as there’s less competition and I try to cram as many shows into a day as possible. The inkling that a new or relatively unknown act will have a big festival is an incentive to see them early in their run. As a freelancer, different editors have varying impacts on what I see depending on their readership, so what can earn me the most is a factor too.
I try to see a certain number of Free Fringe and Free Festival acts and whether consciously or not, I probably favour international comedians over Scottish acts simply because the festival might be my only opportunity to see them in a given year. An awareness of this bias and trying to correct it doesn’t mean I always succeed. At the end of the festival, I rush round trying to see acts I feel I shouldn’t miss but I invariably finish the Fringe frustrated that I haven’t caught certain shows.
Have PR people ever persuaded you go and see a show?
They’ve certainly played a part and with varying degrees of influence. But the relationship between journalists, PRs and comedians is damnably complicated and not to anyone’s great credit. If PRs are informed about their acts, professional and respond promptly to enquiries, great. There are good PRs and bad PRs, PRs who frustrate you in the interest of their clients and PRs who frustrate you for reasons that are unfathomable, perhaps with negative consequences for their acts.
As with journalists, we’ve all got different agendas. When you see an arts editor who’s commissioned most of their comedy feature coverage from a solitary PR it’s thoroughly depressing. I like to think that in most cases, I have a notion of who I want to write about regardless of who their PR is or even if they have one. But PRs certainly fulfil a role and I appreciate the good ones.
What’s the best way to get you into a show?
See the answer to my first question. I also appreciate not having to chase press tickets too hard. DVDs or internet links to footage of an act I’m unfamiliar with beforehand also help.
What are the best shows you’ve seen at the fringe?
It’s so hard to think of definitive qualities and you can always find exceptions. But you tend to know it when you see it. Generally speaking, a show that makes you laugh consistently but aspires to more than that and succeeds in its aims, is original and gives the impression of being more than just the routines that a stand-up has say, cobbled together over the year.
Can’t really ask about the best without mentioning the worst.
If an act has tried to be experimental or audacious and failed miserably, then that’s usually a two star. I tend to reserve a one star for when the comic clearly hasn’t bothered themselves or is so arrogant in their conviction that they and not the audience are right about their talents that a harsh review is the only option.
My worst experiences have been student sketch troupes lazily presenting skits about rape or paedophilia because they’re convinced it’s edgy. With comedy booming in a recession however, big name acts trading on past glories to charge exorbitant prices for underwritten shows deserve all the criticism they get.
Have you ever caught anyone altering one of your reviews for their shows on posters?
Yeah, quite a bit, though generally this has been things taken out of context rather than outright invention. I can think of one big name who had a horribly botched combination of two of my quotes from different festivals. But then I had a fellow journalist claim one of my reviews as their own this year which pissed me off much more.
The same comedians who complain about the press misrepresenting them go silent when their publicists do the same thing. Yet with so many publications reviewing now, it’s virtually impossible for a comedian not to be able to find a glowing quote from the last two, three or five years back if necessary, so you’d think there’d be less of it happening.
Do you think free shows are good for the fringe?
Undoubtedly and I think the Fringe can afford to have a few more yet.
How do you think free shows can improve and be taken more seriously?
Many don’t need to. But generally, by applying the same sort of professionalism as a paid for show, or at least as far as the venue will allow. And by not berating audiences who are new to live comedy for not acknowledging and applauding your supposedly edgy, dark material. Study and learn from the free show hits that make their way to paid gigs the following year.
Is there any magic formula for a good show or is it simply a case of you know one when you see it?
See my previous answer.
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