The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the world’s largest arts festival every year for an entire month in Edinburgh, Scotland. This year, Chicago comedy invaded The Fringe. A total of 17 Chicago comics performed overseas. They were: Brendon Lemon, Bill Beteet, Chris Trani, Josh Otusanya, Sharup Karim, Brad Rickert, Mike Rice, John Spillane, Nick Ogle, St. James Jackson, Dylan Scott, Ilana Gordon, Adam Bowman, Aaron McDavis, Nick Dlouhy, Max Jeanty, and Lancey Joe. In this interview, I chat with Chicago comedians Brendon Lemon, Bill Beteet, Josh Otusanya, and Chris Trani about organizing this opporunity, hardships along the way, and what they learned from their Fringe Festival experience.
THE STARVING ARTIST PHILOSOPHY
Every Chicago comic that performed at The Fringe has a good job to support their comedy. What are your thoughts on the “starving artist”? Why do you think so many believe that being broke is a requirement for being funny?
BETEET: I think it’s harder to be funny when you’re thinking about logical stuff during the day. When I was in law school, it was hard going from thinking logically to having fun on stage. But, once you learn how to do that, I think having stability in your life, working towards a greater goal, and taking things seriously actually aids you in comedy.
I think the issue with a lot comics isn’t that they lack the talent to make great career gains, it’s that they lack the business acumen and the know-how to take it seriously. All of us are missing out on potentially large career opportunities by investing so heavily into stand up. So, we already know there is something lost. Which makes us value our time more than somebody who doesn’t have other stuff to do.
LEMON: For Edinburgh, it took a lot to pull this off. This would not have been possible without a day job to help me pay for all the expenses that went into this. I learned last year when I did my comedy special that you have to bet on yourself. And, the more resources you have at your disposal, the more you have to bet on yourself.
What separates people who are successful in their careers versus people who aren’t is that they take risks and they bet on themselves. It was a lot for me last year to put up the money to film my own special. I put up five times the amount for Edinburgh this year. But, the experience was invaluable—it was a year’s worth of stage time in a month! None of it would have been possible without balancing a day job with comedy at night.
OTUSANYA: A job in itself is a daily ritual. And daily rituals help add structure and discipline in your life. In my experience, it makes you more productive when you have a specific reason to get up and do something that day. If I have too much free time, I’ll sleep all day! So, it’s nice to have a daily ritual where I have to get up and get things done. It keeps me going and being more productive.
To add to Brendon’s point, Kevin Hart in an interview talked about betting on yourself. He said that one of the biggest things he sees among people who are successful versus those who aren’t, is that the people who are, are willing to bet on themselves in BIG ways. Which is easier to do when you have more resources.
TRANI: Who am I to say what makes a successful comic? I will say that I am very lucky in that I get to produce and book shows. I get to message a lot of comics about shows, I get to see how they respond, and I get to see how professional they act. These are all indices for me on whether or not I will want to work with them again.
I do consider stand up a night job, to go along with my day job. I will say that I definitely feel the tension between the two. I’m serving two masters, which can be difficult. If I need to stay late at the office, it costs me time at a mic. A true, professional day job is a blessing—benefits, health insurance, 401k—but it can also sometimes detract from writing and micing. Which is a blessing and a curse.
BETEET: It’s not so much about being a “starving artist”, I think it’s a matter of being desperate to succeed. I think it’s harder to cultivate desperation when you have lots of resources, but you’ve got to be desperate with an attitude of “I NEED this to work!” That attitude is the compelling force, and it doesn’t have to do with how much food is in your belly.
Brendon, being the organizer, why did you pick Edinburgh of all festivals?
LEMON: It started with my great grandmother, who is from Edinburgh. I grew up with that side of the family always talking about the Fringe Festival. It’s a 70 year old festival, and it’s the largest performing arts festival in the world. It is one month long, and during that time the city’s population quadruples in size. The more I looked into it, the more I saw comedians I’m big fans of, who have all done this festival. So, I decided that if I ever had the opportunity, I would do it because I wanted the experience.
How do comics get into the Fringe Festival? What does it take?
LEMON: Anybody can do a show there. You just have to find a venue that’s registered with the Fringe Festival and then get your show approved and submitted. When I got a reply from a venue, I comitted immediately. Which was sort of a mistake because after I signed the contract, I heard back from another venue—an even better venue! [Bill Beteet cackles] So, I decided to sign that contract as well.
When did the idea of including Chicago comics come about?
LEMON: So, I had these two venues thinking I’ll do my show at both, but the problem was that they were each at similar time slots. Long story short, I thought instead of doing this myself, I’ll use the second venue for as many Chicago comics who want to perform in front of an international audience. Chicago comedy is as good as any other comedy in the world, and it needs an opportunity to get in front of an international audience. We sold that show out a lot because of how strong the Chicago comedy brand is overseas.
How did you get the Chicago comics on board?
LEMON: I floated the idea by making a Facebook post saying, “Would anybody be interested in doing this show in Edinburgh?” And the post BLEW UP! That’s where all the comedians came from.
What were the requirements on who got booked? Did comics have to submit clips?
LEMON: No, fuck that. [laughs] I knew everybody in the scene who responded. I wanted people who wanted to go. I didn’t make anyone send a clip like some stupid bullshit. [laughs] I hate when I message a show and they ask for a clip, and it’s like, “You just saw me on Tuesday!” [laughs] You saw me do my clip! [laughs]
EDINBURGH FRINGE FESTIVAL: LOGISTICS
How did this idea into get put into action?
LEMON: I told Bill Beteet and Chris Trani about this idea pretty early. Chris connected us with Adele Cliff, a British comic who was in Chicago for a little while. Who, by the way won one of the best jokes in the Fringe this year AND was on the BBC. We all got together and she gave us tons of information about the Fringe Festival.
How long did everybody stay in Edinburgh?
LEMON: Bill and I were there the whole month. All the other comics rotated in and out, for about a week at a time.
What was the living situation?
LEMON: We had about 15 comics all stay in a four bedroom apartment in Edinburgh.
BETEET: [laughing] Yeah, Chris and I slept together! [more laughing]
LEMON: Chris and I slept together, too. Chris’ll sleep with anybody! [laughing]
TRANI: Yeah, yeah, okay... That part’s not going in the interview!
What did it cost per person each night?
TRANI: It cost around £25 per night, which is about $33. I referred to it as “Comedy Compound”. There were three comics per room—two in a bed, one on the floor. And this was duplicated three rooms over. Plus, people sleeping on couches in the living room.
BETEET: And ONE bathroom! ONE. FUCKING. BATHROOM! [laughing hysterically]
EDINBURGH FRINGE FESTIVAL: SCHEDULING
How did you schedule so many comics?
TRANI: The Fringe Festival runs the entire month of August. It has a grand opening, and then a ceremonial grand finale. Bill Beteet and Brendon Lemon committed themselves to running and producing both rooms the whole month. Comics like me and Josh did about 8-10 days. We all had a shared Google Doc where everybody signed in to whichever days they planned.
Tell me about your shows. How often did they run?
LEMON: Bill and I each had our own headlined show that we split produced at one venue on alternating nights. Then, at the other venue we ran the Chicago show. Both ran every night. We had one day off.
TRANI: Brendon and Bill had a flyer that was duel-sided. On one side was the name of Brendon’s show, Brendon Lemon: Profit of Doom. On the flip side, it had Bill Beteet’s show, Bill Beteet: If You Feel Like Killing Yourself, Call Me. Which was, the world’s most uplifting flyer. [laughs]
LEMON: And separately, we had flyers from the Chicago showcase.
TRANI: So on one night, you could see Profit of Doom. On the other night, you could think about killing yourself, but then go see Bill Beteet, and then ultimately kill yourself.
EDINBURGH FRINGE FESTIVAL: HARDSHIP
LEMON: The weather was awful. The high was maybe 50 degrees Fahrenheit and rainy every day, in AUGUST!
OTUSANYA: On a good day...
BETEET: And it’s not just about the cold. It was about the dreariness, and the unpredictability of the weather. Then on top of that, handing out flyers and eating awful Scottish food. [laughing]
OTUSANYA: Yeah, terrible kabobs! [laughs] So many bad kabobs... [everybody laughing]
LEMON: That’s true.
BETEET: The funny thing is, at the beginning of the fest, everybody’s SO nice! Everybody loves you. But, by the end of the fest everybody’s sick of you and ready for it to be over. The whole thing is exhausting.
What was it like having to compete with so many other acts?
TRANI: Brendon’s right when he says how anyone can mount a show at the Edinburgh Fringe. That is true. It is very pay-to-play. But, here’s the deal: SO MANY people pay to do this, but there is NO guarantee of an audience showing up. So, a huge, HUGE portion of this festival is designated towards barking and promoting in the cold and rain, in hopes of getting an audience.
LEMON: Not to mention, you are competing with HUNDREDS of other shows. It was a grind. You can have a bad show one night, wake up the next day and somehow convince yourself that today will be good, in order to sell people on the idea of seeing it.
TRANI: It’s not as glamorous as one might think. This is the world’s largest performing arts festival. You have street performers: For example, a guy standing on a ladder while juggling knives, who is trying to assemble 200 people to get just one pound from each of them to make good money for the hour. Then, you have guys like Bill and Brendon who rent a room and charge tickets hoping to make their money back. And at the higher level, you can see performers like Jim Jefferies or Eddie Izzard who get flown in to perform in big theaters. There’s echelons. On top of that, there’s an entire industry of free shows who ask for donations at the end of the show.
BETEET: The hardest part was how one night could be PACKED, but then the next night...three people.
|Edinburgh Street performer juggling knives...|
EDINBURGH FRINGE FESTIVAL: FUNNY OVERSEAS
What were some major differences in the international audiences’ sense of humor?
LEMON: The sense of humor out there doesn’t necessarily translate one-for-one.
BETEET: Race jokes don’t really cross over with Scotish people, because they don’t really have other races in Scotland.
LEMON: They don’t really have white guilt... [laughs]
BETEET: [laughs] Yeah, but the crazy thing is, you get used to playing a Scotish audience, but then the next night the audience is filled with people from London, or Italy, or Germany! So you never know what you’re going to get.
LEMON: I remember barking and this one Scotish guy told me, “[Scottish accent] My life is just so shite all by itself, I want to hear a comedian’s life that’s even worse.”
OTUSANYA: From what I saw, it was a lot of self deprecating humor. If you’re a clown and take the piss out of yourself and you’re not overly insightful, that’ll probably go over pretty well.
BETEET: They like clever. They want you to be a clown. But don’t make them feel or think about the world differently.
LEMON: They don’t want to hear about any of your insights.
BETEET: One thing that permeates through British society and not so much in American society is classism and the destinction of roles. Your role in British society is what you do, and that’s it. Whereas in America you can be more things. You can get insight from a homeless person, which isn’t as accepted in the U.K. Overall, I think American stand up is more evolved.
EDINBURGH FRINGE FESTIVAL: PERFORMING EVERY NIGHT
How did your act change from the beginning of the month to the end of the month?
BETEET: At the beginning, I barely had 45 minutes. But, by the end of it I was able to get more time than I had to do on stage. Watching our stuff develop was probably the coolest thing in the whole Fringe. The sets we had at the end were nothing like the sets we had in the beginning.
LEMON: My last few sets right at the end of the month, it all finally clicked for me where I was like, “I get how to do this now!” And then it was all over.
BETEET: But that was us. The U.K. comics already finished their act throughout the year, so for them The Fringe is their showcase. They’re not working on their act at The Fringe because they’re there to get picked up by BBC and win “Best of the Fringe”.
How exhausting was it to perform every single night?
TRANI: One of the things I noticed about some of the other headliner acts was how thirsty they were for moments of spontaneity and crowd work. I mean, can you imagine being locked into the same time slot, every single night, on the hour, doing the same act?
OTUSANYA: This trip made me want to watch Hannibal Buress’ Edinburgh trip to put it into perspective. And when you watch Hannibal you can see just after the first week how much it wore him down.
TRANI: Yeah, in that documentary there’s a point where Hannibal gets sick of doing the same hour. When he asks for advice on how to keep it fresh, he is told to do one night of just crowd work, one night with the mic but another night without the mic, to do whatever you can to mix it up.
LEMON: It’s a challenge to even describe how it was. Because, over the course of the whole month, you have so many different feelings. Like, “I love my material!”, “I hate my material!”, “Why am I trying to be a comic? I’m not funny at all!”, “Oh my God, I’m the funniest motherfucker at The Fringe!” It’s so all over the place.
[Sharup Karim makes a guest appearance]
KARIM: The Fringe forces you to really think about your material. Here in Chicago, you might do a couple sets, then go think about other stuff or do something else. But out there, you’re constantly thinking about your material, because you have nothing else to do and because you’re around so many other performers.
EDINBURGH FRINGE FESTIVAL: LESSONS LEARNED
If you go again next year, what would you do differently?
LEMON: I think I would not live in an apartment with 15 other comedians.
BETEET: It worked out this time with Brendon and I alternating our shows each night. But, I think next year we will both just do our own. It was a little confusing advertising it for every other night. Plus, towards the end we both wanted more stage time.
TRANI: There is a certain beauty in marketing when you know the same show, same venue, same time, same comic, each and every night.
LEMON: I sincerely hope that comedians who came out this time will come back and do their own hour next year.
Without waiting to get booked, you put on your own show, overseas. What advice do you have for comics who are still waiting to get booked?
LEMON: Nobody is going to tell you when it’s your time. Nobody is going to say you’re good enough. You have to bet on yourself. And it’s going to hurt when it doesn’t work.
OTUSANYA: Every comic that went to Edinburgh saw that it’s way bigger than any one scene. It’s hard to get your mind outside of your home scene because that’s where you are each night. But, doing this trip made us realize, in terms of our career and where we want to take comedy or art in general, that it’s way bigger than the bubble you’re currently in.
LEMON: If you want to be a professional, the number one thing you need to do is to find your audience. And you’re not going to find them just in Chicago. You’re going to have to find them in a bigger world. Even if you have to walk half your audience, but if the other half loves you, then you’ve got a career.
BETEET: Choose yourself. Make your own luck.
Written & Interviewed by David Gavri
Contributing Writer David Gavri is comedian, producer, and writer who performs all around the Chicago comedy scene