It is the world’s biggest comedy festival, with jokes cracked all day long in pubs, lecture rooms, basements, attics and cupboards across the city. Comedians come for exposure, to hone their craft or, simply, for a laugh. They will almost certainly lose money and are gambling on their gags, so many bunk together to save cash. I went to five houseshares to find out how comedians survive – and maybe even enjoy – performing amid the intense pressure and competition of the Edinburgh fringe.
The Friends flat
“My room’s haunted,” says Rose Matafeo. “A big shaft of light came through my curtains.” Her flatmates roar with laughter. “It’s the sun,” shouts Alice Snedden. “It was at night,” insists Matafeo. “It looked like a question mark.”
This vision will strike a chord with any comic lying in bed – or couch surfing – who is asking themselves: “What am I doing here?” For Matafeo and her fellow New Zealander flatmates, the answer is: a solo show each and late-night improv together.
Matafeo won the Edinburgh comedy award with her show Horndog last summer and is now back in Scotland for a short run. She is also directing Snedden’s show. While Chris Parker, Eli Matthewson and Guy Montgomery join them for the improv Snort; when I went along, they were portraying pasta cops called Al Dente and Al Fresco.
The five have performed together for years and regularly flatshare at festivals. A solo show can feel, says Matafeo, like Groundhog Day, as you perform the same set over again. Snedden even has the same venue – and time slot – as last year: “I’m going crazy.” “People go crazy at the fringe,” Matafeo agrees. “It’s nice to have a bubble to escape that.” Upon arriving, she buys extra pillows, candles and “just so much yarn”.
Before their joint late-night gig, the Snort gang discuss their solo shows, but focus on who had a blinder, not who bombed. “We let their positivity spread across the group,” says Montgomery. Afterwards, they unwind in their New Town flat by watching Friends or a new favourite, the evil gameshow Golden Balls.
In the mornings, Parker wakes them up for the “coffee train” – toot-tooting as he leaves for the daily hot beverage trip. Sneddon and Matafeo do a lot of cooking. Roasting chicken is how Snedden deals with anxiety, says Matafeo.
In true flatshare style, the best rooms were nabbed first. “I arrived a day late and got the smallest bed,” Matthewson complains. “And I’m the only one with a partner visiting!” The others are nonplussed. “You two will be craving physical intimacy,” says Montgomery. But the only real downside to their digs is that the wifi is child-locked. Anyone seeking porn will have to go old school, they say, as they briefly consider reading erotic fiction to each other.
The joke flat
Across town, I meet gag merchant Masai Graham, a winner of the UK Pun Championships and Best Joke of the Fringe. He’s losing his voice, because he does six daytime gigs then, after a power nap, stays out partying. He leans towards Ronseal titles, such as 101 Clean Jokes in 30 Minutes, a set followed by 101 Naughty jokes.
Graham works full-time with autistic children and the fringe is his hobby and holiday. He haemorrhaged money the first year, but became so popular at one venue they paid his rent. Last year, he took home £8,000.
Graham is staying with his mate from the West Midlands, Darren Harriott, a professional comic and best newcomer nominee in 2017. His show, Good Heart Yute, tours in the autumn and Harriott has decided to write a new joke for it every day. Standups stress too much about shows being perfect for the start of the festival, he thinks. “It should be ready by the end.”
The pressure comes from knowing that among the punters are industry insiders who could send their careers rocketing. Harriott and Graham’s housemate Eshaan Akbar has already been booked for a panel show. T Jay Handley, the fourth person in the flat says some comics “think the only way to have a good time is to win an award or get five-star reviews”.
During the day, Handley clears his head at a bouldering centre. Akbar watches other shows. In their kitchen, they will help each other with jokes that aren’t working, but when one of them is dying on stage, that’s is a sight to be relished: “The funniest thing,” says Graham.
The family flatshare
Lucy Beaumont first went to Edinburgh as an actor in a French play about abortion. It had one audience member all week – and he only came in to eat his sandwiches.
Returning as a comedian, she stayed with some “creepy” people. “I rang my mum and said: ‘If you don’t hear from me again, you need to know they’ve done it. There’ll be no trace of me.’”
This year, she is sharing a beautifully airy flat with her husband, the comedian Jon Richardson, and their chatty two-year-old daughterwho, while we have a cup of tea, is playing with her Sylvanian Families toys. It is a cheery scene. “You join us three days in,” says Richardson, pointing around the room. “This will be in pieces. We’ll all be in pieces!”
Their day revolves around Beaumont’s warmly witty show, Space Mam, which is directed by Johnny Vegas. “It’s about being a mum … and aliens,” Beaumont explains. Her showIt starts at 4.45pm so she can “get home for bathtime”.
How much do the couple discuss their material at home? “I’ll keep it quiet until I’m finished,” says Richardson, turning to Beaumont. “You discuss it a lot earlier on, don’t you?” He will tell Beaumont any jokes he is making about her and scrap those she doesn’t like. She admits he had a gag that she “sort of claimed”. “You stole it, to be fair,” he retorts. Beaumont smiles sweetly: “I did it funnier than you, so felt I deserved it.” Beaumont and Richardson have recently filmed a sitcom – partly improvised – based on their home life. “There’s a lot of arguing,” says Richardson.
A TV regular, Richardson hasn’t done an Edinburgh run for years, he says, because he doesn’t want to take tickets away from other comics. “I would rather people saw someone new than me doing a show I’ve already done on tour.” This year, he is in a one-night charity gala. Richardson and Beaumont take turns to have nights out to see gigs.
If you do a bad gig in Edinburgh, says Richardson, you walk home past posters for hundreds of comics and imagine they have all triumphed. Beaumont says she used to get jealous of other comics – especially those “from really affluent backgrounds. I always felt they seemed more relaxed.” The city’s ever-increasing rents can price out working-class comics, she says, remembering accruing debts when she performed here. But, she thinks, while the festival is so enormous now it can hardly be called a fringe, if your show is good enough, word will get around.
The couple’s share
Adding to the pressure of Edinburgh, audiences are often full of fellow comics. “A lot of older comedians come and watch you,” says Alexander Fox. One night, he was amazed to find Jack Dee in the crowd. An endorsement from Dee is included in the blurb for his show, Snare. Fox and his girlfriend, the comedian Sally Hodgkiss, are sharing a basement flat by the Meadows. Their days sound frantic, beginning with flyering for Shaken Not Stirred, an improvised James Bond film, which they perform at noon. Then Hodgkiss does Bumper Blyton, a parody promising “lashings of puns”, which finishes just as Fox starts Snare – billed as Whiplash meets The Graduate and performed partly behind a drumkit.
At 7pm, Hodgkiss has been doing Whose Line Is it Anyway? Later, Fox plays the bongos for 90 seconds in Max & Ivan’s comedy show. Then he flyers for Snare, diligently picking up those that are immediately discarded. “It’s incredibly galling,” he admits. “But cost-saving!” adds Hodgkiss. After an improvised murder mystery, they are done by midnight. They haven’t had chance to cook dinner yet, and grabbing meals between shows is expensive. But Hodgkiss’s Whose Line? gig provided “a big chunk of the rent”. Fox is performing in an inflatable igloo of a venue. It deflates over the course of the fringe, he observes, in line with everyone’s energy levels.
The child-friendly house
Josie Long and Jonny Donahoe are in Edinburgh for their first fringe with their one-year-old daughter. They have enlisted Nish Kumar and David O’Doherty for their houseshare. “We’re wondering if they’re available longer term,” says Donahoe. “The baby loves them,” agrees Long, as we tuck into home-baked pastries while their daughter naps upstairs. “This is the biggest place I’ve lived in my entire life,” says Long. “We’ve got a double door, which means we’re rich,” jokes Donahoe. O’Doherty sticks his head in: “The baby just told Nish to fuck off!”
Long and Donahoe are alternating a new night-time routine: one wakes with the baby while the other gets a lie-in until 10am. “I’ve just had mine as you can see,” says Donahoe, blearily reaching for coffee. “Yesterday, I got up at 6.50am. I’d been up four times in the night. We played until 1pm, I went and did my first show [a work-in-progress] then we played together, then I gave her some tea and went and did my other show [as part of musical-activist-comedians Jonny & the Baptists].” They agree there is no time to get stressed. “The day is childcare, catching up on sleep or taking a shower,” says Long. Donahoe mocks outrage: “Do you take a shower? What a luxury!”
Why do Edinburgh this year? Long echoes something Beaumont said about returning to comedy as a mother. “I’m trying to reclaim that part of myself and see if there’s still a place for me in the comedy industry.” Donahoe’s work-in-progress is about his own upbringing and having a baby.
Both he and Long are doing soul-baring material during their most fraught month of work and on very little sleep. Bbut they radiate joy. Last night, Long had a loud heckler. “It derailed my show a bit but I wasn’t the slightest bit upset,” she says. After all: “I’ve given birth! Who cares?”