Ro Campbell is a professional stand-up comedian from Australia, and over the last decade he has performed in more than 40 countries.
In his latest exclusive monthly column for Music Republic Magazine, Ro lifts the lid on some outrageous true stories from the Edinburgh fringe festival…
It was my first day at the Edinburgh Fringe in August, and as is my custom; I dropped in to my friend Tall Paul’s Record Stall, an institution in Auld Reekie.
Tall Paul has a refreshingly cavalier attitude towards customer service, deriving enjoyment out of disappointing or insulting customers whose attitude he doesn’t care for.
It’s probably no coincidence that Dylan Moran, who played the curmudgeonly assistant in the TV comedy series “Black Books”, often drops in to cheerlessly inspect the stock (he lives in Edinburgh).
While I’m thumbing through records, a posh English student-type tells Tall Paul that two quid is too expensive for the Terry Pratchett books he has on offer, to which he responds: “Well, feel free to come back tomorrow”.
“Are they going to be cheaper tomorrow?” the young woman asks. “No, it’s my day off” he replies with undisguised relish, as she blinks in shock and walks away disgusted. “Another unhappy customer”, he says with a grin.
As we’re chuckling at this, a heavily tattooed bloke in his 50’s wearing a sleeveless AC/DC shirt shows up to the stall, with a bag full of album covers that he has framed rather nicely, for Tall Paul to sell to the privileged millennials he reluctantly caters to.
“John The Picture Framer” is a well-known face in Edinburgh, and something of an expert on the darker aspects of the city’s history. “I’ve got something else that might interest you” says John, somewhat breathlessly and with a hint of bourbon on his breath.
He puts his walking stick aside and with some ceremony, produces from his bag a small leather-bound book. Printed in gold leaf on the front of the little red book it reads: “Directory of Ladies of Pleasure in Edinburgh”, and below the title in smaller font the words: “With Folding Map”. For some reason, “with folding map” makes this tiny tome of iniquity infinitely funnier, and I can’t snatch the wee book out of his hand fast enough to have a scan through it.
The book is a rare copy of a 1700’s best seller, and the folding map is quite a revelation. Apparently in the 18th Century, pretty much every building in central Edinburgh contained a brothel which is probably why the Fringe Festival is such an easy match with the city…. only now it’s performers that are being fucked in every available room in town, and in most cases they’re actually paying to be fucked.
I’ve been involved in 16 consecutive Fringe’s and that amounts to a lot of crazy memories. As a comedian, you might not make money in Edinburgh, you might not achieve critical acclaim, but you most definitely will always leave with some mad stories for the book you’re always planning to write.
Naked…children’s bicycle…cannabis…potato…scrotum…Now that’s comedy!
One of my favourite Fringe memories is the time about 10 years ago, when I saw the fantastically crackers Scottish comedian Phil Kay ( a man who can frequently be seen riding around town on a children’s bicycle, whilst smoking cannabis from a potato!) stroll into the main artist’s bar, completely naked.
Then act shocked and outraged when he was refused service. Protesting loudly as he was manhandled from the venue with his scrotum dragging along the floor behind him.
Twenty minutes after his eviction I was smoking on the stairs outside when I heard a commotion, and saw that it was a still naked Phil Kay, now surrounded by a mob of other naked people who he’d somehow managed to recruit at three o’clock in the morning, and they literally bum-rushed their way past the security and back into the club; to the hearty cheers of onlookers. Now that’s comedy.
Another time in the late noughties, I was at a sunrise party full of performers that got raided by the police, and American comedy heavyweight Doug Stanhope went outside and filmed himself pissing on the bonnet of the cop car and posted it on his Myspace.
An act of documented real-time rebellion that like the rest of Doug’s social media savvy, was incredibly ahead of its time. Stanhope’s cock-on-a-cop car may very well have been the very first Insta-story.
There have been plenty of mental onstage moments over the years, too…
In 2010, I was hosting a late-night show at the Canon’s Gait pub on the Royal Mile, in which one of the comedians suffered a whisky-induced meltdown brought on by a persistent heckler who was leaning against the bar at the side of the stage.
Warning: Heckling a comedian can seriously damage your health!
As the comedian left the stage to light jeering, he walked past the unwitting heckler at the bar and nutted him straight in the face, dropping him to the floor a bloodied mess; the crowd reacting immediately with vocal shock and condemnation.
The comedian was arrested outside the venue and charged with serious assault, remanded in custody for the evening while the heckler left in the back of an ambulance. Now that ISN’T comedy.
One of my all-time favourite Fringe memories over the years, was going to see self-described comedian, magician, psychopath Jerry Sadowitz; whose delightful brand of black comedy mixed with magic, is something to behold.
The show was in an enormous marquee shaped like an upside down purple cow (which in my previous life as a stagehand, I had suffered the misfortune of helping to erect) and as we filed in I noticed two things.
Kevin Spacey was in the second row looking in good spirits, and at the very front situated more or less on the performance area, was a heavily disabled man in an electric wheelchair. The latter caused some sense of foreboding in the audience, as anyone who is familiar with Jerry Sadowitz, knows that absolutely no one goes un-spared in a Sadowitz show.
Given what we now know about Spacey, he probably should have been sweating a bit too. Sadowitz was the first entertainer in Britain to publicly call out Jimmy Savile back in the late 80’s.
He opened the show with a brilliantly crafted joke about “crucifying Spastics”, which is exactly what you expect from the man who once accused Frankie Boyle of stealing his persona. Like most of the other audience members, I shot the wheelchair guy some subtle side eye to gauge his reaction. It seemed the joke had his approval and I felt vindicated for laughing.
Sadowitz then proceeded to command the arena by tearing shreds off just about every audience member, getting stuck into the tall, the fat, the bald, the well dressed, you name it. I remember thinking this was insult comedy at its finest. Perhaps its purest.
The tension was building about whether the disabled guy right at the front was going to cop a pasting. However, following his initial five minute onslaught on the crowd, Sadowitz retreated upstage and began doing a fancy card trick at a table that was setup with cameras, relaying the trick onto big screens behind him.
In the middle of the trick, he stops and puts the cards down. He walks over to the man in the electric wheelchair, pausing for a second as the audience collectively covers their eyes in anticipation of the wrongness that is now inevitable.
“Aye that’d be fuckin right, eh?”, Sadowitz proclaims loudly, standing directly in front of the disabled man, “A c*nt in a fuckin’ wheelchair in ma fuckin’ front row!!”
There’s a sharp intake of breath from the crowd, which quickly turns to raucous laughter as it becomes obvious the disabled man is finding it hilarious. Well, he is a Jerry Sadowitz fan after all.
Jerry Sadowitz and the miracle magic trick…
Sadowitz isn’t finished. He takes a step back then looks the man in the face, claps his hands together, whilst barking in his Glaswegian accent, “C’mon pal! Get oot that fuckin’ chair and walk four fuckin’ steps! C’mon! That’d be a fuckin’ magic trick, eh!?”
He emphasises the point by beckoning with his hands. “C’mon Pal! Four steps! And ma career will last another ten years!!” The wheelchair bound man looked in serious danger of doing himself an injury, he was laughing that hard and the effect is contagious. The audience is doubled over, and that’s some serious skill as a comedian to pull that one off. Which brings me back to this year’s Fringe and one of my lasting memories from it.
I was producing a late night compilation show in a terrific little venue just off the Royal Mile, called the Banshee Labyrinth; aptly named, being both a confusing maze of bars built into the ancient stone vaults of the city’s bridge network, and also allegedly the most haunted pub in Scotland.
Though I suspect that’s mainly by the souls of comedians who’ve died onstage there. Shortly after the compere had taken to the stage around midnight, a man wearing very large, very dark Roy Orbison style glasses was led by a friend holding his arm, to two empty seats in the front row.
The compere, an experienced professional, looked at the man whose head was tilted slightly towards the ceiling, and asked him in a jovial tone: “I have to ask you sir, are you really blind?”, to which the man responded in a broad Edinburgh accent: “Aye pal, I’m blind”.
Now before I explain what the compere did next, I have to emphasise that late night shows at the Edinburgh Fringe tend to incorporate various elements of mental disintegration that the festival causes in performers, and often involves things that might not seem rational outside a month-long orgy of alcoholic insanity.
Pulling a “Zippo” from his trouser pocket, the compere proceeded to flip the lighter open and hold the flickering flame close to the unresponsive man’s face for a second, before snapping it shut and saying: “OK, I believe you”.
Now I’m not sure how holding a flame near a person’s face detects whether they are truly blind, because I feel like there are other senses that would alert them, such as being on fire. But it’s a late show in Edinburgh and beliefs must be suspended. No sooner had the Zippo snapped shut than two members of the audience pushed their chairs out, and visibly displeased, proceeded to leave the room
I was standing at the back, over-seeing the running of the show, and as the disgruntled duo walked past me and into the corridor outside, I followed them to ask what the problem was. “Is everything OK?” I enquired, a hint of mischief possibly shining through my faux concern. “No, everything is not OK!?”, the woman stated loudly in an American accent, wheeling around to face me. “It is NOT OK to make fun of a blind person!”
“Ah. Americans with passports. They are the most easily offended people in the world and that’s kind of understandable, given that they probably didn’t vote for their openly racist, pussy-grabbing President; and their frustration must come to a boil in other arenas, ones where they won’t be tasered and hog-tied by the Feds”.
Many comedians would agree that social media has created a generation who feel entitled to express their opinion about everything at all times, and sometimes they do that without reasonable consideration of the factors that formulate live comedy.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no snowflake smashing vegan basher. I think it’s important that “cis-gendered heterosexual white men” (as we are known these days), listen to what the less privileged have to say in regards to what comedy makes them feel uncomfortable.
But by the same turn, I think it’s important we don’t neuter the ancient and anarchic tradition of the fool who can say the unsayable. And did I mention, it’s after midnight in a basement in the third week of the Edinburgh Fringe?
But I digress. Realising the woman had committed to being offended on behalf of the blind guy, I took a step backwards and cheekily said: “Well, I can give you my post box address and if you’d like to write a letter of complaint, I generally reply within 3-5 working days.”
This was like spraying lighter fuel onto a candle, and the woman’s boyfriend spun around from his position halfway up the stairs, and moving back towards me yelled: “You think this is funny, asshole? You think it’s funny to make fun of a blind person?”. Yes. I did think this was funny, but no, I didn’t think it was funny to make fun of a blind person. Quite simply, that was not what had happened.
Sensing I was only one smart arse Australian remark away from being punched in the head, (a sense you develop after a certain amount of punches to the head), I held my hands up in deference (so the cameras could see), while defending the compere by saying: “Well, he wasn’t making fun of the blind person, he was just establishing that he was actually blind.” The boyfriend replied: “He was OBVIOUSLY blind!! And holding a FLAME to his face!!? That’s NOT cool!!”
Not a safe space…
In different circumstances, I might have agreed with the athletic looking yank, but I had to back my man. “Look, the blind guy wasn’t bothered! You’re being offended on behalf of someone who wasn’t offended!” With typical millennial arrogance, my valid point was disregarded as cis-gendered heterosexual white privilege, and the departing woman then shouted something that I never thought I’d hear outside a University Union Meeting
“THIS IS NOT A SAFE SPACE!”, she venomously spat in my bemused face. My mate Geordie just happened to walk down the stairs at this point, carrying three pints and hearing the woman shout “THIS IS NOT A SAFE SPACE!!, gave me a wink and muttered in a low voice, “She’s got a point mate”. And she did have a point. OBVIOUSLY this was not a safe space.
I would like to have said: “You’re in a pub in Scotland, after midnight on a Saturday! The people who are in charge of security here are dangerous. Of course it’s not a safe space!” But instead, I let them walk out of the building in their self-righteous hissy fit. Shaking my head in bemusement, I went back into the comedy room to find the show running smoothly and the blind guy sitting up the front, head tilted back, laughing heartily away.
I’m a part of a movement called the Free Fringe, which has revolutionised the Edinburgh Festival. Unlike the big corporate venues, the Free Fringe doesn’t charge performers for the venue space and neither does it charge punters for entry. Instead we operate on a “pay what you think the show was worth” system, at the end of the show.
I’m standing at the exit with my contribution bucket in one hand and a megaphone in the other, with which I yell “C*NT” at anyone who leaves without donating. The blind guy and his pal are the last punters out. His friend again leads him out by the arm. They stop at the bucket, and the blind guy produces a 20 Pound note. I’m not sure if I have a moral obligation to tell him it’s a twenty, but decide its better left unsaid.
He drops the note in, then hesitates for a second before taking the dark glasses off. He looks me in the eye and says: “I’m no really blind by the way pal!”, before laughing uproariously and striding out the door. I’m actually stunned, because this guy really committed to the blind act for the full hour. He spent the whole show looking at the roof!
I spent the rest of the night traipsing around Edinburgh trying to find the self-righteous Americans, so I could gleefully tell them that quite often in Scotland, people are just pretending to be blind for a laugh. Just another weird night at the Edinburgh Fringe. Hopefully see some of you there next year! Don’t forget your white stick and your Guide Dog!
Words: Ro Campbell
Jerry Sadowitz: By Andy Laing
Tall Paul: By Gill Mollard
John the picture framer: By Ro Campbell
Ro Campbell : By Simon Redley
You can catch Ro Campbell’s stand-up in October here:
4ht to 6th October: The Stand Comedy Club Glasgow
8th October: The Stand Comedy Club Edinburgh
12th to 13th October: Enterteasement Comedy Club Glasgow
19th October: Willie Burns Comedy Club Kilkenny, Ireland
20th October: Just The Tonic Comedy Club Edinburgh
22nd October: Edinburgh Stand
23rd October: Glasgow Stand
26th October: Craicing Jokes at O’Neills Leicester
27th October: Up The Creek Greenwich, London.