The man behind the acclaimed Comedian's Comedian podcast and some excellent Fringe hours down the years explains how he survives August
Stuart Goldsmith's first Edinburgh Fringe was back in the halcyon days of 1994. He started out as a street performer but now much prefers doing his comedy thing with a roof over his head and an audience sitting on seats. He takes time out ahead of his new show, End Of, to answer a bunch of questions about comedy and the festival.
Is there anything you'd change about the contemporary Edinburgh Festival that would make it closer to the 1994 version? And what's the one thing that's changed across that time span that you're most glad about?
In all honesty, I wouldn't change much back, because part of what I love about the Fringe is the constant bewildering metamorphosis; it's like that living planet creature in Guardians of the Galaxy 2, but with rain, urine and jugglers.
I'm not wild about how corporate everything has become, in terms of sponsorship and branding. It used to feel more like it belonged to everyone involved, and now it feels like its own entity that is somehow over and above the performers. A few years ago when the title of my Fringe show Prick was 'disallowed', I remember thinking 'hang on, you're here to facilitate me doing what I want to, what are you doing allowing or disallowing things?' Same with the 'style guide' of how you can and can't describe your show.
I've always felt the Fringe has changed in line with student unions up and down the country. Once, the student union was our place and you could drag a sofa in off the street and take turns working behind the bar. Now if you gig for students their union has got plasma screens showing drink promo ads 24/7 which can't be turned off.
The best change, without question, is the creation of the Free Fringe. Despite the splintering and factionalisation, the simple fact that the Free Fringe model has returned the festival to its origins in genuinely open access rather than 'access open to those who are prepared to indebt themselves while others profit'. George Bernard Shaw said 'all progress depends upon the unreasonable man' which I think describes Peter Buckley-Hill quite nicely.
Do you still get the same thrill as July turns into August (assuming you were thrilled in the first place)?
Absolutely! I really do. I try to be cynical and world weary about it, like comedians are supposed to be, but I realised a while ago that the only reason we all go to the Fringe every year is just because we love it. The depressed ones are the ones who've been told it'll magically launch or alter their career, and who've sunk their hopes and fears and savings into that gamble, paying a PR professional to blow on their casino dice. For anyone who loves it for the sake of performing every day, in a city exploding with spectacle-hungry strangers and kindred spirits who made all the same off-kilter life choices as you, it's paradise. I'm finally having a year off next year, and I already know how I'm going to spend my first August not performing: I'm coming as a punter.
What strategies do you employ to fend off tiredness on a daily basis?
I'll never do another Fringe without a bike; Edinburgh is hugely fun to cycle around, a labyrinth of bike lanes and cobbles and shortcuts and alleys and very gentle gradients. The shows themselves actually really energise me, so tiredness is all down to boozing. I've developed a uniquely boring alcohol-avoidance technique: I'm allowed only one drink per evening. I can have it right after my show if I feel I deserve it, or whilst watching someone else later. I often save it up if pals are going out later, or I'm gigging late in the evening, but often I hold back and then don't fancy it anyway.
By day three every year, comics are on social media pleading for husky voice remedies, but the only real solution is stop annihilating your voice by drunkenly shouting over loud crowd-noise at pseudo-exclusive bars. People get angry when I comment that so I don't bother anymore. Also I buy those little microwaveable packets of pointless pre-cut veg and eat one a day, with butter for some reason.
Now that you've been doing the podcast for all these years, what are the main things you've learned as both an interviewer and also as a comedian?
I get asked this all the time but seeing as it's you, here's the real answer…
As an interviewer: do loads of research so you can spot when your guest is lapsing into pre-prepared answers, or anecdotes they've said before. Don't pre-write questions; listen to your instinct about what someone's trying to hide, and follow that thread. Ask them something respectful but challenging, and then shut up and listen Keep being quiet. Aaaaaand sting!
As a comic: stop doing an impression of what you think a comedian is supposed to be like, and be the honest 'you', even if you worry that that 'you' is a bit mean or greedy or stupid or dull. Talk about things you actually care about: no not that, that's you trying to look clever and interesting again, stop it. What do you actually care about? No, not what do you want people to think you care about so they think you're deep: what do you actually, actually care about? Now spend ages really interrogating that, without falling back into 'please think I'm cool'. Then say it on stage without fear, and as honestly as possible. You are now funny. Nope, nope you've spoiled it. Try again. Repeat until dead.
Anything you'd like to point out about the new show that we should know?
I'm honestly trying to do that thing above. Whether I get it right or not, I am now funny enough that you'll enjoy the show anyway, but on the nights it really flies it'll be because I managed to open my heart and tell the truth. Also there's a really good bit about life that is the best thing I've ever written. And do bring money, because it's a free show and there is genuinely no compunction or social pressure to pay, but you're really going to want to.
Stuart Goldsmith: End Of, Liquid Room, 4–26 August.