Quartet of notable U.S. comics stand-up for America
Jennifer Coolidge, Bo Burnham, Caroline Rhea and Charlyne Yi hit Fringe 2010
This article is from 2010.
As a quartet of notable north Americans finally make their Fringe debuts, Claire Sawers chats to four very different characters hellbent on making a big impression
Jennifer Coolidge is having trouble describing her own stand-up show. She asks a friend who is within shouting distance for help. ‘Michael?’ she calls, in a sugary purr. ‘I have Scotland on the line. What’s my show like?’ After a pause an answer booms back from somewhere over her shoulder. ‘Outrageous? Silly. All over the place. And dirty,’ comes the reply.
In other words, not a million miles away from the film and TV roles you may know Coolidge from. In American Pie, she played Stifler’s mum, a filthy-minded, amply fun-bagged older woman, and the origin of the word ‘MILF’. Blonde and ditzy became Coolidge’s stock in trade, with variations into suicidal (as seen in Sex and the City, where she played an unhinged handbag designer), geeky (see Paulette, the beauty parlour clutz in Legally Blonde) and gold-digging (for Best in Show, as Jane Glee Lynch’s poodle-loving girlfriend).
‘I’ve played a lot of crazy characters, sure,’ she explains. ‘But in comedy, you never want to play the normal person, it’s just not fun.’ The weirdness is normally where the funny lurks too, believes Coolidge, who has become Christopher Guest’s character-actress-on-call, with roles in mockumentaries including A Mighty Wind. ‘Most of my stand-up is about LA weirdos, or how strange it is being on the road. There’s some filthy stories in there too – people who expect some Disney-clean show, or Cinderella happy-ending may be shocked,’ she laughs.
Coolidge is one of four notable US comedians coming to this year’s Fringe for the first time, and if she’s ‘The Smutty Cougar’ one, then she should perhaps be kept separated from ‘The YouTube Prodigy’, aka fresh-faced 19-year-old Bo Burnham. The bairn of the bunch, he started making DIY comedy videos on the internet in 2006, shortly after YouTube launched. His first upload, a touching piano ballad called ‘My Whole Family Thinks I’m Gay’, became a viral hit, and earned him the first of several hundred thousand cyberfans.
‘It’s not like I was the class clown as a kid,’ Burnham explains, his torpid coolness floating down the telephone from Toronto, where he’s about to play the Just for Laughs festival. ‘I was the kid at the back, rolling his eyes at the class clown.’ Born to be wide, Burnham has gone on to write un-PC masterpieces on everything from rape whistles, Anne Frank, and Oprah’s presumably fictional crystal meth habit. Rude, articulate and bloody funny in equal measure, Burnham has spent the last three years punting his comedy through Facebook, Twitter and U-Stream, as well as selling CDs of his songs through iTunes. But more recently, he’s had to step out of the digital shadows and face real crowds, as he begins touring the real-life comedy circuit.
‘The good thing about the internet is lots of instant feedback,’ Burnham points out. ‘About half the comments I get under my videos are from people who are offended. It keeps you very honest; they’ll pull you up on your flaws immediately.’ For his debut Edinburgh show, he’s dancing skilfully over taboos again, with a brand new batch of material that mixes stand-up, poetry and songs. ‘I’m introducing more puns and wordplay this time, because being shocking for the sake of it, that’s just cheap.’
Less likely to shock, and more likely to bond with you over an anecdote about her child’s accidental swearing, is Caroline Rhea, or ‘The Bubbly Friendly’ one. Most recognisable for her role as aunt Hilda in Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, Rhea is also famous in the States for hosting her own talk show. And boy, can she talk. ‘That’s why I love stand-up,’ she explains. ‘You get to talk and talk, totally uninterrupted, and other people have to listen. It’s kinda like being the guy on the date.’ Her quips come thick and fast, machine-gunned out between stories about her embarrassing 20-month-daughter: ‘She was screaming “Cock!” on the plane yesterday. I gave her a Hello Kitty clock, but she can’t pronounce “L” yet,’ she exhales. And then she’s off again, this time about the emergency nappy she had to fashion ‘MacGyver-style’ out of an airplane cushion.
But despite Rhea’s pally material, there’s a sophistication to her delivery that has come about after over 20 years of performing stand-up. ‘I like acting, but I’m the sort of person that needs to go off-script. Humour is better when you can be silly and organic. I like to improvise, but knowing I’ve got hours and hours of material to pick from, depending on the crowd.’ The Edinburgh crowds will be privy to some marital insights too, as Rhea’s support act also happens to be her partner, Costaki Economopoulos: ‘He’s the biggest name in comedy,’ she adds, quick as a flash. ‘He opens for me, talks about me, then I go on and correct him.’
Although this will be Rhea’s first performance in Edinburgh, she’s very familiar with Scotland, after holidaying in the Hebrides every summer as a child. Her grandfather was from Islay, but emigrated to Canada. ‘Can’t you see the Scottish genes in me?’ she gasps. ‘I’ve got that whole doughy, Scottish-Canadian look. And absolutely no sunlight in my DNA. I suffer from SAD every winter.’
After the breathless, self-effacing charm of Mrs Nineteen-to-the-Dozen, there is something surreal and slightly unnerving about the talented Charlyne Yi, aka ‘The Obtuse Musician’ one. Bo Burnham is already a big fan, and describes her comedy as ‘slightly crazy; a little like Andy Kaufman’. Anyone who caught last year’s Paper Heart, the pseudo-documentary about Yi falling in love with clumsy indie golden-boy, Michael Cera, will know what he means. Like Kaufman – played by Jim Carrey in Man on the Moon – Yi loves to mess with an audience’s idea of reality. So when she told an LA audience a few months ago that she was about to shave her head – then reassured them she was wearing a bald wig underneath – they didn’t know whether to laugh or gasp as her long black hair fell to the floor. It wasn’t a wig, and Yi reckons her hair will be about two inches long by the time she gets to Edinburgh.
In between the pranks, Yi likes to show a softer side too, performing quirky love songs accompanied by harp, keyboard and guitar. Her version of Sinead O Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ has become a hit online, and may make it into the Edinburgh show. ‘Growing up, Harpo Marx was one of my favourites. I loved that vaudeville thing of doing funny bits, then throwing in something sincere. They’d turn on you when you weren’t expecting it. I like to create a flow of different emotions.’
Jennifer Coolidge, Assembly Rooms, 623 3030, 7–29 Aug (not 16, 24), 8.15pm, £12–£14 (£11–£13). Previews 5 & 6 Aug, £5
Bo Burnham, Pleasance Dome, 556 6550, 7–29 Aug (not 16), 9.35pm, £9.50–£10.50 (£8–£9). Previews 4-6 Aug, £5., £5
Caroline Rhea, Gilded Balloon Teviot, 622 6552, 7–25 Aug, 9.30pm, £14–£15 (£13–£14). Preview 6 Aug, £10
Charlyne Yi, Assembly Rooms, 623 3030, 7–30 Aug (not 17, 24), 7pm, £12–£13 (£11–£12). Previews 5 & 6 Aug, £5.