The Great Pretenders - Three acts pretending to be someone else at the 2014 Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Neil Hamburger, Miranda Sings and Brains Mcloud on getting into character
This article is from 2014.
When you’re bringing an alter ego to the Fringe, where does the real person end and the character begin? Claire Sawers tries to unravel fact from fiction
Neil Hamburger, Miranda Sings and Brains Mcloud all believe the saying, that the best way to make it, is to fake it. All three have built careers – and August Fringe shows – by pretending to be someone else. But where does the character end and the real person begin? Is there any line between the two anymore? Neil, Miranda and Brains – or Gregg Turkington, Colleen Ballinger and Gavin Bain – to use the names their mothers gave them, might not even know what accent to use if you stopped them in the street.
‘Sometimes people come up and want me to do the whiny Miranda voice, or pose awkwardly like Miranda,’ says Ballinger, the New York-based comedian who pretends to be an awful singer. She fakes the dork-diva schtick so well that she’s had 60 million views on YouTube and gained an army of ‘Mirfandas’ in the process.
‘This probably seems really weird to you, responding sometimes as me, and sometimes as Miranda,’ she laughs. ‘But seriously, it starts coming naturally.’ She demonstrates with a brief, almost ventriloquist-like, catty chat between the two. ‘Are you kidding? Welcome to my brain.’
Ballinger was working in Disneyland, Los Angeles until the YouTube character she made up for fun – a geeky, showtune-murdering, starlet-wannabe – went viral. She based Miranda on the online outpouring of videos made by egomaniac teen girls in bedrooms, screaming defiantly out-of-tune ballads into the void.
‘Initially people really didn’t get that it is an act. I got hate mail because they truly thought I was this obnoxious, overly confident person singing songs.’ Ballinger is laughing at the memory. ‘I mean, I know Miranda pretty well now, and in many ways she actually gets things done way better than I do. But I would not get along with this girl if I met her. I’d feel terrible if people thought I was this cocky and rude in real life! Luckily people began to realise, and they’ve got this kind of weird soft spot for her now. ’
For Ballinger, the line is clear. Ask her to flip between the two voices, and Miranda’s already hogging the conversation. One gives a snappy response, no hesitation, the other pauses to find the right answer.
For Gavin Bain, the Dundee boy who faked an American accent, and made a phoney career as an LA rapper, the distinction between the two isn’t always so clear. As half of Silibil N Brains – the hoax hip hop duo that blagged a £250,000 Sony record deal, interviewed Beyoncé and partied with Madonna, he had lots of fun. Back as his normal self, he worries he might be disappointing.
‘Going on dates can be difficult – you’re known as this amazing storyteller and fearless bullshitter. It’s difficult to live up to that – girls are expecting this drug-taking boy with a massive dick. When I tell them sometimes, I like staying in and watching telly, and I’ve had bedroom problems in the past, that’s probably a let down.’
It’s hard to get a straight answer out of Brains – Mcloud can’t resist stepping into brag about a threesome, or that time he took amphetamines at a nativity play. But apparently the rumours about Daniel Radcliffe playing Brains in a Studio Canal film version of his life, might actually be true.
‘Yeah, I still kid around. I like a good punchline, and sometimes it’s funnier if I lie. But weirdly, in my show – the truth is definitely the bits that you think are lies.’ His Fringe debut is a condensed and uncensored version of his book, California Schemin', full of stories of celebrity encounters, drug overdoses, a suicide attempt and a stomach ulcer.
‘I didn’t like the comedown when it was all over. It was like going back to reality after an amazing holiday. I’m trying to be myself now, but I bring Brains along, because that usually means I’ll have a fucking great time.’
Someone like Neil Hamburger, who’s been gracing stages for almost twenty years now as a gin-pickled, snarling stand-up in a crumpled tuxedo and a squint bowtie, would probably puke at all this sappy self-reflective talk.
‘I just fill a wheelbarrow of salty, obscene jokes, and dump it all over into people’s faces,’ he explains. ‘It’s a community project – let them laugh their fool heads off as I launder unhappiness out of my smutty jokes.’
Trying to get him to break character, to discuss First Dismay for example, the album he recently put out on Drag City, the Chicago record label which released tapes of Andy Kaufman’s last year, or Entertainment, a movie he’s been filming this month with Michael Cera and John C Reilly is off limits. He creates a diversion with a joke, and the subject is changed.
He makes the odd brief sincerity-slip by mistake – whilst telling a tall tale about helping his friend Tim Heidecker (of Tim and Eric fame) dig corpses up from his backyard last week. ‘Those guys are the cream of the cream. The number one in the world, and I’m they’re number one fan.’ Noticing he’s momentarily dropped the act, he quickly recovers. ‘I hate those bastards – they’re taking work away from me.’
‘The trick is to no longer believe you’re pretending,’ concludes Hamburger, an unlikely sage, complete with nicotine stains and greasy comb-over. ‘That’s when you get the people who come along to your show and sip their glass of milk, or their carrot juice, and leave seething with anger. That’s when it’s working. When you’re being sued, and people are crying.’
Brains Mcloud: 15 Reasons Why Justin Bieber is Gay, Heroes @ Bob and Miss Behave’s Bookshop, 226 0000, 21-25 Aug, 11pm, £5
Miranda Sings, Venue 150 @ EICC, 0844 847 1639, 13-17 Aug, 6.30pm, £20
Neil Hamburger, Underbelly, Cowgate, 0844 545 8252, 13-24 Aug, 8.50pm, £10 (£9).