Goodbye, EdFringe: A Retrospective
It's August, and I saw the wonderful Michael Brunstrom posting a retrospective account of the shows he's performed at the Edinburgh Fringe over the years, and what he learned from them, and I thought I'd do the same. I first took a show to the Fringe in 2012, and have been back in some form every year since. Here's what I did each year, and what I took away from it, as my way of saying a goodbye-of-sorts to that festival and what it represents to me.
2012 - Joz Norris Is Matt Fisher: Uberperson. I did my first Fringe long before I was "ready" to go up, and had no idea what the conventional industry model of work-in-progress runs or mixed-bill showcase slots was. I just knew I wanted to make a type of comedy I was struggling to find possible at open mic gigs, and that the Fringe was an open-access festival where people could explore their creative ideas entirely on their own terms, so I booked a venue and went up. The venue was a bar twenty-five minutes' walk away from the centre of town, and my slot was at midnight. I took a character show in which I played a deluded, self-obsessed aspiring rockstar and comedian trying to make a terrible one-man show. I think in many ways I was insulating myself from failure - at the time, I was still trying to do comedy because I wanted to be "successful," whatever that meant, but also had an inkling already that that was a bad reason to do it, so hid my intentions behind a horrible character completely out of touch with his own reality. I knew the timeslot was tough so I hit the flyering incredibly hard and played to about twenty people every night. I met the Weirdos comics through this show because John Kearns brought them along and told them they'd like my stuff, and to this day they're my comedy family and the people I collaborate and create with more than any others. It got a 4-star review in the Skinny. It did better than it had any right to do considering how little I knew, and I still look back on it with an enormous amount of pride.
2013 - Joz Norris Has Gone Missing. My official Fringe "debut," because my 2012 show was only 45 minutes long and only ran for 10 days. I pissed the concept of a "debut" completely up the wall, which to this day I'm so relieved about. I didn't go up with a tightly honed compilation of all my best material from years of gigging that was primed for industry attention, I went up with a slapdash character show which was, in hindsight, absolute rubbish. I was performing it in a venue which was a raised stage in the corner of a pub which continued to function as a pub around the shows which were being performed in the corner. Often about half my audience were people who were just there, and were annoyed that I was too. The concept was that I had gone missing and a series of characters had to fill in for me, and I thought I might have been the first person to think of this. The characters were a superhero called Mr Gumbo who was a version of Batman played by Terry Wogan who just told jokes backwards; a spider who had been transformed into a little boy by a genie (this was just me in a cardigan and some boxer shorts running around to bluegrass music drinking everybody's drinks) and the deluded comedian character from the year before. Awful. Really funny in hindsight that people use their debuts as some sort of statement of intent for what sort of comedian they want to be, and I plopped this out. Mad.
2014 - Joz Norris: Awkward Prophet. I suppose going up to the Fringe before I knew what sort of comedian I wanted to be had creative advantages, because it meant I could hone the view that the Fringe was a place for ideas, not a place for networking or hustling. But it had disadvantages too, because it meant I was still very unsure about what sort of thing I ought to do when it came to establishing any sort of consistency. Live Nation offered to produce my show the next year, and to book it in at the Underbelly. This was really kind of them and I'm still very grateful to them for their support, but it meant I second-guessed what sort of show I should make. I'd never charged £10-15 for a ticket to a show before, and I was nervous about my own ability to do that, and I think that undermined my faith in just making the show I wanted to make. Instead, I made something I thought would sell and made a fairly generic stand-up show about dating and relationships and the way I struggled with them. There were hints of something more left-field struggling to get out - a bit I still look back on fondly about fantasising about being a divorcee and having an estranged child; a bit where I pissed Skittles, stuff like that. I basically tried to make it very broad and mass-appeal, but then incorporated moments of grating wackiness where I danced around to Cyndi Lauper with a rubber egg to prove I wasn't "just" making a stand-up show. In hindsight, I think I was embarrassed to be trying to make a stand-up show, and embarrassed to just be myself, and made a sort of hybrid show that wasn't really anything. It got 4 stars from Chortle and 1 star from the List. It was fine.
2015 - Joz Norris: Hey Guys! This was the year where I worked out what sort of comedian I wanted to be, and I attribute it to the fact that I read Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut that year and its approach to creativity blew my mind. I was performing with Heroes of Fringe for the first time, which was a nurturing creative space that encouraged performers to make the shows they wanted to make and not to feel compromised by debt or obligation. The show was, like 2013, an absolute mess, but this time I think it was a mess of compelling ideas that I still think are good. There were some anecdotal routines about projecting too much emotional significance onto The Shawshank Redemption; about adopting a ninety-year-old man as my son; and about the maths of being a raisin farmer that I think were good, but there were also big nonsense setpieces like a bit where I fought an invisible dog and a bit where I put a toilet seat on my head while JFK's speech about going to the moon played. I don't think this show was really about anything, but for the first time I was assembling ideas I liked and was proud of and smushing them together into something that I found fun and warm and silly and good. Nobody really paid any attention to it, but it was a big moment for me.
2016 - Hello, Goodbye. For three years, this was my best show. I took everything I'd learned the year before, about the tone and quality of ideas I knew I most enjoyed exploring and could actually do some good with, and applied it to something more structured and meaningful. The show was about finding people and losing people and the premise was that the two central characters were my girlfriend at the time and my 96-year-old grandad, and that by the end of the show I'd have fallen in love with one of them and the other would have died, but I insisted that the specifics of which was which would be a surprise. It felt like quite a mischievous show that played with structure and expectation in a fun way, and I think it nailed the feeling of marrying nonsense setpieces with warm-hearted anecdotal stuff - there was a bit where I turned my hand into a nasty little puppet called The Little Man, and a bit where I grew from a baby into a man and burst out of a box playing the clarinet, and a bit where I made the audience swap clothes with me, but it was basically just a storytelling show about losing someone and finding someone else. There was also a bit about Dvorak's New World Symphony which was the first time I consciously wrote about the gap between what we think we are and what other people perceive in us, which I now realise is the one idea central to everything I write. This show was the first one that actually started consolidating an audience for me and made people want to work with me, and I think everything I aim for in my shows and my work these days came from this show.
2017 - The Incredible Joz Norris Locks Himself Inside His Own Show, Then Escapes, Against All The Odds!! This was a good show, but it was a bit of a "The wheels are spinning" show, and was responsible for my deciding to spend two years making a show instead of one subsequently, because it felt like I was repeating myself without really making progress. It was another show combining big nonsense setpieces - a bit where I transformed myself into a horrible spidery baby, a running conceit where I gradually constructed a giant web around myself over the course of the show - with silly anecdotal stuff (a story about a childhood trauma involving a lost football boot, some stuff about some weird autobiographies I'd been reading at the time) and it all sort of worked and was entertaining enough, but it wasn't tied to something meaningful to me like Hello, Goodbye was and it didn't have a satisfying arc or structure to it in the same way. It was a more competent version of the more messy approach I took to making a show in 2015. It was my most successful show up to that point - NextUp bought it and filmed it for their streaming platform, which I'm very grateful to them for, and it paved the way for the radio shows I ended up being asked to make this year. And it was a good show, but it represented a plateauing rather than continuing the upward trend I'd been setting for myself up til then.
2018 - Joz Norris Has No Show This Year, But Mr Fruit Salad Does. That sense of reaching a creative plateau combined with some other stuff in 2018 and resulted in a decision to not make a new show that year, because I wasn't enjoying live performance any more at all. As I started trying to re-engage with it, I noticed that I could rediscover the sense of fun I used to get from it when I performed with sunglasses and big gloves on, so I created a character where my entire face was hidden and he became my conduit back towards being able to be silly. I did a two-day work-in-progress thing at the 2018 Fringe where I threw all the ideas I'd had around the Mr Fruit Salad character onto the stage to see if they could stick, and they turned into something very anarchic and big and cartoonish and silly. I think it felt like easily the funniest show I'd ever made. The day I performed it for the first time, I had a catastrophic falling out with my best friend, and that became a big stepping stone for what this rough version of the show turned into.
2019 - Joz Norris Is Dead. Long Live Mr Fruit Salad. I patched things up with this friend, and the central thing I kept thinking about was something along the lines of "You can do whatever you need to do to help resolve the difficulties in your life. You can wear a beard and a hat and some sunglasses and pretend to be a cartoon character if you like. But you cannot hurt the people you care about by thinking your pain is more important than them." That became the centre of the show I set about making, which essentially consisted of all the same material and ideas as the work-in-progress version from 2018, but suddenly had something important at its centre, which was what had made my 2016 show my best up until then as well. It ended up being an anarchic, cartoon, slapstick nonsense show which tried to articulate a point about protecting yourself at the same time as connecting with, and caring for, the people around you. For the first time, I initiated creative partnerships to help me work on the show, and collaborated with Alex Hardy and Ben Target on the show because I knew I needed help to make it as good as I wanted it to be. It was lightyears ahead of anything else I'd made up until then, and did very well as a result - it sold out and won an award and got nominated for a couple more and got an extended Soho transfer, and other nice external validation things like that.
By the time I finally made a show that actually achieved those markers of success that back in 2012 I thought were what I wanted from this, it was only because I'd spent eight years at the Fringe learning, by painful trial and error, to listen to the sorts of ideas I was actually interested in, and was demonstrably good at playing with, and getting better and better at putting those ideas onstage in a way that could mean something to other people. And it only turned into a good show because there was something important in my life that I needed to articulate and process by the means of making a show. That's what the Fringe is good for - it's a space to practice and practice and practice the slow business of processing key bits of your life through creativity and turning them into something that other people will enjoy. Going into it for any other reason is daft.
I don't know what's next. I enjoyed turning the nascent ideas for a 2020 show into a film, it sort of galvanised my directionless energy during lockdown into something that felt new and original. Whether that becomes a model for making things that I'll turn to regularly going forwards I've no idea. I don't think I'll be at the Fringe if it comes back in 2021. All the stuff that's going on in the world has taught me that I don't need it in order to feel busy, or creative, or satisfied, or happy, and I think if I do ever go back it'd be best to wait until there's something I really need to do up there - something I need to put right, or something I need to understand better. Until then, big love and thanks to the Fringe for all it did to my understanding of myself over the last eight years, and to everybody who supported me on the journey of making those shows. Big love to all the other comics out there feeling strange and displaced by not being up there this year. Let's all look forward to the rest of our lives, which will be full of things that are so much bigger than an arts festival.