Friday, September 17, 2010

Fringe Science

Friends New and Old,

Well, the Edinburgh Fringe 2010 is concluded and I'm back in London, back on my grind, back on tour, reading and writing and gigging and muddling about. Sorry, that last bit was a post-partum pang.

How did it go? Exceptionally well! I performed over fifty shows in three and a half weeks and didn't die of exhaustion, or even lose my voice. My cavalier decision to list myself as part of the Edinburgh Comedy Festival (as opposed to "theatre") for the first time ever was vindicated by a five-star review in Chortle on the second-to-last day of the Fringe, an awesome (though scientifically very confused) write-up that helped me sell zero tickets but at least left me with a jolly after-glow. Click here to read it.

Even my little pet project, Rapconteur, got some love at the Fringe. The best review I got for it was a five-star praise-fest from Three Weeks, which you can view by clicking here.

Rapconteur was also my first foray into the Free Fringe, where the audience pays nothing and at the end of the show I stand by the door with a donation jar making puppy-dog eyes as they shuffle past, some paying and some avoiding my panhandling gaze. It was a bit of an experiment, and if you're curious to know how it went (financially and otherwise), I wrote up the results in one of my blogs for

I'm not just being ironic calling the Free Fringe an experiment either. After the show one day I was approached by some behavioral economists who are keen to experiment more formally with audience altruism and publish the quantified results, a prospect that makes me childishly excited, but more of that anon.

Speaking of experiments, in The Rap Guide to Human Nature I phoned my sister Dawn from the stage every single day for twenty six consecutive days, waking her up most mornings in the midst of her summer holiday (my Edinburgh show started at 7:45am Vancouver time). The point? I kept track of which days she answered the phone and which days I got voicemail and used the data at the end of the month to predict her ovulation cycle. If this makes no sense to you (hint: it's about evolutionary incest avoidance instincts), check out this article by Michael Shermer on the science behind the experiment:

And the results? Well, here's the calendar (used with Dawn's kind permission):

A very straightforward prediction follows from the Michael Shermer article. So how does that prediction square with her actual fertility cycle? I edited the results into a youtube video (the future of science outreach), which you can watch at the link below. Warning: this video contains information about my sister's fertility cycle. For educational use only! Click here to watch.

Hmm, how can I round out this highly eclectic newsletter? I know, with a link to a music video I made with some tree planter friends back in May, an ode to Canada's highly sheltered position (and policies) in regards to catastrophic climate change. It's like Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" crossed with the party at the end of Return of the Jedi. Get ready to travel down a path that may soon be very popular, the Road Northwest. Click to watch on Youtube.

Hasta la vista,


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

My Fringe Nightmare (Part Two)

Back in London post-Fringe, feeling dizzy with the shock of not performing multiple times every day. So quiet, so calm. Cabin fever now contends with relief and exhaustion. The nuts and bolts are simple and satisfying: I performed 53 full-length one-hour shows over the course of 3.5 weeks, without losing my voice or getting ill, and once again the reviews and audience response were strong. But this fringe was more than just an adventure – for me it was also an experiment in risk-taking and genre-switching, and the word that haunted me throughout is: “comedy”.

In the months leading up to the Fringe, from the time I registered my (as yet unwritten) Rap Guide to Human Nature show pretty much up until the first Edinburgh performance, I was plagued by recurring dreams of disaster, dreams of arriving at my first show completely unprepared and utterly failing to entertain (see my previous blog). I was bemused (and motivated) by these dreams, since I have been doing the Fringe since 2004 and it’s never happened before, but then, I’ve never listed as comedy before, always theatre. The “Theatre” genre is a big tent, big enough for comedy and tragedy and everything in between, but it’s unspecialized. You can be a cook without knowing how to make certain dishes, just like you can be a performer without making people laugh. There are two ways to become specialized: training and trial by fire (I went for the second option). The problem is, I still don’t know how to make people laugh. I can do it, but I can’t explain the process or teach anyone else how to do it, (which seems like the basic criteria required to really “know” anything). This was probably the source of my anxiety.

But not all of the dreams were bad. I specifically remember a bizarre one from early April that turned my nightmare scenario on its head. It was very similar to the others in the beginning: I’m in Edinburgh on the first day of the Fringe, and the crowd is already forming outside my venue, mere minutes before the first show. Panicking, I realize that I have absolutely nothing to say, nothing prepared, no material, how did this happen? Then I run into Justin (he was my venue tech at the Adelaide Fringe) who says enthusiastically: “Hey Baba, I really love the new show! When you were here yesterday doing your tech rehearsal, I was laughing so hard! People are going to lap it up!” A moment of confusion is followed by a spark of realization as I grab Justin by the arm and drag him aside: “What, you’ve seen the new show?!?” He looks perplexed: “Of course, we did the tech run yesterday, it was great…” I’m nearly hysterical now, pulling out my note pad: “Tell me what’s in it!” Justin looks even more perplexed: “But, you wrote it, and you just performed it…” I’m trying to remain calm, shifting into crisis management mode: “Listen Justin, I must be suffering from acute amnesia because I can’t remember a single thing from the show; in fact as far as I can remember I haven’t written it yet, so you have to tell me what you saw yesterday.” Justin plays along, obviously suspecting a prank, but also sensing my desperation: “Well, you started off with this monologue about… and then you did this rap with a chorus that went… and then there was this character you played…” And as he rattled off the material from the show I kept scribbling away at my notebook, like: “Brilliant, that’s a great idea! Where do I come up with this stuff?!?” Then I brought my notebook on stage with me for reference, set it on the floor, and proceeded to kill it, getting huge laughs and thunderous applause, just as Justin predicted I would.

When I woke up I tried to write down everything I had said that was getting such big laughs in the dream, and trust me it’s all crap. Not a single joke or character ended up in the actual show, but the feeling I woke up with was golden: this is going to work out. I knew it because I had experienced it, even if I didn’t know yet how to pull it off. That’s pretty much how I feel right now. I can remember funny things I said and I know they were funny because I got some big laughs, but I’m still not sure why they were funny, or how I would do it again, except to just go on instinct. Jamie (aka Mr. Simmonds) got some big laughs too for that matter; he turned into a right performer over the past month, a comedy DJ. I proposed to him on stage twenty-four times and he turned me down every day except the last, when he unexpectedly accepted. What’s funny about that? I guess you had to be there.

On the second to last day of the Fringe Jamie and I got a parting gift in the form of a golden review: 5 stars in Chortle. For the uninitiated, Chortle is the UK’s top comedy-reviewing website. It isn’t widely known outside of the comedy circuit, but comics and fans of stand-up comics follow it avidly. The review was untimely in so far as it didn’t help us to sell any tickets, arriving so late, and it’s riddled with scientific errors (for instance, the reviewer refers to all of “ovulating” material in the show as “menstruating” material, a pretty significant oversight), but it’s the most tangible evidence I now have that the Fringe this year was not a dream. I really did three shows, we really did sell lots of tickets, and we really were funny.

Sorry to write such a solipsistic final blog. I also saw lots of great shows, and some disappointing ones, but like I said before, I’m not a reviewer. For me this year’s Fringe was a challenge, an experiment, and an adventure, and on all three counts I feel great. Next on the agenda: in two days we commence Rebel Cell rehearsals here in London for our big fall tour of the UK, which begins in Cornwall on September 17th. First thing’s first though: twelve hours’ sleep, hopefully with some instructive dreams. Carpe Noctem.