Jay Foreman is one of our best Edinburgh buddies. Not only does he have a terrifying head/foot, he also has eight Fringes behind him. In this interview, he treats us to some guitar playing and some hilarious insights about the life of a solo stand-up taking on the Fringe, the importance of having fun and what to do when you get home. Click "Read More" to see a transcript.
JG: What's your favourite Fringe memory?
Jay: My favourite Fringe memory? Well I've got so many of them it's really hard to pick one – it seems as if I've spent about ¾ of the past 6 years in Edinburgh; even though it's only one month, it seems to take place over several months because so much happens, and you meet so many people and you do so many things, so it's a little bit like trying to say – for a comedian, “what's your favourite Edinburgh moment?” is the equivalent of asking anybody else: “What's your favourite thing that's happened to you in the last 10 years – pick one moment.” Um, I suppose the first one was the most exciting, because in those days I knew nothing at all about the Fringe, I didn't know how it worked – I'd read so much about it, and all I knew in 2006 was, Edinburgh is the place you must go – it's where all comedy starts, and so I went there, and finally saw the real thing for the first time, and saw the city and saw just how many people there were out in one space all out to do the same thing, which is magical.
JG: Did you go to the Fringe as a punter, before you performed?
Jay: No, I've never been to the Fringe just as a punter – my first time was in 2006, and I went there with my University comedy society, and that was my first experience of Edinburgh, and so I was thrown straight into it, so without getting a chance to go and see shows, I was doing flyering, trying to promote the show, trying to remember my lines for the show – all of that. So I actually don't – even though I've been to Edinburgh 7 times – I don't know what it's like to be a punter up there, I've never done that before. And I expect that quite a lot of people who frequent Edinburgh, they don't know what it's like to be a punter either. One of the most magical things when you're up there is that everyone is involved with a show of some sort: they're either acting in one, or they're directing, producing or flyering – it's a big trade fair where everyone's up there working together, and it's a brilliant place to be working.
JG: What flyering advice would you give?
Jay: Well it sounds really stupid, but the best flyering advice is to flyer – to actually do it. There are so many people who, on the day of their show they go: “Oh, do you know what, it doesn't matter, I've been drinking the night before; I'll just flyer retrospectively” - but it really makes a difference. You have to hand out thousands and thousands of the things, and only about 3 or 4 of them will work, but there's no other way. All the shows that have people [audience] in, have been doing successful flyering. The other advice is: don't just hand them out willy-nilly. If you stand on a street corner, staying absolutely still like a statue – because no-one's thought of that – hoping for as many people as possible to take your flyers, they won't work – each flyer has to work hard. So what you have to do is say: “Excuse me, hi! Nice hat you're wearing! Do you know what you're going to see at one o'clock today? Oh you like that? Oh well, you'll love this!” You have to engage every single person, and that way, you'll hand out much fewer flyers, but you're so much more likely to get business. It's a little bit similar to if you're a charity street mugger – very very similar trade. You have to engage with them, and you have to enjoy it.
JG: Do you have any tips on posters?
Jay: Your poster has to stand out – now that's really difficult to do in Edinburgh, especially in comedy, when every poster looks more or less the same: you've got a comedian or a bunch of comedians looking surprised! Or wacky! Or miserable. And yours has to stand out – that's very difficult to do. So, I suppose what you can try and do it do a poster that other people can draw – make it something that's really memorable, and give it a strong colour scheme.
And another good tip is to make sure that your poster, and your flyer, and all of your artwork looks the same, so that there's a corportate brand – I mean, I hate using the word 'corporate', but it does need to happen – in fact, any word like 'marketing' and 'corporate' and 'branding', it's just the sort of thing that we in comedy are apparently supposed to hate, but it's all really important; it has to all be consistent and memorable. Something I did for my Fringe show 2 years ago, or maybe 3, I can't remember – good grief, 3 years ago now – is, my logo is a cartoon head on a foot, where his neck should be, and I drew that on chalk all over the city, because I thought people will see that and go “What's that?” and when they see it again, they'll go “I wanna find out what this is”, and then they'll see the poster which has the head on the foot and they'll go “Oh, that's what it is! Ha ha, I've gotta go tell my friend about that show.” Now I don't know if that actually worked successfully, because I only decided to do that in the last 3 or 4 days of the Fringe.
JG: I thought it was right at the start.
Jay: Uh, I did one right at the start, and then I got shy, and never made the time, and when I had 3 or 4 days left, I was like: “Oh fuck it, I'm just gonna draw my little logo all over the city.”
JG: Did you notice any change in audiences over those 3 or 4 days?
Jay: Well that show was a very successful one and I was close to selling out most days, so I was very fortunate not to be able to tell if it made any difference.
JG: What are your tips for dealing with reviews?
Jay: You have to have a thick skin, because if you get want, which is lots and lots of reviews, you will inevitably get some reviews that missed the point of the show, or that said something that you disagree with, or that just hated it, or – the worst of all, is when they're horribly honest about your show. I think before you go up, you have to already write your own worst review – when you're preparing for the show, you have to work out what you think the reviewers are going to say: what they're going to hate about it, and be prepared for it.
And similarly, if you get a really great review, you should ignore that as well, because sometimes it's written by cretins who like it for the wrong reasons. And you've gotta make sure you don't let what the reviews say dictate how your show goes. So, for example, if you've got a bum joke, literally a bum joke in your show that you're not particularly proud of, but you get a review from a student magazine that says: “It was so funny, it had a bum joke!” - don't put more bum jokes in the show; do what you want to do...unless it's a really good bum joke. That's different. (Laughs)
JG: Who's there?
JG: Bum who?
Jay: That's the end of the joke. It's a good joke, though, isn't it.
JG: It's brilliant. It's going in my show. What is your Fringe – people talk about the Fringe as if it's an academic year, August to August – what, in a nutshell, is your Fringe calendar like?
Jay: From the beginning of August to the end of August? Well actually, the Edinburgh Fringe comprises much more than just August itself, because if you're taking a show up there, you need to have previewed it, for the months leading up to it, so your Fringe year starts in September the year before, and you have you start preparing, previewing shows and writing stuff, and then the admin – that begins, depending on what kind of venue you're after, the admin starts the year before; there's so much paperwork and preparation to do.
As for August itself, that's the hardest work, and the most fun. That's when the show starts and you have to get up every day, and you have to flyer, do the show – depending on what sort of comic you are, you also have to try and do other people's shows to do spots in there – that's easier if you're a solo stand-up, doing other people's shows, than if you're, let's say doing a great big theatre show, or you're a sketch group; it's harder to get slots in other people's shows. But, if you can, get as many slots as you can, and do as much as possible. I think I've just answered a different question there.
JG: What are your thoughts on the free Fringe vs. the paid Fringe? You've done both.
Jay: I've done both, yeah. And I think the free Fringe is a wonderful, wonderful thing. There's a lot of people who say the Fringe has become too corporate and it's all about the money now and it's too expensive and the spirit of the Fringe, the original spirit where you can get up and see anything, and it could be from anywhere, you never know what's gonna be the amazing show – it's the Free Fringe that's bringing that back.
Because the Fringe, as it has done every year since its inception, has been growing and growing and there's more and more shows every year, a new category of show has evolved, where it's neither the established acts from the TV, nor is it the exciting, could-be-anything, fresh from the streets of never-performed-comedy-before. There's this enormous, growing, middle band, where you have established acts going up, as a means to an end, to do a successful Fringe show. And that tends to be – especially in comedy – that tends to be occupied by the big four venues: Gilded Balloon, Underbelly, Assembly and Pleasance. So the Free Fringe is necessary, and this middle band, because of how much the Fringe is growing, is also necessary.
So I think the Free Fringe is wonderful, it encompasses the original spirit, it's a great way of spending the time up there if you don't have much money, and also, increasingly it's a great place to put a show on. There used to be kind of snobbery about it, and that snobbery came unsurprisingly from people who had a financial interest in the big four venues. They were all saying that Free Fringe was a not respected place to put a show, that if you put it on the Free Fringe people won't pay attention to it, you're not going to get reviews, you're not going to win anything. And that's demonstrably not true: Imran Yusuf a couple of years ago had a show at the Free Fringe and he's now on the telly; Luisa Omielan had a fantastic Free Fringe show and she's now going from strength to strength to strength.
So, wherever you can find a venue, put it on. The advantage of the paid Fringe over the Free Fringe is not the reputation that you'll get from it - it's not the prestige, but they can provide better venues; you'll have tech staff who are paid, you'll have decent lighting and decent venues. The only risk with the Free Fringe is that it could be a horrible room that's very noisy and very hot with hardly any seats with hardly any good views, but apart from that, it's a perfectly valid place to put on a show.
JG: How would you go about selecting a venue?
Jay: It depends entirely on what sort of show you're doing. If you're lucky enough to be just a normal, straight, solo stand-up, and all you require is a microphone and to be heard – take whatever you can get. If it's a bit more complicated; if it involves props, and lots and lots of people then obviously you need somewhere where people can see what you're doing. Basically, the short answer is: as tailored to your show as possible. And you need to make sure that you know best what you want from a venue – don't get your hopes too high, but the things that matter are: can people see what you're doing, is there enough space, not just on the stage, but backstage for you to do all your preparing? But you'd be amazed what happens if you get to Edinburgh, your venue is not quite what you expected, and you've got all these limitations and some great things can come from that – some shows are made by the limitations – and especially in comedy when you can make light of all of the weaknesses.
JG: What's your average Fringe day like?
Jay: Um, I'll talk you through the most average Fringe day I can possibly imagine. This is fictional day that would never actually happen, which is the most average. I would wake up at 6 o'clock in the morning, in my friend's house, having drunken heavily the night before, and go: “Ah, oh it's sunrise, I need to go home to bed.” And I will trudge home, to the flat where I'm staying – I'm staying in a flat with 15 other comedians, and I'm sleeping in a bed with 4 other comedians, and I clamber in, saying “sorry, sorry, sorry”, and I go to sleep.
Then, I wake up and I go: “Ah, I've gotta do flyering, my show's in 2 hours, blargh” I crawl out of the house, I grab a massive stash of flyers which is kept amongst all the other comedians’ flyers, and I go to the Royal Mile – the high street where everyone is handing out their flyers for their shows, and I stand and I go, whatever the particular show is, I'll say the time and the place, hand out flyers, hand out flyers, hand out flyers, look at my watch: “Blargh! 15 minutes until my show begins!”, run into the venue, get my stuff, say hi to the tech staff, especially the one whose name I've forgotten and it's now been 3 days and it's now too late for me to ask what their name is and to this day I have no idea what their name is, do the show, analyse the show afterwards in my mind, go and have lunch, which is normally in the baked potato shop in Cockburn street, which is a lovely baked potato shop.
Then what? Then I meet my friend in the station who's come up to visit, because lots of people come to Edinburgh. We then go and see a free show, we then go and see a paid show, we then go and get more drinks, I then go and do – I grab my guitar, and I then do another show in a different place, to advertise my show, and then I realise I've forgotten to take flyers, and so I spend most of my set explaining where my show is, then I run off to another venue and finally get around to seeing the show that my various housemates are putting on, and then I go out drinking a bit more, and say: “Ok, but I promise this is the last time I'm going out for drinks” and that's not true, and then I stay up until 6 in the morning. That is an average Fringe day.
JG: What is your favourite place in Edinburgh?
Jay: My favourite place in Edinburgh, it has to be Calton Hill, which is – there's a little mound of a hill, right next to Princes Street, and it's not only my favourite place in Edinburgh, it's my favourite place in the whole wide world, because you have four stunning views. It's where I go to escape from the hustle and the bustle and the hustle of the festival. It's this park with all these bizarre 19th century monuments, where you can look down Princes Street, and you can look over the Firth, the Forth, and see the Forth Bridge and then the other direction you can see Arthur's Seat and in the other direction you can see the city below you.
It's a lovely, quiet place, and you can – it's the only place I know in the world where, without turning your head, you can see individual people milling around in the streets, and, you can see the coastline in a shape that you recognise from the map, so it gives you a really magnificent sense of scale, and if you ever start getting bogged down in the Fringe and if you ever start imagining that the only thing that matters in the world is your show and the Fringe, go up there to remind yourself how insignificant we all are.
The strange thing when you're in Edinburgh, when you're surrounded by everyone who's doing the same thing as you, you start to think that the only thing in the world is comedy and the arts, and then you go back down to London, and then you meet a muggle, and you start talking about one of the acts on the Fringe who's really huge, and they go” “Who? Never heard of them. So how does the Edinburgh Festival work. How do you get tickets?” Oh, I see. No one cares! It's important to remember that.
JG: What do you see the Fringe as?
Jay: It's so many things. The best thing about the Fringe is that no matter what level you are, whether you've never done comedy before and you're just trying to find your feet performing, or whether you're Jimmy Carr, there's something for you there, and it matters for you to go there. It's a trade show, it's a means to an end to put a show on, it's...ah a fun place to go to watch shows, it's...many many things. To me it's just a way of spending the summer; I now no longer remember what it's like to spend a summer anywhere other than Edinburgh for a month.
JG: What is your best Fringe Flu remedy?
Jay: Ignoring it. If you just look at yourself in the mirror and shout: “Feel better!” and then go out into the streets and pretend you're not ill. You can save up all of the illdom for September when you get home.
JG: What are your tips for after the Fringe, apart from obviously, recuperating?
Jay: After the Fringe can be a quite depressing time, because you've spent a month surrounded by all of your friends, and surrounded by people doing the same thing as you and doing a show everyday – you feel really important and popular and brilliant and doing what you want to do for a living and suddenly you come back to London and, “Ah I'm not doing a show anymore” and “Where are my friends? Oh they've all gone back to their respective jobs,” it's a depressing time. So, give yourself a project. Read a good book. Drive around the block, 'til it wears off.
JG: Do you have any particular Fringe disasters?
Jay: Fringe disasters? I have what was a potential disaster that ended up being quite a happy story. I did the show to the smallest audience I have ever performed to, and that was in the Royal Mile Tavern – this was 4 years ago , and my audience consisted of a Spanish couple, who didn't speak much English – this by the way wasn't my show, I should stress, I was doing a favour for a friend, and it was a very, very small show indeed, and the audience consisted of these two non-anglophones, who seemed to be enjoying themselves. I turned it into an opportunity: instead of staying on the stage, I took my guitar, went down and sat at their table and played for them, and just had a chat with them and the strangest thing was, it was a conversation, but it felt like a show, because I had 10 minutes, and I wasn't allowed to leave their table until I'd entertained them for 10 minutes.
JG: I should add here, you speak Spanish?
Jay: Uh, I didn't want to speak Spanish to them – that was cheating. I could've spoken Spanish, but no – they came to see my show.
JG: Sure. If there's one thing you have to nail when sorting a Fringe run, what would it be?
Jay: If there's only one thing you must get right?
JG: Or just the most important thing when nailing a Fringe run.
Jay: Well, any one thing got wrong could destroy your Fringe. So what is the one thing that is most important that you could fuck everything else up but if you get this right it'll be ok? Um, have fun. Make sure you're enjoying yourself. 'Cos if you're putting on a moderately successful show, and people are coming and you're having a miserable time, you're doing something wrong. 'Cos I know people who've gone up to Edinburgh, they've made a loss – many, many people make a loss, by the way – y'know, they're not getting huge audiences, they're not getting great reviews, but they're having a wonderful time up there, and they're doing what they love, and I'm more jealous of them, than I get jealous of people who have sellouts. So I would say, cheesy though it sounds, make sure you're having fun – if you're not having fun, you're not doing it right. But that said, bear in mind that it's not a holiday; it's very, very, very, very hard work – and that's part of the reason why it's fun, because you get something out of it.
[Pause, while JG looks for notes]
[Jay makes tumbleweed noises]
[Jay picks up the guitar, and starts to play the gallery music from Hartbeat / Vision On (Leftbank 2)]
[The guitar is out of tune. Disgusted, he tunes it.]
[He recommences playing Leftbank 2]
JG: Final question. [he stops playing] How do you spend your day off?
Jay: Oh yeah! Um, the day off, I've done something different every year. Sometimes I will use it as an opportunity to take part in all of the shows that I've had to spend the rest of the month saying: “Oh, I can't do it, it's when my show is!”, so I do that. And then with the rest of the time I might go somewhere touristy, like see the Forth Bridge, or just go for a bit of a drive, 'cos I drive to the festival, and then I park it somewhere out in the suburbs and my car always gets mugged. There's one thing – I've been going to the Fringe for 7 years, and so I've done lots of the touristy stuff, there's only one thing that I've yet to do, that I'd like to do, and that's the zoo. I wanna see a panda.
JG: Do they have a panda in Edinburgh zoo?
Jay: They've got 2 pandas in Edinburgh zoo. They famously have twice as many pandas in Scotland as they do Conservative MPs.
JG: What would you recommend for travel? You say you drive.
Jay: I've been to Edinburgh in every way possible apart from hovercraft. I flew there once, I've got the train a couple of times, I've driven other times. The only thing I would say is don't get the Megabus. Because everyone I've spoken to who's had that experience has been wrecked for the next few days, not just the next day, so it's simply not worth it – I would say the best way of getting to Edinburgh is to book a train very long in advance, so that you pay a decent amount of money for it, not too much, and you don't have to hassle airports and so on. It depends again what kind of show you're doing, because if you've got loads and loads of equipment, if you're putting on an enormous show that requires props and lots and lots of people, maybe you should drive, maybe you can hire a van. I would say don't fly, only because I hate airports. I mean you can fly if you want to, but I'm not coming. You can go without me. No, I'll catch up to you later on.
JG: Lastly, any accommodation tips.
Jay: It's only a month, so you might as well save some money by sleeping with 8 people per bed – that's what most people do. Yeah, that's it basically. I've been very privileged that I've not actually had to sort out the accommodation for my last four years – for the last four years all I've done is just say: “Ok yeah, that sounds fair, yeah, sort it out here's my money” that's all I've done, so I'm one of the worst people to ask, 'cos I've never done the organising side of it. But, basically don't expect to stay in a luxury place. All of the buildings in Edinburgh have lovely high ceilings and you know, you will stay in a lovely place, but expect to share it with 700 people. That's all part of the fun. Oh and you will get Fringe Flu, but that's all part of the fun. And you won't have any private time to yourself, but that's all part of the fun. I mean, you won't eat healthily at all – you won't see a vegetable for a month, but that's all part of the fun. Fun.
[Jay starts playing Leftbank 2 again]