The Ten Best Edinburgh PR Stunts.
The Edinburgh Festival is a notoriously Darwinian comedic environment. As hundreds of acts descend upon the Royal Mile desperate to be this year’s breakout act it’s survival of the fittest and unsurprisingly many resort to anarchic, inventive and sometimes downright dangerous PR stunts in order to gain much needed attention. So ingrained has this tradition become that The Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award is now annually awarded to the best publicity stunts of the festival.
Below, then, are the ten most memorable PR moves from Edinburgh over the past few decades, a motley gallery of shameless vulgarity, reckless self endangerment and flagrant immaturity. Brilliant. Just don’t go getting any ideas.
10) Alan Carr plays at a retirement home
It’s received wisdom that children are amongst the hardest audiences a comedian can face, but perhaps old people should be treated with just as much caution. When Alan Carr performed at a retirement home in 2003 to promote his second Edinburgh show I love Alan Carr, he probably thought it would be an easy ride. After all, Carr’s lovable, buck toothed persona is fairly Nan-friendly. Alas, this was not the case. The residents had just eaten lunch and many were asleep throughout the entire set, except for one man who laughed constantly at everything except the punch lines, whilst one old woman became enraged when Carr stood in the way of that afternoon’s Diagnosis Murder. Carr himself describes it as one of the worst gigs of his career. Here’s a publicity stunt that seems to have been designed purely so the local press could use the headline “Young Comedian Dies in Edinburgh Nursing Home.”
9) Shed Simove’s “Poo Publicity”
Regardless of age or sophistication, if there’s one thing the British love it’s toilet humour. I could give you a carefully calculated chain of reasoning to explain this predilection starting with the poo jokes in Aristophanes and continuing via Rabelais and Shakespeare to Monty Python and Peep Show, but this might go unappreciated in this particular forum (if anyone fancies funding my MA dissertation into the historical and cultural significance of toilet humour then feel free to tweet) . Suffice to say, if you’re a fledgling comedian trying to attract attention at Edinburgh you can do a lot worse than printing details of your show on a thousand toilet rolls and then distributing them throughout the festival. Which is exactly what Shed Simove did for his 2009 show Ideas Man. Childish but effective.
8 ) Tim FitzHigham breaks bones
British comedian and author Tim FitzHigham enjoys testing his limits. He’s rowed a bathtub down the English Channel during a storm, inflated the world’s largest balloon and paddled down the Thames in a paper boat. At Edinburgh in 2011 he committed himself to accepting dares from the audience and in the process managed to break several bones. Not one to go against his word, FitzHigham managed to crack a rib whilst racing a racehorse, sprain his wrist throwing a cheeseboard over a four mile distance and fracture his toe pushing a wheelbarrow over twenty miles. But it’s OK because he sold some more tickets. What’s health and wellbeing when you could have a slightly fuller auditorium? Maybe next time opt for “Truth” instead Tim.
7) Jim Rose hammers nail up own nose
When you invite someone onto your chat show who makes a living from stapling five pound notes to his head you can probably expect something dramatic to happen. When circus performer Jim Rose appeared on Graham Norton’s radio show in 1994 he fulfilled this promise of unpredictability when he hammered a nail up his own nose, burst a membrane and had to be taken to hospital. The whole event was a carefully calibrated stunt (Rose had delicately placed a blood capsule up his nostril earlier) but Norton wasn’t in on the joke, and his horrified reaction was completely genuine.
6) Stewart Lee accidentally promotes a Japanese pop group
Cerebral misanthropic Lee, with his frequent attacks on the garish vulgarity of the mainstream, is not a comedian likely to be involved in gimmicky attention seeking. It is fitting then that Lee’s inclusion in this list is not because of shameless self promotion, but because of accidental promotion of someone else. In 2010 Lee wrote an email criticising Foster’s Comedy God Award, a public poll voting for the best Edinburgh comedy act of the last thirty years. In the rant Lee attacked the credibility of a poll, arguing that the premise was patently unfair as “who among those you are asking to vote has even heard of Frank Chickens, who for all anyone under 30 knows may be the best act on the list?” With the encouragement of fellow comedians Richard Herring and Robin Ince the email went viral, a full blown internet campaign took flight and within a few weeks Frank Chickens, a cult Japanese performance art troupe, were top of the poll, beating the likes of Michael McIntyre, Eddie Izzard and Victoria Wood. Lead member Kazuko Hohki was amused by the attention, insisting to the press that although she admired the British sense of humour she rarely goes to stand up shows because her English isn’t strong enough to keep up.
5) Jim Smallman gets his show tattooed on his stomach
Whilst some comedians content themselves handing out fliers and wearing slogan T-Shirts, Leicestershire stand up Smallman went just that little bit further last year when he got the title of his Edinburgh show, Tattooligan, tattooed across his stomach. All very admirable commitment wise, although it’s probably worthwhile pointing out that he has already got a fair few tattoos, including Ron Burgundy’s face on his right arm, so he doesn’t seem overly precious about what he has permanently inked onto his own body. Just an observation.
4) Lewis Schaffer sponsors the Edinburgh festival comedy awards
When American comedian Lewis Schaffer told Scottish magazine The List that he had sponsored the Edinburgh Festival Comedy Awards for £99 in 2009 he probably underestimated the fuss he’d cause. Schaffer’s claims, including his insistence that the awards would now be called the Lewies and that his mum would be on the judging panel, were reported as fact in a number of newspapers, and Schaffer was dropped by his agent and forced to issue a public apology after threats of legal action from the festival’s organisers. But on the plus side he got a lot of free publicity, even managing to work the full details of his show into both of his public retractions. A true pro.
3) Kunt and the Gang’s “Cockgate”
The audacious PR triumph of last year’s Fringe, Kunt and the Gang’s “Cockgate” was, like all the best festival publicity stunts, simple, effective and childish. The defiantly offensive musical comedians became notorious in 2011 after systematically sticking plastic penis stickers in compromising positions on rival’s posters, in a campaign masterminded by provocateur producer Bob Slayer. All harmless vulgarity until victims began accusing the group of vandalism and PR companies starting threatening legal action. In the end, faced with a £3000 fine, Kunt and co. issued an apology, wryly stating: “I sincerely apologise if one of my cocks got up anyone’s nose.”
2) Aaron Barschak gate-crashes Prince William’s 21st
For sheer recklessness it’s hard to beat Aaron Barschak. When Barschak crashed Prince William’s 21st Birthday Party in 2003 in costume as a cross-dressing Osama Bin Laden he hit national news and ignited general chaos. This stunt paid off in the short term, as despite terrible reviews Barshak’s Edinburgh show Osama Likes It Hot managed high sales. Yet sadly it turns out that storming Windsor Castle in quasi Saudi Arabian drag whilst flashing your merkin is not the secret to lasting success, and over the past few years Barschak has drifted into obscurity. Which just goes to show, an eye watering publicity stunt is all well and good, but if you haven’t got the goods to back it up it’s all pretty pointless.
1) Malcolm Hardee’s lifetime achievement award
There’s a reason why he has awards named after him. Undoubtedly the king of the Edinburgh publicity stunt, the late Hardee may not have stormed Windsor Castle or stuck paper cocks on everyone, but he wins out for sheer endurance. Whether launching The Greatest Show on Legs by sticking fireworks up a fellow performers backside, or driving a tractor naked through a rival performers tent during their act, Hardee’s stunts were once legendary at the Fringe, and since his death in 2005 the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award has sought to reward comedians who continue his mischievous legacy. The self described “amateur sensationalist” perhaps had his finest hour when he wrote a glowing review of his own show and tricked the Scotsman into publishing it under the name of their chief comedy critic. Given his commitment to outrageous behaviour, it’s fitting that his friend and co-biographer John Fleming says that Hardee “never had a stage act – his act was his life”. The current crop of comedian should take heed: law suits, tattoos and hospital stays are nothing – if you want to be remembered you’d better live it. Dignity has no place at the Edinburgh Fringe.