It’s the toughest comedy gig around. Now the comics who played there and lived to tell the tale reveal their harrowing stories in a four-part TV documentary. By Mark Fisher
SOME call it the comedians’ graveyard. Others say it’s the best gig on the circuit. For 25 years, Late ‘n’ Live has been an Edinburgh Fringe institution, a place where major-league stand-ups, including Bill Bailey, Russell Brand, Johnny Vegas and Ross Noble, have tested their mettle against the most raucous of crowds.
Now the Gilded Balloon’s late-night showcase is being celebrated in a four-part BBC documentary, featuring archive footage and face-to-face interviews with comedians who have faced the industry’s toughest audience and lived to tell the tale. It features outrageous moments of comic spontaneity including a crowd-surfing bicycle, a crowd-surf race between John Bishop and Patrick Monahan, and the night Scott Capurro wet the stage.
The series is narrated by Lynn Ferguson, one of Late ‘n’ Live’s most fearless compères, who looks back at her time in this comedic bearpit with a sense of wonderment. Now living in LA, she wonders how she could ever have taken this outpouring of comic creativity for granted. Having spent days trawling through the archive clips, she can’t get over the brilliance of her fellow comedians as they tried to master this most punishing of gigs.
“From a distance, it just made me respect them all,” she says. “Because I’m not doing stand-up any more, I looked at it and it was awesome. It made me look at them with admiration – probably more than when I was working with them. They manage to show who they really are on stage. I have such a lot of respect for them.”
Having been given her green card last summer, the Cumbernauld-born writer and performer is now resident in the USA where, until last year, she was providing comic material for her brother Craig on The Late Late Show, one of the country’s biggest chat shows. Having done that for two-and-a-half years, she’s been working for Pixar, doing the occasional ad campaign and the odd voiceover, and polishing up other people’s film scripts.
Hanging out with the movie industry professionals of California is very different from the cut-and-thrust of Late ‘n’ Live, but having played ringmaster there, she feels there’s nothing she can’t do.
“It’s that thing of acknowledging trouble,” she says. “I was never one for having an awful lot of material anyway, but I used to compère Late ‘n’ Live expecting stuff to happen at any point.”
On one occasion, she walked on stage and had to stop the gig before she’d said a single word. A man at the front was chanting an obscenity, endlessly repeating the same rude word. She called the bouncers straight away. “Only at Late ‘n’ Live would you have to stop a show before it even starts,” she laughs. “If the compère at the start is getting that kind of abuse, then there’s nowhere for an act to go. You get great quality heckles if the mood is right, but if you’re in the audience and no-one takes control of a guy like that, then you get angry as well because you’ve paid your money.”
With shows that don’t start until 1am, the audience is in high spirits, especially at weekends, and are ready to give as good as they get. Being comedy aficionados, they’re likely to have seen the comedians performing their regular sets, so they’re ready for something different. It means even a seasoned entertainer has their work cut out for them. “Comedians would have running bets against themselves,” says Ferguson. “They would do five appearances at Late ‘n’ Live in one festival and, say, three they’d win and two they’d lose – or maybe they’d lose all five.”
The more anarchic stand-ups thrive in this atmosphere, though whether it’s actually good for them is another matter. “In the middle of it, there’s this bizarre footage of Johnny Vegas getting pelted with coins,” she says. “In the footage of Russell Brand, he’s completely off his face and for him it was like a near-death experience, and it was one of many where he eventually decided to cut the drugs and get clean.”
Other comedians contributing to the series include Jenny Éclair, Rich Hall, Andrew Maxwell, Jason Byrne and Fred MacAulay. Ferguson is delighted not only by their wit, but by their willingness to open up and describe what it felt like to face the Late ‘n’ Live audience. “Because people are watching themselves when they’re pretty vulnerable, you get a really interesting insight into how comedy is constructed,” she says. “Dara Ó Briain gives really good comments about what comedy is, how it’s made, what the meaning of it is, how it works and what stand-ups are thinking when they’re doing it. It’s like this great big series of turning points for a lot of different people, but there are jokes all the way through it.”
• Late ‘n’ Live Guide to Comedy, BBC1 Scotland, from 23 January.