Edinburgh Fringe 2018: The comics who are getting a second chance
When Arnab Chanda first emerged at the Fringe 12 years ago, stardom beckoned. Born in England to Indian parents, he’d begun performing stand-up in New York aged 22. Winner of several new act competitions, a best newcomer nominee in the 2007 Chortle Awards, he went on to support Stephen Merchant and Simon Amstell.
Though he was occasionally criticised as superficial, few doubted his slick, gag-laden American style would make it big. Yet after a few television spots, he quit stand-up in 2011, only re-emerging in recent years as a Radio 4 producer for the likes of Romesh Ranganathan, John Kearns, Liam Williams and Alex Edelman.
From the start, Chanda was open about stand-up being a way to get into acting. But there was more going on. “If you look at my old YouTube clips, I don’t even know who that guy is,” he says. “All I can see is a trapped kid.”
Now 37, he reflects on why he never opened up about himself, “why I never talked about my mum or dad, why I was so uncomfortable and fearful of the audience. It was fear of being judged and hated. I was scared to say anything because when you grow up with my kind of childhood, that’s met with judgment. Or threats of violence. I didn’t know how to be myself. So it was stressful trying to make audiences laugh.”
Chanda’s alcoholic father, who belittled his performing ambitions, died in 2012. Three years later, the comic developed alopecia, “which was shocking. Within two months I lost all my hair, my eyebrows and eyelashes. I had a lot of anger towards my family. And I’m still dealing with it.”
His acting aspirations were impacted. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m Asian, I’ve got this weird accent, I’m living in Britain, and now this. It can’t get any harder.’ But there was this realisation I had to write my own stuff.”
Writing drama came to nothing. But Edinburgh Comedy Award winner Dr Brown’s clowning classes helped him feel “comfortable being shit” on stage. Inspired by Amstell’s willingness to perform stand-up about his family, warts and all – “because it’s the truth … there’s so little delineation between him onstage and off” – Chanda began flexing his stand-up “muscle memory”. Reinventing and reinvigorating himself as a storyteller, he’s making his solo Fringe debut with Stories From Arnab. “There’s no setup-punch[line] any more, which is scary,” he says. “The challenge is being myself. Can I speak to audiences the way I speak to my friends?”
William Andrews also “sort of thought I’d given up”. Nine years after his last Fringe, 40-year-old Andrews is settled into parental domesticity. His profile is overshadowed by that of his wife, Anna Crilly. But his acting résumé is respectable, with a long-running turn on children’s series Sorry I’ve Got No Head and roles on primetime fare like Broadchurch and Tracey Breaks The News.
His intended breakthrough, a 2008 Channel 4 sketch show with Greg McHugh, was “commissioned on a Monday. And by Friday the financial crash meant it was cancelled.”
Still, he was content writing and acting on Crilly’s 2013 Channel 4 vehicle Anna & Katy. Working “on the other side of the lens” as a talent developer for the Glasgow-based Comedy Unit always felt more natural for the “anxious, introverted performer”, helping the likes of McHugh, Susan Calman and Leah MacRae – his sketchmates in the 2007 Fringe show Ugly Kid – pursue their careers.
Meanwhile, his regular live act, as the nervy, government grant comic Tony Carter, “was probably a bit brusque, a bit rough” for London. When he’d moved from Glasgow a decade ago, Carter “just sort of faded”. Being unemployed into his thirties “would have been too desperate”.
Suddenly, out of the blue though, Nick Helm asked Andrews if he’d appear in a Christmas show. And despite having no material and grave misgivings, it was “just such a lovely gig, such a lovely experience. Almost ten years away and I was back.
“So I started writing. My son had reached an age where he needed less care from me, so I could just let my mind wander and make connections.”
Willy is Andrews’ most autobiographical show to date. Characterised by his trademark lo-fi gadgetry and eccentricity, with inflatable projections, karaoke and unique food packaging headwear, the latter is a visual gag he’s only just remembered doing at 15, dredged from his creative unconscious.
“I hated being called ‘Willy’ at school,” he says. “Just call me penis and get it over with. So I became William and more self-important. And I suppose this show is about having a dog, a kid and responsibilities, being, or approximating, a grown-up and accepting who you are.
“A story about my dog’s willy, having a child and it taking the pressure off, so you’re no longer that important. It all just started to form together naturally. It’s almost like it’s all been in there, pre-existing and I’ve just uncovered it. There have been so many coincidences. It’s quite creepy in a way. Did I design this? Or was it destined to happen?”
While Andrews was busy making children’s television and Chanda was abandoning stand-up, Matt Rees was absolutely smashing it. As a student he was in almost all the UK’s new act finals, triumphing in several, and appeared as part of the Pleasance Reserve ensemble at the 2012 Fringe. A well-received Los Angeles spot even had him contemplating moving to the US.
Yet his first solo show, Happy Hour, is only debuting this year. And that’s because, as he always freely admitted on stage, he suffered from panic attacks and was a heavy drinker.
“It was self-medication,” the now sober 28-year-old says. “When I felt low or anxious, booze was a fix that worked well for a long time and I got away with it.”
Not even his doctor telling him he would die soon could fully persuade him to quit. Only after failing to find an open pub on Easter weekend last year, did he finally go cold turkey.
“Towards the end, I’d been visibly drunk onstage, so that probably burned a few bridges with promoters,” he says. His wit was conjoined with drinking, he felt. He remembers speaking to John Robins after he went dry for six months, with last year’s Edinburgh Comedy Award winner telling him it was “bollocks, just a story you’ve told yourself”.
“And since I’ve stopped, my creativity has improved. [Alcohol] might make you more confident, more self-assured. But it doesn’t make you funnier.”
All the while, Rees had “a phobia of doing an hour” he says. “If I’d done it a couple of years ago, I’d have four shows under my belt by now and I’m sure my career would be better for it. But I couldn’t do it last year because I was still quite fragile. I didn’t want to relapse.”
Thankfully, comedy is more meritocratic than many industries. The likes of Frank Skinner and Frankie Boyle have only prospered since sobering up. And struggle makes for a good story.
“It’s hardly ever too late,” Rees says. “As long as I behave myself and work hard, I can’t see any reason why I can’t be a good comedian for a long time.”
• Arnab Chanda: Stories From Arnab is at Banshee Labyrinth until 26 August. William Andrews: Willy is at Pleasance Courtyard until 26 August. Matt Rees: Happy Hour is at Pleasance Courtyard until 26 August