Edinburgh Fringe: Comedian Garrett Millerick on the health scare that made him re-evaluate the festival

Garrett Millerick used to sacrifice his physical and mental health for laughs. Now he’s back with a new show about the festival itself and why he wants it to be nothing but fun

I heard a joke once. Man goes to the doctor and says, “Doctor, I’m depressed. Life seems harsh, unforgiving and cruel.” The doctor’s face lights up, for he has the answer to the man’s problems. The treatment is simple. “The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight,” the doctor says. “Go and see him! That will sort you out.” The man bursts into tears. “But Doctor,” he says, “our shows clash.”

I’ve been trying to unpick why we all do the Edinburgh festival. Not just performers but audiences. By the time you’ve shelled out for accommodation, travel, food, drinks and tickets, you’re down a grand. Minimum. For the same money you could hop on a plane and be sat sipping a mojito on a beach in the Maldives. But you’re not. You’re in a basement in Scotland looking at me.

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The whole thing is an immersive experience in mental collapse. Everyone here is in some way unhappy with their lot. The performers are duking it out to get reviews, awards and recognition so that they can get more telly, more radio, more followers. It’s a constant chase. A desire to be laughed at and taken seriously at the same time. Just look at the cavalcade of posters, laden with quotes promising to be the funniest person who ever lived but complemented by a picture of someone who looks like they’re about ready to ruin a dinner party. Trauma has been the enduring trend of the festival for a good few years, mining the worst experiences of life for laughs and recognition.

Audiences are here to pursue happiness just as much as we are. Drinking from two pint jugs at lunchtime and seeing nine comedy shows a day is well above the recommended units of both. I do this professionally five nights a week and can tell you that a sane number of live comedy shows to see in a year is probably two. Nine in a day? Get some help. You aren’t going out for seven dinners tonight. Stop eating when you’re full.

I’m guilty of it as much as anyone. My career break came discussing very recent trauma: losing a baby and my wife nearly dying. The first genuine smash hit I’d had in 15 years. It felt amazing, but five years later I wish I’d just told some fun jokes, talked to my wife, and gone to therapy. But that wouldn’t have satisfied my desire for more.

At last year’s festival I was nearly twenty stone, drinking 12 pints a day, had gout so badly in my right arm I could barely hold a microphone, and I’m told it was very funny to watch. I got what I wanted out of it: stars, recognition, more and better work. There is a lot of comedy value in being that guy. John Candy died of a massive heart attack because he couldn’t lose weight without losing work. And he was right, Uncle Buck would have been awful if you were just watching a guy with his shit together looking after some kids. He sacrificed himself for our happiness. And you have to respect that.

So when I said I’d do the festival again this year I went all in, back at working on another show. The inconvenient text message asking me to see the Doctor to discuss my liver disease, high blood pressure, kidney problems, impending diabetes landed around the same time I’d realised I had destroyed my relationships with my friends and family and lost all sense of myself. So this show got put on the shelf for a bit while I got myself into a rehab program, got healthy and reprioritised a few things.

Garrett Millerick: Never Had It So GoodGarrett Millerick: Never Had It So Good
Garrett Millerick: Never Had It So Good

I haven’t completely learnt my lesson. But I’m five stone lighter and sober. Whether or not that’s as funny as the hulking sweaty mess who hit the stage with a crash last year, I’ve no idea, but I’m excited to find out. I started writing the show a few weeks ago and it’s about the festival. You and me and why we’re all here. It’s for you and me, here and now. It can’t be toured, filming it would be pointless, and it exists like the festival as something that’s fun in and of itself. I’m finally coming up looking for nothing more than that.

Garrett Millerick: Never Had It So Good, Monkey Barrel at the Tron, 4.25pm, until 27 August