Is a work in progress worth the audience's time?

Simon Munnery says that all comedy is work in progress until it is abandoned. As usual, he makes a very good argument. An unexpected laugh will give a line more space in the next performance. Total silence, three nights in a row, will get it dropped.
Jason Manford. Picture: Contributed.Jason Manford. Picture: Contributed.
Jason Manford. Picture: Contributed.

The speed of the turnstile at the staff entrance to the White House pretty much ensures that anyone including the littlest bit of politics is never sure whose name his next laugh will come from. But isn’t work in progress just the same as having failed to finish your show in time? And akin to a “get out of jail free” card for every performer’s conviction that the reviewer/friend/casting director came on a “bad night”.

Barry Ferns, Fringe legend and Keeper of the This Show Belongs to Lionel Richie flame, has got out his “work in progress” label for the first time this year.

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“I would go as far as to say that really
crafting a show takes months, even years, so as far as I’m concerned, most shows you see in Edinburgh are ‘work in progress’ shows.

“Most performers are working on them – and are not labelling them as ‘work in progress’ shows. So me and John Bishop are being honest – we’re like that, me and John, just honest, everyday gents. Most performers are perhaps deluding themselves that they are presenting finished works.” His eyebrows bounce. “Controversial.”

Both John Bishop and Jason Manford are offering WIP at the Underbelly this year.
Venue co-director Charlie Wood makes a great argument for the genre: “Where
better to test out new material than with an engaged and educated audience who want to see fresh, raw and unpolished material?”

Raw and unpolished? I cannot imagine
anyone ordering snacks in the Underbelly Abbatoir would be charmed to be given a quarter teaspoon of Flora Danica mesophilic culture and told that the Camembert was a “work in progress”.

Mark Watson is bringing a WIP show to the Fringe this year. “It seems that a surprising number of people enjoy seeing ‘the process’ – seeing a comic with things he or she desperately wants to say, but with only a sketchy idea of how those things can be wrapped up in something funny,” he says.

“I kind of get it. I’ve been to WIPs and seen comedians rant passionately about a topic, or open up about something personal, and there’s an excitement in their own surprise at it. Sometimes a finished show has been so smoothed that those jagged bits disappear.

“For a paying audience they need to be established and successful comedians, to ensure that the work in progress is up to scratch.” says Wood. “Audiences get to watch a master crafting their work, up close and personal. It’s a special and a participatory relationship as the comic and the audience get to bounce off one another and develop a great show.”

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I am left wondering, if after all this “bouncing,” the comic goes off and has a sell-out tour and makes a massive amount of money, why did we pay £18.50 to help them? Sometimes, of course, it is just a privilege to bounce.

Stewart Lee, a comic whose yearly WIP shows at the Stand are a must-see, says he quite often enjoys WIP shows more than the finished article. I have always thought of Lee as having kicked off the trend but, he says, “I think it was definitely [Daniel] Kitson, whose WIPs are superb fun.”

“The audience is part of a two-way street and when I am doing difficult big rooms, I am on some level playing the show as a remembered recreation of what it would be like to do it in the Stand.”

Lee’s heart is in the Fringe. His WIP shows are not just a means to an end. “I love being in Edinburgh every summer (and have only missed 2001 and this year since 1987) and so does B [Bridget Christie, his wife], so it’s good to have a reason to go, and doing WIP in the daytime makes it viable, and means you have a presence.”

I wonder, though, why comedy gets to be “special”? Why not a week of a WIP Tattoo, with pipe bands wandering around and bumping into each other, WIP dance shows, theatre shows with cries of “line!” every so often and cabaret where we watch someone try to find the right key for their big number?

“In many ways, comedy is no different from other art forms,” says Wood, who has pretty much programmed them all. “They all go through processes of development and adjustment. However, having a work in progress run for comedy is different from an audience perspective, because some of the ‘mistakes’ can be really funny in themselves, and you can be there at the creation of a brilliantly hilarious new piece of material that comes from an off-the-cuff moment that you witnessed and then makes it into the arena tour/DVD.

“Comedy also relies on audiences more than a lot of artforms – their reaction is so integral to it being funny. Whereas with dance or theatre you can know that something looks beautiful or is well-written without an audience being there to tell you so, with comedy you need a process to double check that an audience are going to laugh.”

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Barry Ferns believes “working on a show, crafting it, making it cohesive, is a real skill and a specific type of work, and after watching Simon Amstell and Daniel Kitson do WIP shows at The Bill Murray/ Angel Comedy over the last six months, I realise that making a show takes a lot more work than most people realise. Loads of comedians can be funny – but can they make a cohesive, unified and complete show? You tell me how many ‘shows’ are really ‘shows’?”

Oh Barry, don’t get me started.

“I would hope that an audience comes to watch a performer they like, whether it is a work in progress or a finished show,” he says.

So if you do go to see work in progress, what does the comic want from you? “I suppose to act as a live version of a literary editor,” says Watson.

“In other words, be warm and encouraging, but not blandly positive. You don’t want people shouting out ‘well, that didn’t work, did it?’ but you can quickly tell when that is the general sentiment. As long as the audience has some critical faculties, but is eager to be entertained, it should all be fine.”