Why the Fringe is a perilous place for comedians

Electrocuted by a faulty microphone, taking a punch from a drunken audience member, plummeting through a theatre's unsecured trapdoor '“ the comedian's life is not without peril.

Lauren Pattison. Picture: Andy Hollingworth.
Lauren Pattison. Picture: Andy Hollingworth.

The Edinburgh Fringe in particular is a true test of body and mind, a 26-day marathon running through damp cellars and roasting attics, with a temptation to partake of drink, drugs and casual sex if the show’s going badly. Or well. Or middling. The late-night lifestyle and intense scrutiny can take a toll on a performer’s health.

In her debut, Lady Muck, about learning to be comfortable in her skin, Lauren Pattison reveals that she suffers from psoriasis that causes patches of red, scaly tissue to appear on her body from making skin cells too quickly.

“This is the worst job to have for it,” the comedian suggests. “Because it’s triggered by stress and alcohol. And usually at the Fringe, I’d be going out getting drunk every night. Bread makes it worse apparently, which is not great as a comic who survives on meal deal sandwiches most days. Everything that seems to set it off is part of being a comedian. I’m just trying to get to a point where I’m comfortable with it. It feel like I’m hitting that now.”

Drinking significantly less this festival, Pattison has found that discussing her condition eases it as well. “Which is bloody typical when I’ve got a whole bit about it in my show and it’s decided it wants to go away for a little bit,” she laughs. But she hadn’t initially planned to talk about it all, considering it boring.

After taking a workshop with last year’s Edinburgh Comedy award winner Richard Gadd though, she found that sharing her condition really engaged the other course members. “Now it seems obvious to include it,” she says.

Lifting her top to display her stomach at a recent gig, she only belatedly recalled that she’d brought a date. “And for a split-second I thought, ‘oh God, he’s seen my skin!’ But that thought disappeared so quickly. And afterwards he told me ‘I think your skin’s beautiful’. There’s something about being vulnerable that really gets people on board. I’m more and more comfortable and feel empowered by it now, looking forward to that bit of the show so much.”

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Pattison is just one of many acts attending stand-up Ed Patrick’s Comedians’ Surgery, a one-on-one interview in which the part-time junior doctor quizzes other comics about their medical issues, ranging from the aforementioned trapdoor incident to coping with cancer. He’s been surprised by just how easy his interviewees find it, “opening up on stage about things that are quite sensitive and personal. It’s almost like talking to a group of people is easier than talking to one.”

He points out that he is not diagnosing any STDs – though he’s done that in dressing rooms before – nor prescribing anything “because it would create legal issues my medical indemnity wouldn’t cover”. However he notes that there’s little solid research into the health effects of their job upon comedians. He hesitates, for instance, to call it an addiction. Even so, he can’t go a few days without a gig “and not be really looking forward to the next. The audience give you instant gratification. It’s an instant high. Or an instant low, with real fallout from that. Because there’s lots of lonely travelling.”

The prevalence of pre-gig vomiting, breathlessness and irritable bowel syndrome among his peers, he maintains, is “simply because people react to stress and anxiety, that fight or flight response, in different ways. Sheer nausea is really common. The Fringe is like constantly preparing to do exams at school, being tested, so you’re constantly on edge.” That in turn promotes destructive behaviour such as excessive drinking, disrupted sleep and comfort eating.

Pierre Novellie discloses that he guards against food binges in his hour. And he explains that he employs “exercise, mindfulness, therapy and previously, medication, all the usual boring solutions” for his anxiety. “No homeopathy as yet though.”

Still, in some respects, the anxiety actually helps him, because it “means you over-think and over-analyse a lot of life and beating it requires huge self-awareness, all of which is present in my writing.” Moreover, “one reason I perform is because when I’m on stage, doing stand-up and doing well, I feel nothing but the moment. I am entirely present … But it does mean you doubt yourself in the quiet hours of the night.”

Tez Ilyas projects a similar stage confidence. But he suffers from alopecia, with gaps appearing initially in his beard that spread to his hair, as he struggled to juggle his comedy career with his former day job as a civil servant. Speculating that stress and “not the best” diet were likely contributing factors, he admits: “Offstage, I’m quite insecure about my hair now. But eventually, my beard kind of healed itself. And I haven’t got any proper, clinical evidence to suggest that it is stress. I don’t get super-stressed for gigs, or at least I don’t think I do. Maybe I’m all deep down stressed and don’t realise it.”

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This contrasts with the experience of Rob West, of comedy-magic duo Morgan & West, painfully conscious of the multiple epiphyseal dysplasia he inherited from his father, a bone condition that’s deformed his hip and knee joints. The condition affects his mobility, especially his ability to climb stairs.

“You wouldn’t notice but I never actually leave the stage,” he says. “It’s Rhys [Morgan] who goes into the audience to bring them up on stage.” The pair have just had to cut a trick where he escapes from a bag “because I’m no longer capable of curling up into a ball like I used to”.

“Edinburgh is not a brilliant city if you have mobility issues with all its hills and cobbles,” he adds. And for the first time in their decade-long double-act, he won’t be flyering because he can’t stand long enough.

Requiring a walking cane has a negative impact “on all the sleight of hands stuff that we do”, he says. But it also fits the duo’s image of being time-travelling Victorian magicians. And since they perform children’s shows as well, West argues that it’s important to “show disabled kids that a guy with a limp and a cane is also visibly disabled. And without being too high-minded about it, can happily get on with the business of doing a silly magic show.”

Their disability education doesn’t end there either. West recalls the drunken woman who approached him in the Gilded Balloon’s Loft Bar last year, “assuming I was a hipster and stick-shaming me for appropriating disabled culture”. He sighs. “If you’re walking with a cane at this festival people just naturally assume you’re a ponce.”

• Ed Patrick: Comedian Surgery, is at Just the Tonic at the Caves, until 26 August. Today 2:35pm.