Fred MacAulay interview: 25 years at the Fringe
Andrew Mickel5 August 2013
Fred talks about his 25th year and how the festival has changed...
Fred MacAulay could well be the performer who has done more Fringes in a row than anyone else: 25 years on the trot. He’s back at the Assembly Rooms unti lthe 23rd at 7.40pm, but there's nary a venue in town he hasn't played at some point in his time. He tells us how the festival's changed, how he's changed, and how the audiences are changing too...
Fred: I started doing stand-up again on the 2 July. Let’s go back a year: last year I had a tour, the Fringe, and getting ready for the Fringe, I did 100 gigs. At my stage of my career that is completely unusual. I do a lot of corporate gigs but that’s not stand-up as the set list doesn’t change, so this year I did no stand-up until 2 July. And a lot of that time is just getting back up to speed on stage.
Is it good to be back again?
Oh yes. I’ve always kept my hand in one way or another. Since 2 July I did the show three times: twice in Falkirk and once in Ayr, and I was so chuffed it went really well.
It’s a strong concept, doing 25 years at the Fringe.
There’s not many of us can do it.
There must a club, the 25ers.
You know, i don’t think there is. I honestly don’t know. In stand-up, me and Paul Merton. He must have done 25 but I don’t know if he’s done 25 in a row. Not that I’m claiming anything... Since Thursday I got in the venue and pretty much died on my arse.
Could you tell what was wrong?
Yeah. I couldn’t tell what material I was doing. And it was so hot, and I stupidly decided to wear a suit, and the set list was in my jacket pocket that was on the mike stand. I thought, it would look too shit to walk over the stage to get my set list. I couldn’t even remember old material.
But all the time it was happening, I was thinking, this is fixable. You know how at the start of a show comedians will often just chat to the audience? I did that about two thirds of the way into the show, which for anyone who knows the game at all, would think: he’s run out of material.
I reengaged them though. I was wondering what could have gone wrong, and I thought back to when I said to them that I was delighted they were there, albeit that it was preview night and they’d paid half price...except they hadn’t. They had got tickets for only a quid cheaper. It just shows how little attention I’d been paying to the detail of the gig, so I think some of them are a bit pissed off with that.
Previews and work in progresses have been creeping up to become on a par with regular gigs. This feels like the year they did just become the same status-wise.
Yeah, and it’s a new thing. When I started people didn’t do previews; they just didn’t exist. The try-outs of material at clubs around the country just didn’t happen. People arrived in Edinburgh to try out material and on the first night, that was the first night the material came out.
What else do you think is changing?
The sheer number. I don’t think I have a 1989 brochure but I can’t imagine it’s a fraction of the shows of the current one. If it is, it won’t have nearly as many stand-ups. Me and Paul talked about this at Just A Minute last year; now he did a one-man show in 1981- and this is the degree of accuracy you would expect from an ex-accountant - he said he thought there were just three stand-ups, him, Jo Brand and somebody else. At that time, everyone was joining up: combinations like Frank Skinner and Steve Coogan, Lee Evans and Jo Brand, all manner of double headers.
Last year Stewart Lee spoke about how you could get started cheaply in Edinburgh by just sleeping on a church floor. Going back to ’81, what was it like? Was there a financial or creative risk?
My first year was 1989 with a group of Scottish comedians called Funny Farm. I did 89 and 90 like that. In 1991 I did a show with Lynn Ferguson and Richard Morton, for two years and then just Lynn the next year, and then I struck out on my own. Back then I was living in Glasgow so it was a sort of commute for me. If I stayed in Edinburgh it was with friends, in a bedroom with an en suite. It was all very comfortable.
Was there the hubbub? The Edinburgh Fringe bubble, the parties and the bars?
Yup. It was very much the Gilded Balloon and Late’n’Live. It was very much the only gig still on after 1am.
Will you still pop into Late’n’Live now?
Not to gig. I used to do it a lot. About seven years ago I went back to guest compere it...I did okay, but my memory of it is just children sitting there with minimal amounts of drink, waiting for the band to come on. Late’n’Live used to be seat-of-the-pants stuff: terrifying but brilliant.
The first Late’n’Live I went to was in 2001 and it was comedians coming on looking terrified. Dara O’Briain was compering and had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand, but the rest...
Around that time you had Adam Hills and Daniel Kitson as the MCs - it was a bear pit. But there’s a multitude of late shows now.
Who do you see and rate now?
I always go and see Bridget Christie; I thought War Donkey was one of the best things I saw last year, as was Bravo Figaro, Mark Thomas’s show. Unfortunately I won’t see Bridget until next weekend...
...you have to get up so early to see her this year.
I know, 11.10! I’ve always been a big fan of Bridget’s and in the last year I’ve got to work with her, on her Radio 4 series: she needed someone to play the part of Man slash The Man slash Fred. I’m her foil on the series and it’s coming back next year. I think she’s great.
The radio show this year: is it more of the same?
Little tweaks here and there, but predominantly the same as before. About nine guests in a 90 minute show. The first hour is given over performances and chat, and the final 30 minutes is me and Susan Calman interviewing three or sometimes four people on the sofa. We’re just trying to find a device to engage everyone. You don’t want it to be just where are you playing, are you touring. This year we’re doing an extra week as well, so that’s good.
What’s your path been through the Fringe? Were you always an Assembly man?
No, I’ve been all over the place. I was a Gilded Balloon man as Karen Koren was very good to me early in my career, so I did that; then there was a thing called the Palladium in the New Town and I did that in 98 and 99; then I had a few years at the Assembly, and The Stand, and now the Assembly Rooms. The thing is, I did the old Gilded Balloon that burnt down; I did the Palladium that closed; I did the Supper Room at the Assembly Rooms that is now Jamie’s Restaurant.
Is your material changing much now?
No, it’s more of the same. And that always used to worry me. I used to think I always wanted to do something different, but...you’re always hoping early on that you get some kind of nod from Nica Burns, or you end up on a long list or a short list, but you needed a hook of some sort. I was going to call my show ‘Funny Isn’t Good Enough’.
You’ve got a hook this year...
Well, yes. I can look back and just say, my, how things change.
Do you notice audiences changing?
Yes. For me, certainly. My main presence here is on Radio Scotland, which has an aging listenership. The years i was on in the Supper Room we had Jeff Green in the Edinburgh Room at the same time. There would be two queues, and ne’er the twain would meet. I have an aging audience. This year, even though there’s only been a couple of shows, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that there’s more young people coming along.
Again, do you think that’s the concept, or TV stuff?
I don’t know. TV stuff, I have done a whole range, from Mock The Week to QI...I don’t know. I don’t know how the Fringe works. This year the show is 16+ or 14 or 15 with an accompanying adult. Maybe they think it will be filthy.
You say you are pleasantly surprised that there are younger audience members. Is it the audience aging with you?
I think it’s just a superficial thing; I’m jealous of people with funky-looking audiences. But as soon as they laugh then you relax, as they’ve got a sense of humour. The thing about the Radio Scotland audience is they are not prudish. I think they’re like members of a golf club: they look very stuffy but when you get to know them they’re actually not.
What counts as a successful Fringe now on August 27th?
To get to August 27th. I finish here on the 23rd, got a job in Glasgow on the 24th, and then the 25th, by lunchtime, me and Mrs Fred will be lying on a beach in Mallorca. I’ll be honest, I’ll make a few quid, but it’s more that I’m still able to write good stand-up material, and stand-up is still the most creative thing I do. If it wasn’t for the travel I would still do stand-up six nights a week. The priority for me over the years has been to get my children through education but they’re in their twenties now. Two work at the Fringe - not performing, but you never know. But I’m not looking for accolades or nominations like I did 15 or 20 years ago and it was always a disappointment they didn’t come. The BBC New Comedy Awards I hosted the regional finals. They used to say I was a good example to them that if you didn’t even place in the heats, don’t worry. If you do your first show and you’re not a nominee, don’t worry. Just go back, do good work, and whatever you want to achieve, it will come along.
We’ve asked lots of questions about the past: what about the future? This is 25 years, how many more have you got?
I don’t know the answer to that. Now is maybe the wrong time to ask. My wife knows what my calendar is like. I have seasonal Fringe disorder that this year you always think, I’m not doing it again. And by January Tommy Sheppard will be on the phone saying, we’re taking bookings, and I think, yeah, I’ll do it. I love Edinburgh in August.
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