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FOUR SEASONS: THE HILLS ARE ALIVE, WITH THE SOUND OF LAUGHTER (AAH-HA-HA-HA)

Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 3 September 2011

ONE of my favourite experiences at this year’s Edinburgh Festival was going to a comedy gig on top of Arthur’s Seat. Well, I say “on top”. Actually the guy running the show, a free-thinking stand-up called Barry Ferns, had set up his amp and mic in a grassy little amphitheatre a couple of hundred metres east of the summit. But hey, we were near as dammit.

As I sat basking in the sun, waiting for the show to start, I could see far beyond the stage – all the way down the coast to Berwick Law and the Bass Rock, more than 20 miles distant. If I shuffled around to face north-east, meanwhile, I could see right across the city to the Firth of Forth and the hills of Fife. Rolling over onto my back for a moment, I reflected that this was probably the most attractive and certainly the most comfortable comedy venue I had ever visited. But just then I discovered I wasn’t actually “in” the venue at all, and neither were the 200-odd people sitting all around me.

“At the moment you are all outside the venue,” Fearns informed us. “Please could you enter through the main door here? It’s for health and safety reasons.”

The door Ferns was referring to consisted of three flimsy-looking poles anchored to the ground by equally flimsy-looking lengths of orange string. For a couple of seconds, nothing happened. Like me, people seemed to be happy where they were, too lazily content to take part in some pointless, slightly surreal stunt. But having climbed a hill together, there was already a sense of community spirit among the audience – a sense, perhaps, that we were more a part of the show than we would have been in a traditional walls-and-ceiling venue. So, one by one, we picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves down and trooped through the makeshift entrance into the venue proper, before sitting down again in more-or-less the same spots we’d occupied before.

After a chucklesome, Braveheart-inspired warm-up from Ferns (which at one point involved him running off a cliff with a member of the audience, or at least appearing to) opening act Josie Long took to the stage, and immediately started to regret her decision to wear a billowy skirt for the occasion. Every time the wind picked up, she had to break off mid-gag to get a firm grip on her hemline. “I am NOT a burlesque performer,” she quipped, as a particularly strong gust briefly lifted up her skirt around her ears.

After Long had fulfilled her lifetime’s ambition of “finishing a gig by storming off a mountain [sic],” on came Joel Dommet, a relative unknown, who observed: “This is the perfect gig! Even if you don’t like me, you can look at the clouds and go ‘Ooh, that one looks like a willy.'” Dommet was better than that line suggests, but the unexpected highlight was a brief cameo by a frightened rabbit, flushed out of the long grass by an excitable Alsatian puppy. Flying through the middle of the audience, pogo-ing from one surprised punter to another, the rabbit wore a wide-eyed, Watership Down-style expression of utter panic. “A rabbit! Holy shit! A rabbit!” squealed closing act Mae Martin. Happily, the bunny got away unscathed and Martin was able to close her set with a kinky musical tribute to Don Cheadle.

Not your average gig then, and I’m sure I laughed about 10 per cent harder at some of the jokes than I would have done in a regular comedy club. Which made me wonder: are gags told al fresco really funnier?

Comedian Andrew Maxwell runs an annual comedy festival called Altitude at the Austrian ski resort of Mayrhofen, and he reckons fresh air and stand-up comedy are a winning combination. “The audiences at Altitude are so mellow,” he says. “They’ve had a day in the Alps either riding the mountain or pottering around eating strudel, so when they come to the gigs in the evening they’re already delighted – they couldn’t be more perfectly teed up.”

If people are more predisposed to laugh outside than in, perhaps comedians should think about performing up hills more often. There’d be no overheads to worry about after all – well, apart from wind, rain, snow…

www.altitudefestival.com

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