Mark Row’s documentary about performing at the Edinburgh Festival despite only having stepped on stage for the first time a year beforehand is a compelling piece, and anyone thinking of becoming a comedian could learn a lot from it. The framing device is the long journey up the A1 to Edinburgh (hence the title of the film), where he talks with Ben Robinson, the director of The Comedy Cow and Milton Keynes Comedy Festival, about his time as a stand up comic.
Row’s very honest throughout the film, importantly showing not only the highs but also the lows. For instance we see his first performance at the Backyard Comedy Club which is filled with puns and isn’t very funny, understandably though as most people’s first gig isn’t something they’re necessarily proud of (mine for instance was absolutely horrific, a completely misjudged set about what I thought other people would find funny rather than what made me laugh personally) and thankfully he gets better pretty quickly. There’s some very strong material where he compares being a comedian with being a baker, along with a routine about his children and how they reacted to his comedy career, and at this point I started to like him as a comedian.
Another big feature of the documentary is a selection of comics offering advice, including James Acaster, James Redmond, Stuart Goldsmith and Ellie Gibson, and also Oliver Double, a University lecturer who mentions how influential Mort Sahl is (which pleased, as we’re a fan of the man and he is greatly under appreciated), it’s an interesting interview with a man who clearly knows his stuff. Goldsmith and Acaster also offer some thought provoking comments as well, with the latter stressing the importance of always learning and never thinking you’ve reached a point where “you know how to do stand up now”.
There’s a lot of decent advice from Row himself as well, including how to deal with hecklers, the time he lost the room and failed to get the audience back on board, and how difficult open mic gigs can be, especially when there’s no audience and only other comedians, commenting “The reality of it is that you’ve got 15 – 20 comedians all fighting for stage time, they’re not really that bothered about what you’re doing because they’re looking at their notes or trying to remember their sets”, which certainly rang true with some of my experiences of the open mic scene.
There’s also discussion of how to structure a set, the difficulties of being a comedian and a parent and the strain it can put on a relationship, especially when a comedian is going away for most of a month for the festival, and the importance of a strong title for Edinburgh (which I’m not convinced Mark managed to do on this occasion, though it’s a fitting title for the film itself) and marketing yourself in general, and how whilst when at the festival it’s crucial to look after both your physical and mental health.
I do have a few issues with the piece, it’s difficult to be sympathetic towards Mark when he complains about small audiences, I know many comedians who have been performing for many years who sometimes suffer from such a thing at the festival due to the amount of competition they face, and given that it’s his first time there and that he’d only been doing comedy for a year he should be grateful that anyone at all turned up. Also slightly frustrating is that much of the conversation between Row and Robinson takes place on the drive up to Edinburgh, and the background sound becomes a little irritating after a while. It’s also slightly overlong and doesn’t need to be 90 minutes, as there’s some repetition and about 25 minutes could have been cut. But there is a great deal to like about the film and if you’re thinking of becoming a comedian you’ll learn a fair amount about the craft of being a stand up comic, and it is mostly interesting stuff.