It’s four days out from the end of the world’s largest arts and comedy festival, the spectacular Edinburgh Fringe, and Danny Bhoy is looking forward to being one of the very few comedians who won’t be evacuating the city come week’s end.
To the Scotland-born comic, it’s not simply home sweet home. From the moment he sat in on a late-night Lee Mack gig at the age of 12 – one of six people in the audience – Bhoy’s relationship with the Fringe, the comedy circuit and the city itself has flourished.
“I love the cities, right? I think the places I like going won’t surprise you because everyone loves them – places like New York, Chicago, Sydney, Melbourne. London, even. I love history and architecture and all those things, ’cause I did history as a degree. It’s nice to see that hasn’t gone to waste,” he laughs.
“But honestly, if I had to say this, Edinburgh’s still my favourite, y’know? Because everything I’ve ever done has always come from the Edinburgh Festival. Every job I’ve got, every festival I’ve done, every tour I’ve done, it’s always been because people have seen me here and thought I could work in Canada or Australia or wherever. So I’ve gotta take my hat off to Edinburgh.”
It’s been a rather different festival for Bhoy this year – he’s taken a rare break from his touring schedule to enjoy the festival from the other side of the mic. “I’m a proper punter!” he laughs. “I’m going and heckling my friends.”
For those who haven’t been to the Fringe, it’s an incomparable experience. For one month in the Scotland summer, its capital city is flooded with performers and tourists alike, and every nook and cranny are filled with the wildest the arts have to offer. It can be an overwhelming experience even for a regular showgoer, so Bhoy is kind enough to provide a few tips on surviving your first Fringe.
“Listen, the thing about Edinburgh [Fringe] is you walk around the city and everyone’s got five stars on their poster, right?” he says. “Everyone’s got a quote that suggests they’re the next comic genius and everyone’s got recommendations and fancy artwork and all that sort of stuff, but to delve inside that and underneath that is the key to enjoying the Fringe; to discover something which hasn’t already been discovered.
“It’s a great place for just taking a punt on something and, y’know, 90 per cent of the stuff you see might be shit. But if you see that one or two incredible things, it’s worth the journey.”
We swap anecdotes about Fringe comedians’ posters we’ve seen – a one-star review being used as the quote “A Star”; Alan Carr stealing Jimmy Carr’s glowing references in The Guardian – but Bhoy guarantees he’s come across much worse in his time. “There’s all kinds of tricks at the Edinburgh Fringe, believe me. I’ve seen people so desperate to get people into their show. They will literally try anything.”
Of course, Bhoy’s been in the game for years, so naturally he’s had poster troubles of his own. A standout in his memory was the poster printed for his Canadian tour that used an Aussie reviewer’s quote calling him “the stand-up equivalent of Bill Bryson”.
“About halfway through my tour, I met my promoter for dinner and she said, ‘Yeah, who is Bill Bryson?’ And I went, ‘What?! How could you have commissioned this poster without knowing?’ And she goes, ‘No-one in Canada knows who he is’. I went, ‘Why didn’t you tell me that when I put the fucking poster out?!’” he laughs.
Despite this, it’s remained one of his favourite references, simply because it avoids the platitudes of so many headline-grabbers pasted on festival flyers.
“I don’t think Bill Bryson said [it]. I think it’ll be a long time before he has a quote on his book saying, ‘I’m the literary equivalent of Danny Bhoy – edgy and effortlessly funny on page.’ Maybe it’s a self-correcting quote, because if you don’t know who Bill Bryson is, you probably shouldn’t be coming to my show.”
Even without his own show at Edinburgh this year, Bhoy has noticed the festival change over time, gradually becoming more of a business than a creative love-in. Regardless, he says, there’s still plenty to recommend the trip.
“The whole idea is that people come up with crazy, wacky shows and put them on in small pubs and little back rooms and stuff,” he says. “It seems to have become a little bit more geared towards now the tourist market, but that’s sorta like anywhere, right? Anything that’s good sooner or later becomes slightly bastardised by corporate interests.”
Therein lies the inspiration for Bhoy’s newest show, Please Untick This Box; an effort to beat a tactical retreat from the theatricality of its predecessor, Dear Epson, in favour of a fresh stand-up show lamenting the ‘overpackaging’ of just about everything in the modern world.
“Being the typically contrary, obtuse person I am, I decided to do the opposite [to Dear Epson], so now this show is all about stripping it all back and going back to what stand-up is and being very raw and not having big light shows,” he says. “I start off the show talking about people that overpackage things and need a kind of forced hype in order to enjoy the experience. And this also goes back to what we were talking about, about the Edinburgh Festival, actually, and how if you unpeel that and actually start listening to what people are talking about, that’s really where the actual kernel or the joy of the show is.”
Going back to basics is something that allows for Bhoy to hone his craft in a different way to experimenting with structure. It also allows him to tackle a frustration he admitted to in an interview with Australia’s Digital Spy around the time of his last visit: that many bigger-name comedians – including himself – are too afraid of losing fans to innovate or stay politically edgy.
“We’re very fragile people, comedians,” he laughs. “We’re scared to take a leap of faith. It’s hard when you’ve already got an established audience that like what you do … The last show I did was deliberately out of my comfort zone and the reason I did that was ’cause I wanted to challenge myself. And I was getting a bit bored, to be honest, with just doing regular stand-up shows, y’know? There’s no harm; there’s always going to be a market for people that want to see certain people tell jokes the way they always do. But it’s also important as an artist or if you’re creative – if you’ve got a brain that wants to be constantly challenged – that you’ve gotta mix it up a bit.”
It’s this desire to challenge himself that has fuelled Bhoy’s rise through the ranks of global comedy and kept him touring the world for the last 14 years, alongside his humility and a dedication to learning from experience.
“Someone once told me a few years ago, ‘You never learn anything from a good gig.’ And I think that’s really true, y’know? It’s the bad gigs which you learn from – it’s the six people in the crowd, it’s the hundred people staring at you, it’s the pissed hecklers.
“It’s when those things go wrong, if you like, that things start to go right.”
Please Untick This Box runs Monday October 26 – Wednesday October 28 at the State Theatre, as part of Just For Laughs Sydney 2015. Danny Bhoy also appears at the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House on Sunday October 25.