My first ever Edinburgh Fringe was 2006, performing in the European premiere of Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio. We were in the new Udderbelly venue, a giant upside down inflatable purple cow.
This production had pedigree: Stewart Lee directing, Phil Nichol as a blistering Barry Champlain and Mike McShane as the station boss. I was playing Linda MacArthur, producer and partner of Barry. Often during my emotional monologue in the middle of the play, I would be underscored by a Samba band going past outside. It was an immediate lesson: this is the Fringe, you have to roll with the punches.
That first year was an intoxicating whirlwind, with so many eyes on me and famous faces in the crowd. The abundance of creativity is in every bar, café, shipping crate, and pavement. Not to mention the Sisphyean hangovers. By the time I’d pushed that hungover rock to the top of the hill, it was time to do the show again.
I went back the next year to host Old Rope, my new material night, which in retrospect was bold. It involved getting comics up to do new material in the crucible that is the Fringe. I loved it. I watched comics craft new jokes and soar above waves of laughter. I witnessed them sputter through half an idea before falling back on some gold to win the crowd over.
Elsewhere, Victorian illnesses seem to spring from sweating walls. There were caves that cried and ceilings that dripped on audiences. Pick the wrong seat and you were slowly waterboarded whilst a comic slung jokes. There were shows by the Oxford Imps, the Cambridge Footlights, and the Durham Revue. So grew my burgeoning understanding of the class disparity at play. I didn’t know that the Fringe even existed until the year before, or that three out of four of the huge comedy venues were run by Oxbridge alumni. I discovered that huge agents and promoters went scorched earth for a square of real estate on Cowgate in order to paste a giant poster of whoever their golden boy was that August.
This was also the year an important person in comedy brought himself back to our shared festival digs. I was advised by him to “go pop on a tight t-shirt”. I told him where he could shove his fashion advice. I went to bed and barricaded my door with a dresser and I could hear him shouting for me. I fell asleep with a lamp firmly grasped in my hands.
I performed my first solo show in 2009, receiving the full gamut of stars one through to five. I enraged a female reviewer by talking about abortion and a male reviewer by hanging out with comics more famous than me. I had no idea about newcomer awards or that ‘judges’ would come in. I didn’t have a comedy agent, I just wanted to get better, and I did. There wasn’t a single woman on the nominations list that year.
“[My 2010 show] ambitious, silly, and got a fair amount of attention. This rubbed a male comic friend up the wrong way. He said as much before introducing me to a room of people as ‘Tiff was the hot comic that everyone wanted to fuck but not anymore’”— Tiff Stevenson
Back I went in 2010, with my show about dictators… Hitler, Mugabe, OK Magazine, Gaddafi, and my mum. It was ambitious, silly, and got a fair amount of attention. This rubbed a male comic friend up the wrong way. He said as much before introducing me to a room of people as “Tiff was the hot comic that everyone wanted to fuck but not anymore.” The same night I was informed by a reviewer that I had performed my show to a room full of comedy award judges. A night of extreme highs, lows and an award worm in my head. That’s Edinburgh, it’s all the emotions, it’s four seasons in one day.
I wasn’t nominated, but for the first time two women were for the main award: Sarah Millican and Josie Long. My close pal Roisin Conaty won the newcomer award. All working-class women. In retrospect this was a seismic shift. Not that awards were the be-all-and-end-all for female comics, but Katherine Ryan started selling out shows at The Stand a couple of years later, Lucy Porter had queues coming out of the Pleasance Courtyard, Zoe Lyons was smashing shows all over town — women were making their presence felt, even if the industry was slow to catch-up.
In 2011, near the end of my run, I travelled back to London to perform in the Show Me the Funny final, broadcast live to three million people. I knew that no matter what, the next night I was back in my 70-seater room. I didn’t win that night, but I sold out the rest of my shows. I kept going back and it felt like the seeds of change were slowly breaking through the soil. I kept going back because I didn’t need permission.
I’ve since done festivals like Just for Laughs and Sketchfest, which are curated, invite-only. I only got to those because of the Edinburgh Fringe. Of course, there is still the odd sexist bump in the road. For example, press night in 2017 when the compere brought me on stage as a sexual ‘offering’ to a man on the front row. I had to abandon my five-minute set to deal with the situation.
In 2015, 2017, and 2019 my shows made it into the Top 20 best reviewed shows. At this point in my career I’ve had every type of show: the sold-out ones, the emotional ones, the sweaty ones. I have also done the ones to less than 10 people, which are like sex in a loveless marriage — no one really wants to be there, but you have to go through the motions anyhow and occasionally someone will ask if they can just pop a Netflix series on. They make you better though, so much better.
I’ve seen comet showers from Arthur’s Seat, mad theatre, groundbreaking ideas, great victories, and hollow wins. I have experienced gross and sexist behaviour, but also magic and hope. I won’t let the former overpower the latter. There’s also been the solidarity, lifelong friendships and wonderful audiences that keep me coming back.
“Huge clubs across the country now have multiple women on bills, we’re all over TV and film and touring the world. It’s encouraging to see in recent years that the percentage of women bringing shows to the Fringe has tripled”— Tiff Stevenson
They say a river changes the landscape due to constant pressure over time. I hope that all of us women with our sell out shows, awards and great reviews in those years have helped to change the landscape. Actually, I know we have. Huge clubs across the country now have multiple women on bills, we’re all over TV and film and touring the world. It’s encouraging to see in recent years that the percentage of women bringing shows to the Fringe has tripled.
The comedy landscape is much more diverse, too, which has been reflected in the awards, with nods towards fantastic comics like Sophie Duker, Sindhu Vee ,and Darren Harriot. London Hughes was nominated and hopped on a rocket all the way to Hollywood. I’m not sure about the class barriers though, with the rising costs of bringing a show I think that’s the next big battle for this wonder ground.
So, I am back this year with my dreams, my jokes and just enough cynicism to get me through. See you there, I hope!
Tiff Stevenson’s Sexy Brain runs throughout the month of August at the Pleasance Courtyard Above, 8pm.