How to Succeed at Edinburgh Fringe with Alex Edelman

Alex Edelman has had an excellent August. The American comic headed to the Edinburgh Fringe with his debut show, Millennial, and on Saturday, he walked away with the coveted Best Newcomer Award at the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Awards. Past winners include stars like The Mighty Boosh, Tim Minchin, and Sarah Millican, and it means the eye of the British comedy industry has turned to the 25-year-old New Yorker. I caught up with him after his win in Edinburgh to talk about previewing his show in London, his American style, and being transatlantic.

So why did you decide to come to Edinburgh this year?

I had sort of been invited by accident in 2012. I got cast in a play here, and so I was sort of revealed to this world of thousands of comedy shows. In New York, there’s lot of stage time but it’s hard to get on, and here, I was getting on seven or eight times a day for 15 minutes and making some money from it, and so why wouldn’t you come to this thing? And so I came back last year and ran one of those shows, where you can get 15 minutes, and I did 25 minutes at the end of it, and around the end of the run, I started to realize that I had the makings of a show. And this producer for the BBC spotted me last year, and they put me on one of their showcases, and after that I had a bunch of offers for management, and so I signed with someone who I really liked and who was gonna bring me back the next year, and pay for the run, because the run can be quite expensive. They were tremendous producers, and the show was in good shape, and so the Pleasance was on board, and I guess everyone sort of lined up – venue, PR, producer, performer – and so it seemed sort of like the perfect storm of being able to do an hour of standup every day.

And I ran that compilation show again, and so I’ve been able to do a couple of shows a day at least. I haven’t had a single day where I’ve done less than five shows, and they’re different kinds of comedic muscles that you can’t really flex at home. Like, there’s “Set List”, which is something that I love doing here, and there’s different kinds of improv games than you’d find at even the most wild of indie improv nights, like there’s a show called “Voices in Your Head”, where someone directs your improv from the back. All these different octaves of the comedy piano seem like irresistible to me, and so I really wanted to come back. And also, there are a lot of comedians here, and it’s sort of a chance to test your mettle. So that’s why.

And you moved to London in May? Or rather, you went to London in May.

Well, people keep saying London-based, and it feels a little weird to correct people, but I’m a New York-based comedian who knew what was required to do an hour-long show, and like I said, the PR people and the production people and the venue people were all doing their jobs, so it really felt a waste of everyone’s time and money if I didn’t have an hour show prepared, and the fact that we don’t have a system that helps you build an hour-long show in New York didn’t seem like a good enough excuse, so I came over a couple months early to get the show ready, and it was a big risk, honestly. It was a big risk, financially, but it’s paid off, I think, in a really nice way, and my US management was kind of cautious initially, but then very on board. And yeah, it’s been 100% brilliant. But it’s been hard living outside of New York for awhile. I’m a New York comedian, and I miss the New York scene desperately.

How much of the show did you have before you went to London, and what happened when you got to London?

I definitely had the makings of the show. Almost everything that’s in the show is something I had thought of before, except for six or seven key bits. Because I write quite personal material – they’re personal anecdotes with a slant thrown in – I had a lot of the things that I knew were gonna be in there. The premises were already quite solid and stuff like that. And if I had come over just with the thing, and just done the show, I would have done fine. It would have been okay. But these extra months of preparation added the polish and the structure and all that, and it really helped me flesh it out and make it cohesive and make it from just an hour of standup bits with segues into one entrenched, themed show about me and the millennial generation – something I feel pretty keenly a part of – and make the show successful. The other thing that really helped was that my show’s about being millennial, but I didn’t really understand until I got here the extent to which millennial is not a thing in the UK. Like, it’s not a word that they have. People thinking I’m referring to a Robbie Williams song. So it’s really strange to come over and realize that I had to actually find a way to explain it and so all the jokes around that had to be written here. So dry parts, the parts that should have been clag in the middle around the bits – if I had come over right from the States, that would have remained sort of clumsy, but because I had months to trim it down and hone it down and make it funny, that’s why it was able to be like one smooth, pretty slick show.

And what happens to it now? Will you keep doing it?

Well, I have to. Well, I say I have to, but I’m so excited to. It’s the only cohesive thing I’ve ever done as a standup. Because it won the award, it automatically gets a transfer to the Soho Theatre in London, which is great, because I wrote a lot of the show in the lobby of that theater, because there’s a cafe there and they have WiFi, and the comedians hang out. I’ve seen so many great shows there – I saw Kyle Kinane there, I saw Janeane Garofalo there, I saw Stewart Lee there and Eddie Izzard there, and all these great productions. My friend Phoebe Waller-Bridge, she had similar success last year and she did a show there called “Fleabag”, which is one of the reasons I really wanted to come back. So this theatre that’s a great slice of Edinburgh in London, I now get to do the Edinburgh show there again. And hopefully, UCB in New York and LA, although that is only in thought.

But I’d love to keep performing it for awhile. [John Kearns], who won newcomer last year, won best show this year, and so the challenge has kind of been set, as to whether or not I can bring a new show back. But I won’t do it unless the similar circumstances are in place, unless the show looks like there’s promise. Because the show wasn’t finished in May, but I recognized in February there was potential. I did a preview at Stand Up Labs in New York where I did an hour and 21 minutes of material, and so from that we cut. But I mean, there was so much that could have gone into it, so we’ll see. And who knows what kind of doors this will open, so the future’s very much uncertain in an exciting way. But yeah, I definitely want to continue the show, and I definitely want to get started writing a new one.

Tell me about the reaction you got here. Do you think there was any resistance to you as an American?

I think there would have been if I had just come over, but I’ve been really entrenched in the comedy scene, so much so that people – people I know well – have the misconception that I live here. I’ve been here since May, and I’ve been over here for one quick trip before then to set up what would be a long move from May to what is now September, and so because so many of them know me, because of so many of these people are sort of in the circuit with me, my peers have been nothing but absolutely delightful. Even my fellow nominees and other competitors, guys who I thought would be and should be on the list, people have been genuinely lovely. Like, long, thought-out conversations, very honest conversations about why the panel and the judges made the decisions that they did, that’s been discussed at length with other folks.

I think I’ve rubbed some critics the wrong way, if I’m being honest, but reading a couple of reviews actually were massively helpful in making decisions about what bits to cut and what bits not to cut. Because like I said, moving over in May was about acclimatizing myself in some way to what British comedy audiences find funny and smart and relevant, and what performers are expected to do here. The ones who have reacted unhappily, none of them have done so out of blind prejudice. It’s just more out of finding an American performance style a little bit objectionable. I mean, I’ve kept that performance style because it’s what I feel is the right way to perform. I’m an American comedian with American influences, but I have taken into account the reaction that it’s had in people, and tried to soften the abruptness of a neurotic New Yorker.

Do you think you would ever stay in the UK permanently?

Well, there are a lot of comedians I know that are bi-coastal that do New York and LA, and I see no reason I couldn’t be bi-coastal and do New York and London. Dave Hill does that quite a lot, Janeane comes over quite a bit, there are a couple of Americans like Tom Rhodes, who’s made a living traveling the world doing comedy. I’m a live comedian and I love doing comedy live, and so for me, they ability to do a hundred and fifty shows in a month is very tempting. So, I don’t see any reason I wouldn’t be here always for Edinburgh, but…I don’t know. I love living in New York City, and New York informs my material and informs my neurosis and it gives everything a context for me as a writer. The show isn’t about being a fish out of water in the UK, even though my club set here very much is influenced by that. And so if that ever changes for me, and I find similar inspiration in London or I find a real home in London, instead of just guest rooms and houses and rented flats in Hackney, then maybe a permanent thing is in the cards, but for now, I’m satisfied splitting time between two places where there is a lot of work and opportunity.

Anything else to add?

I wish more Americans would do Edinburgh, and I wish more Americans would prepare for Edinburgh. Because the couple of Americans that do do Edinburgh, and there are a lot of really great ones, besides Will Franken and maybe a tiny handful, they don’t come over here ready because there’s no preview system. American comics, I think, have to be the strongest comics going, because of what they have to deal with on the road and because of how varied and unusual they have to be to stick out in New York or LA where there’s such a glut of comedy. I think that there are people who would really benefit from coming over with a preview system. Like, the first comedians I know who came over were the Walsh Brothers, and they had a miserable time. And I idolize those guys and I think they’re still insanely funny, but they didn’t have a preview system to work out what they were gonna do here. They just didn’t know. I think we either have to install a preview system in New York, which I think would be a great thing for us and a real boon to the comedy scene, or create a way for Americans to come over, preview for a little while, then head up to Edinburgh. I think it’s a really brilliant resource that goes largely untapped by really great American comics who can make a killing here.

Any idea what you’ll do in the States when you get back?

Well, I’ll go back to the comedy scene. The opportunities that have come in the States out of this have been stuff I can only dream of in New York, like talking to different agents and TV people and bookers for different things and promoters for different things. The industry knows about this; most good agents and managers send representatives. People in New York don’t realize that if you get heat at this festival, there are guys who you would only get to see you once every five years in the States coming to see you over here. This is a trade fair. It’s an amazing artistic place, there’s a lot of comedy here; it is a trade fair. You have a booth and you set it out for an hour every night, and so, if it’s going insanely well, are they not gonna come visit your little stall? It’s an incredible opportunity; once you’re ready to do this, you have to. There’s no excuse. And you can find people that will finance you, if that’s your biggest issue. Or you can do the Free Fringe, where people make money, where Americans make money. I know a couple of Americans who’ve come over and had bad times on the Free Fringe, but I know some who have come over and done great there as well. And I’ve had more industry attention in one week here – before the nomination, even – than I have in a year and a half in the States, and it’s been incredibly invaluable and it’s been insanely exciting. And it’s been artistically rewarding, because there’s no accredited system in New York that lets you know whether or not you’re doing well. And as much as comedians here and in the States bellyache about reviewers, you can reach a consensus. If people who watch comedy are coming to see you, you sort of get a marker of where you are as a comedian from those reviews. I mean, I can’t stress how much I think we’re missing out on this, and I can’t stress how helpful it’s been for me, and I can’t stress how badly I want to come back and do another good show.

Alex Edelman will be performing his show, “Millennial”, in London later this year. He can be found on Twitter at @Alex_Edelman

Elise Czajkowski is a freelance comedy journalist who tweets occasionally at @EliseCz

How to Succeed at Edinburgh Fringe with Alex Edelman