Terry Alderton & Catriona Knox on Fringe stress

Terry Alderton and Catriona Knox on enduring the intense pressure comedians face in Edinburgh

Feature by Jenni Ajderian | 28 Jul 2017

In the comedy world we’re increasingly seeing performers introduce us to their inner demons. Yet there is a cruel irony in choosing to bare your lonely soul to a crowd of strangers at the world’s biggest performing arts festival – digging through your own mind for material (and revisiting that material night after night) is a recipe for extreme stress. So much so in fact that, in 2010, anthropologist Mark de Rond formally studied stress at the Fringe in general, and as experienced by two comics in particular: Terry Alderton and Catriona Knox.

Seven years on, both Alderton and Knox have had breaks from the Fringe, racking up TV and radio appearances, with each writing brand new shows. “It does feel weird not being there,” Knox tells us – it’s her first Edinburgh show since 2014. “But I’ve done some exciting things in the interim, and it’s nice to not have Edinburgh be the sole focus.”

Of course, it’s impossible for a comedy show to be your sole focus: real life still demands attention, and both Knox and Alderton speak about the dangers of ‘The Edinburgh Bubble’. Alderton explains: “I was up one year when they had the riots [the London riots of August 2011]... it was like it never happened in Edinburgh.” For this year, he and musical partner Johnny Spurling have a careful plan involving morning runs, trips to the seaside and steam rooms to keep away cabin fever.

For Knox, the bubble can still provide an escape from stresses elsewhere in life, and those stresses can themselves help with writing a show. “You think, what I want to do now is do the most fun show I can, because you’re feeling like dogshit. You’re stressed out about what’s happening in your personal life, and that’s the most important thing. Edinburgh then pales into insignificance, so you’re freed up to have whatever ideas you like.”

Alderton’s show All Crazy Now is his first since 2013, and draws from his recent Radio 4 series. As well as not having the chance to re-record a live show, Alderton points out that stress can start before walking on stage, and isn’t dispelled by the performance. “Even before you’ve walked on you’re telling yourself you’re going to die. I think everybody goes through that angst. Then there’s no closure with stand-up, because the next night you have to go out and do it again.”

The time between performances is essential for celebrating or commiserating, and the community of comedians at the Festival can provide a good support network, says Alderton: “There’s an honour among thieves there. Most people are helpful to each other, I don’t think people really gossip.”

Knox started out as part of sketch troupe The Boom Jennies, and has found writing and performing solo a strange dichotomy in terms of stress. “You’ve only got yourself to rely on if you stand or fall, so in some ways that’s more stressful. When there’s a team, you can just laugh about it, whereas if it’s just you, you can internalise it. But there is something that makes you feel more empowered, and the more you do Edinburgh the more you know what’s going to work.”

Mark de Rond’s study concluded that a network of friends is essential to surviving the Fringe as a comedian, whether you’re doing a show together or not. A certain amount of self-belief is also key to many a successful Edinburgh show. Though it might seem counter-intuitive, it sounds like the best way to have an enjoyable show is not to get hung up on the audience enjoying themselves.

“The timings, knowing how to mess with people’s minds, I know how to do all that,” Alderton explains, as he enters his 28th year of performing comedy. “Whether you like what I’m saying is a different thing.”

As long as it is technically good, the reaction of a particular audience – who may be steeped in either rain or whisky – shouldn’t matter too much, and stops being the main source of stress. “I know the tricks. I know what I’m doing," he says. "I create the chaos."

Terry Alderton: All Crazy Now, Pleasance Courtyard (Cabaret Bar), 2-27 Aug (not 14), 10.40pm, £7.50-£11
Catriona Knox: Adorable Deplorable, Pleasance Dome (Jack Dome), 2-28 Aug (not 15), 6.50pm, £7-£11