We Can Be Heroes: Bob Slayer on the Edinburgh Fringe

Panel Prize winner Bob Slayer chats to us about what makes a Heroes show as his Fringe empire expands in 2017

Feature by Ben Venables | 27 Jul 2017

It is hard to imagine how Bob Slayer can top his 2016 Fringe. The collaborative venture Iraq Out and Loud – a volunteer-led reading of all 20 volumes of the Chilcot Report, in a shed, next to the BlundaBus – picked up the Panel Prize from the Comedy Award judges. Now, the Heroes boss has programmed an ever more astonishing roster, and adds Monkey Barrel Comedy Club to its empire. How did Slayer convince Barrel chief Ben Verth to allow him near the still shiny new premises?

"I went in last year when they were using the one room," says Slayer, "and I thought it was a lovely space. So, we met in September and it was very easy to work together. They are running the club all year round and want to concentrate on that, while I can concentrate on the Fringe. We've exceeded all our expectations. I thought we could get a good line-up, but, as you can see, well, I'm so pleased with it."

No wonder Slayer is beaming. To take four back-to-back shows in Monkey Barrel, John Kearns (Don't Worry They're Here, 5pm) returns for the first time since 2014 – after winning the Comedy Award and Best Newcomer in consecutive years. Also propping up at the Barrel is breakthrough act Spencer Jones (The Audition, 6.20pm), and, in another of Slayer's coups, he's attracted established figures Glenn Wool (Viva Forever, 7.40pm) and Phil Nichol (Your Wrong, 9pm).

"In Spencer Jones' first year, he was playing to about 20 people," says Slayer, "but he'd established something and he grew as a performer. He likes doing the Fringe because he has complete creative control. He's doing well with TV now, but the Fringe is different. And growing creatively as a performer is the environment Phil Nichol and Glenn Wool want to be in.

"I'm talking for other people here, but Glenn came and did a week's work-in-progress last year. He didn't know much about how Heroes worked. On the first day he was, 'What's this? There's no green room?'. Well, I'm exaggerating. I just mean it was different for him. But then he thought that everyone was lovely, and the audiences were lovely. So, there is no reason why he wouldn't come back. And I know other venues were desperate to get him this year."

Nichol and Wool are not the only big names moving into Heroes: "Another this year is Carl Donnelly. He rang me and said, 'Bob, I want to do the bus'."

This figures, given Donnelly's show title this year – The Nutter on the Bus (BlundaBus, 7.30pm) – but the idea to play the double-decker came after he saw a Heroes show. "He told me he'd seen David Quirk and thought, 'David is having more fun at the Fringe than I've had in a long time. I want to do that.' He wanted a complete change, a small venue, he didn't want to bother with the posters and publicity."

If there is a secret to Heroes' successes over the last few years, it's that Slayer has helped foster a collegiate atmosphere. "I heard someone moan about me, they said 'the thing with Bob Slayer is he only books his friends'. But, why would I want to book people in I don't get on with? Also, I love making new friends!

"When I first booked Spencer, we'd never met. But various people – like Joe Davies and Adam Larter, of the Heroes family – had said to me, 'You've got to have Spencer, he's brilliant'. I knew he'd fit in straight away. Then there are others who come out the blue. This year we've got The Elvis Dead [Monkey Barrel, midnight]. What was nice about when I was chatting to Rob [Kemp], was he said he'd come and read Chilcot twice. Anyone who has done that is already part of the gang. Now, I wanted to put him in anyway because I'd seen him do an amazing show. But I have had people ask who I knew would also have amazing shows, but I've thought: 'No, you're going to rub people up the wrong way.' It's not worth it. The vibe we have is fantastic."

And Heroes' model, which helps acts avoid some of the worst financial hardships at the Fringe is also key not only to staying solvent, but also to staying sane. "One thing I think that makes a difference," says Slayer, "is that if someone is having a good year at Heroes, everyone else is supportive because they are doing OK too. If you've got costs which mean you're going to lose £2,000-£3,000, then you see one act that is doing better than you, it makes you think, 'Why them?'.

"You then start to see the faults in them and their show, and it makes people bitter, rather than being supportive. It becomes very competitive. When you take the risks out of the equation, it is different."