Using shock tactics at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is less likely to garner publicity in this desensitised media age, argues PR guru Mark Borkowski
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is nearly upon us. And to prove it, should proof be needed, the first stunt of the summer has aroused a flurry of media interest and rattled the comedy commentariat.
It’s not surprising that there has been a fuss, given that the stuntster, comedian Lewis Schaffer, chose to hang the stunt on a surgical strike at the heart of Edinburgh, attributing some deeply scurrilous quotes to the dame of the theatrical aristocracy, producer Nica Burns.
A cheap trick worthy of a chuckle, but little more, considering how hard and passionately Burns works for the fringe cause. Schaffer sent a press release, purporting to be from Burns, claiming that the old If.comedy-nee-Perrier Awards were to be rebranded the ‘Lewies’ in honour of their new sponsor Lewis Schaffer, claiming that the comedian had offered £99 to be their sponsor and they’d accepted.
The press release – a dazzling piece of subtle yet blatant self-promotion – had one major flaw. It hacked off the hand that feeds Edinburgh comedy.
“Who we associate with is critical,” the press release had Burns announcing. “Comedians are as racist and xenophobic as the rest of us and the British don’t like the French. Yes, Lewis Schaffer is an American and we don’t like them either, even with Obama, but Lewis has lived here so long and has achieved so little, he’s become one of us. We gladly accepted his offer of £99 a year for sponsorship.”
Schaffer even suggested his 82-year-old mother would be on the judging panel. Burns chose to respond with a demand for a full apology and retraction from Schaffer and his agents, which Schaffer quickly sent – making clear that his agents had no part in the stunt – but it was too little, too late. Schaffer has lost his agent Mike Leigh as a consequence and will be arriving in Edinburgh with plenty of ink, but with poorer representation, some key enemies and fewer friends than he might have hoped for.
Burns’ response is of the sort that stunts rely on to get oxygen to the flames of publicity, but it’s getting harder to come by in a more knowing world. Authority is wiser and not as quick to be debagged in public. Great stunts are being castrated because the influential elite doesn’t react. You can create something spectacular, but if people are too smart to respond, there is no point. The press and the public have wised up and people are wary of stunts.
It’s good, then, that there’s a new award in this online, 24/7 news age, solely aimed at celebrating the art of the publicity stunt. Alongside the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality, there will also be the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award. Hardee was a notorious stuntster – he once wrote a glowing review of his own show and had it published in The Scotsman by masquerading as the newspaper’s comedy critic.
One early contender for stunt of theyear in 2009 is Shed Simove, The Ideas Man. Simove will be manufacturing all of his publicity material on lavatory paper and placing it in public conveniences all around Edinburgh, rightly assessing the absolute captivity of the audience he is aiming for. He calls it Pooblicity.
The ‘original’ fringe stunt reputedly took place in the sixties when, apparently, a beautiful naked woman was pushed down Princes Street in a wheelbarrow. This, the story goes, secured a large crowd, a conviction for indecency and copious ticket-shifting headlines. But it’s all a myth. The true story is that a rather highbrow seminar – “Where is Theatre Going?” – at the Usher Hall concluded with an ultra-modern work involving an undressed patient in a wheelchair.
Another shameful event in publicity terms was again in the sixties – a show by La Mama called Futz, which featured scenes of full-on bestiality that were so risque it’s still deeply surprising that the Lord Chamberlain gave the show a licence at all.
And let’s not forget a member of Archaos we invented, named Zanouk al Habib. Zanouk failed to appear at Edinburgh in 1990 because his conscience had told him to fight for Iraq in the first Gulf War. I made the front page of TheSun with that one.
Edinburgh is a poorer place for publicists since the demise of those old stand-bys, Mary Whitehouse and councillor Moira Knox, who could always be relied upon to whoop up a storm about filth and outrage, and no one has weighed in as a replacement for the post of moral arbiter.
Now it’s time for subtlety and an acknowledgement that comedy, and Edinburgh in general, is big (show) business.
“Edinburgh has got a bit serious about comedy,” counters the Malcolm Hardee Awards’ John Fleming. “We want to put the fun and anarchy back into the fringe.”
He has a point, but it’s worth noting that the great Hollywood publicists, whose lives and stunts I have written about in The Fame Formula, nearly always managed to intermingle big business with humorous, anarchic stunts that got the point across.
It’s still going to be tough for anyone wanting to get ink. The festival’s standing as a media priority has waned. Whatever the reasons, fewer national journalists are travelling north in search of the fun Edinburgh has to offer and there are fewer tales they can run with which to justify their expenses. Times have changed and risk has little or no place. Publicity is going to have to be cheaper and considerably more inventive.
Schaffer has the right idea – to get under the skin and cause a reaction – but his aim is off. Burns, who has a genuine heart for comedy and the festival, is not someone you want to irritate.
It’s time to forge a new, subtler way of working that makes Edinburgh a thrilling place to be – full of comedy, literature, music, theatre and extraordinary stunts. I for one have an eye on the digital canvas.
• Mark Borkowski’s book on the history of the great entertainment publicists, The Fame Formula: How Hollywood’s Fixers, Fakers and Star-Makers Created the Celebrity Industry, is published by Pan Macmillan