The Art of the Anecdote

On Thursday, I went to see the new Gyles Brandreth show Break a Leg, which is running at the Edinburgh Fringe until Sunday 26 August.

In his career as a writer, broadcaster and former Member of Parliament, he’s become friends with a number of people in the worlds of entertainment and politics. The show talks about his acquaintance with a few of them, from June Whitfield to Frankie Howard.

The show is listed in the Comedy section of the brochure as there are a lot of laughs. Yet it isn’t stand-up, nor is it bragging. Rather, he uses his privileged access to these well-known figures and tells humorous anecdotes about them in his slightly camp fashion.

By User of Waffle TV YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/waffIeTvUK/) [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Gyles Brandreth in 2013
As such, his material is strong. The show could run for two hours and there would still be more to tell, and the audience would probably lap it up. But not everyone has such great anecdotes.

In 2007, I went to an event featuring Clive Swift, who played Richard Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances. He specifically didn’t want to discuss his sitcom days. Instead, he was there to tell us about his theatre career and how he’d worked with prominent stage actors such as Peter O’Toole.

It quickly became apparent, however, that he’d worked with these notable thespians only in supporting roles and that he was trying to turn minor episodes into a big deal. He was certainly never friends with them. One anecdote, for example, involved meeting Sir Laurence Olivier by chance in a theatre bathroom and hearing some worldly advice from him.

The only factor that saved Swift’s show from being a total train wreck was his skill on the trombone, accompanied by a pianist called Claire Greenway. Had it been a musical event with those minor stories peppered between songs, it might have worked well.

A review from the Scotsman newspaper very much captures the essence of the performance; scroll down past the review of Pete Firman to read it.

The lesson here is to make sure your material stands up to some scrutiny. Many performers – especially comedians – like to arrange preview shows, often to an audience who have paid a special reduced price for a ticket. This approach is invaluable for ironing out any kinks in the material and a useful guideline for how listeners will react at different parts of the script.

Additionally, there’s a lot to be said for having an honest friend or professional who can listen to your show to tell you what works and which parts need strengthening.

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