coming to the Edinburgh Fringe. Ben Thompson asks, Why?
THE SATURNINE, weather-beaten face of American comedian Rich Hall is not given to great displays of emotion. But when he sees someone he knows coming towards his pavement-cafe table, he throws his sun hat in the air to catch their attention, and a flock of little bits of paper with phone numbers and appointments written on flutters to the ground around him. Hall's air of benign disorganisation makes a likeable counterpoint to the solidity of his comedic reputation. Given the alarmingly broad spectrum of human endeavour on show in Edinburgh this year, it is hard tosay for certain, but it seems unlikely that any other Festival debutant will already have received an award from the American Museum of Broadcasting for their "body of work".
One of America's funniest and most respected stand-up performers, Hall has won an Emmy for his writing on The David Letterman Show, was a regular on Saturday Night Live at the same time as Billy Crystal, and in his rare moments of repose lives in a ranch in Montana. Why then should he want to come to Britain, to do shows in a place where nobody knows who he is? When Hall claims to "really like" small crowds, it's with a conviction only credible from someone not used to performing to them. "It's great," he maintains in his persuasive outdoors drawl, "because the audience immediately has a bond with you: they're thinking, `The poor guy - thank God we're here'."
It's not just that Hall enjoys the challenge of winning over a new constituency, he is also fed up with people in his home country laughing at him automatically because they've seen him on TV. In the US, he observes, "There's a remote- control mentality: `Where's the joke? Where's the joke?' People are into the rhythm more than the material." His first real taste of British audiences, toughening up his Edinburgh set around London and the South-east earlier this year, left him surprisingly impressed: "Even in some of these wild pubs where you get the feeling that people could turn on you at any moment, you still get these incre- dible quiet spots where people are really paying attention even if they've had three or four lagers."
Hall repays the compliment by taking care to ensure the accuracy of any references to the culture of which he is a guest. He was over here during his old boss David Letterman's recent week of British transmissions and thought they were "a huge waste of his talent" - lazily directed at the folks back home, rather than at an eager new UK viewership. Hall prefers to try and get under the skin of his host nation, commenting for example on the schizophrenia of Londoners: "In the daytime they're reasonably polite, then at night they just come spilling out of the pubs like drunken salmon, spewing upstream towards the kebab shops." Scotland awaits his verdict with some trepidation.
Many comedians zero in on loneliness and personal misfortune, but few do it to such emotive effect as this man: "Rejected more times than a baboon heart at Houston Medical Centre." Hall's hangdog expression gets him hailed in the street by well-meaning strangers, who exclaim, "Hey there, sad fella." His exceptionally amusing advice book, Self Help for the Bleak, is hard to find in this country, but fortunately a fair bit of it seeps into his act. As well as revealing "why it's so difficult to distinguish between a well-rounded person and a big fat zero", this worthy volume also dispenses invaluable tips on building self-esteem, such as placing outrageously self-aggrandising ads in lonely-hearts columns and rounding them off with: "Stare all you want folks, it ain't for sale."
Hall is a tricky comedian to place. There is a hint of Woody Allen in some of his best material, while his no-nonsense individualism - "If my horses were kids they'd have run away from home by now to escape the neglect" - sometimes calls to mind the designer ruggedness of Denis Leary. He is also one of the world's more unlikely vegetarians. As if this weren't enough, he does tricks with Perspex too.
This last accomplishment is probably a hangover from his earliest days in showbusiness. Like our own Eddie Izzard, Rich Hall started out as a street entertainer. Way back in the dark and distant late Seventies, he left behind a creative-writing course in Seattle to travel America with a broken movie camera, trying to persuade passers-by to act out crowd scenes. He made it to New York, saw Jerry Seinfeld at the Comedy Store at the dawn of the post-Steve Martin US club boom, and decided to move his act indoors. Much as in this country, the growth of comedy as an industry in America has not always been accompanied by rising standards: "Anybody who doesn't want to lift stuff becomes a comic now," Hall observes caustically.
His own appetite for the business seems miraculously undiminished. "To me," he asserts in downbeat visionary mode, "stand-up is just this evolving kind of amorphous thing that changes every time you do it, depending on what new piece of material you put in there, or how you rearrange something ..." Hall pauses, then adds with unnerving sincerity: "And if I don't get on stage when the sun goes down and ply my craft, I kind of feel like the day was a waste."
! Rich Hall: Edinburgh Fringe Club Studio, 0131 226 5138, to 2 Sept (not 21 & 31 Aug), 9pm.