When late American comedienne Joan Rivers made her debut at the Glasgow International Comedy Festival, she didn’t ask for much in return – just a couple of basic dressing room demands: “some oxygen and an armed guard”. As you do.
That was more than a decade ago, but Rivers’ bizarre request still tickles festival director Sarah Watson. “It made me laugh when Joan Rivers’ backstage requirements came in,” she recalled. “She (Rivers) was quite explicit – she wanted an armed guard and oxygen. It was quite unusual as most backstage demands at the comedy festival rarely go beyond an ironing board and iron. But it was very Joan. I know she definitely didn’t get the armed guard. As for the oxygen, well, I’m not sure whether that demand was met either. But Joan was always a delight to have at the festival. She was so witty and sharp and the audiences loved her. She was a total professional…one who wanted an armed guard – and that still makes me laugh.”
Now in its 14th year, the annual event is Europe’s biggest comedy-only festival, growing from selling 22,000 tickets when it launched in 2003 to 70,000 in 2016.
The Glasgow International Comedy Festival (GLICF) runs for 18 days in March and features over 400 acts from stand-up and sketch shows to film, theatre, workshops, kids’ shows and discussions – all hosted in up to 50 venues across the city.
And as Watson explained, organising the programme is quite a task.
“It really is a year-long affair,” she said. “The brochure launches in January so there’s a hell of a lot of work that needs to be done beforehand. “We need to book the acts, the venues and all our agreements with sponsors, travel and hotel partners need to be finalised and signed off well in advance.”
In addition to attracting a host of acts from overseas, it offers a platform to upcoming Scottish comics who could be overlooked in the fiercely competitive Edinburgh Fringe.
Household names are also a staple with famous faces such as Jimmy Carr, Dylan Moran, Frankie Boyle and Julian Clary returning year after year to entertain the crowds.
But what sets Glasgow apart from other cities in the comedy ranks? And more importantly, how does the festival compare to the likes of comedy shows at the Edinburgh Fringe?
“I think we have a better sense of humour in Glasgow,” said Watson with a chuckle. “Glasgow is home to great comedy talent. We have Frankie Boyle and Billy Connolly to name but two. And Glaswegians are renowned for having a good, healthy sense of humour. We don’t take ourselves too seriously and I think we have a more up-for-anything attitude. Some people do have preconceptions about Glasgow, but I’m yet to find one person who doesn’t come here and immediately fall in love with the place. It’s a wonderful city – it has so much outlook.”
And talking of that comedy legend that is Billy Connolly, has he ever graced the stage at GLICF? Apparently not, but he’s at the top of Watson’s wish list.
“We’ve been trying for years to get Connolly,” she said. “I would love for him to perform here but, so far, we haven’t managed it. But we’ll keep on trying. There are a few on my wish list, another act I’d love to secure is American comedienne Amy Schumer. She’s amazing and very, very funny. Maybe one day we’ll have her and Connolly in our line-up. Now that would be great.”
Watson is expecting another bumper turn out at next year’s festival and, asked whether Brexit will have an impact on sales, she replied: “No, I don’t think so. After the year we’ve had, I think folk could do with a good old laugh.”
The GLICF gets underway on March 9 and runs until March 26 and, again, will feature some of Scotland’s best home grown talent alongside world renowned stars.
Among those acts featuring this year are Fred MacAulay, Des Clarke, Janey Godley, Jimmy Carr, Al Murray and Stewart Lee.
So far, none of the aforementioned have requested an armed guard or oxygen. But then again, it’s early days.