Why The World Needs Altitude Comedy Festival More Than Ever Before
Andrew Maxwell talks frankly about the evolution of the funniest show on snow
Words by James Renhard | Main image by Altitude Comedy Festival
“He's a mountain warrior, you know. He grabs me by the lederhosen, drags me onto all fours, and starts milking me like a cow, using the Lederhosen as udders. And he's yodelling! The crew are just losing their minds with the sheer weirdness of it. And he's carrying on like this is exactly what he's been hired to do. Drag a man to his knees and then milk him like a cow."
This isn’t a pharmaceutically-enhanced, nightmarish vision endured by Hunter S. Thompson. This is just a regular day in the life of Andrew Maxwell, one of the three men behind the Altitude Comedy Festival.
I’m sure Michael Eavis doesn’t have to put up with this.
Altitude Comedy Festival is an annual gathering of some of the world’s best comedians who perform a week of live shows in Mayrhofen, Austria.
When I first heard of Altitude, which is now a decade old,I was immediately struck by two conflicting thoughts; firstly, mixing a week of skiing and snowboarding with a week of comedy seems like an incredible idea. Something so obvious I’m genuinely amazed that there aren’t more festivals of its kind in the same way there are now a thousand mainstream music festivals.
"A lot of the comedians who come out, do it because it rekindles the fun."
And yet, on the other hand, I wasn’t sure the two elements really mix. Sure, they’re not mutually exclusive, but there seems to be little cross-over when comparing the demographic of a comedy gig and that found in a ski town.
Given skiing and snowboarding are such euphoric things to do – hell, just being in the mountains can be an ecstatic experience - I began to wonder if a week of comedy would add to, or detract from it. Can you make people any happier than when they’re in the hills?
I headed to Austria to meet Andrew Maxwell, and find out.
Altitude has its origins in the most famous comedy festival in the world; The Edinburgh Fringe. “Next to the Edinburgh Festival, there's a dry ski slope called Hillend, the longest in Europe, in suburban Edinburgh," says Altitude co-founder and stand-up comic Andrew Maxwell.
“I got a bunch of my comedian mates who were at the Fringe that year to try snowboarding. I brought Marcus Brigstocke, Ross Noble, Jason Burn and a few others, out to Hillend. And of all the guys who went out there, Marcus got completely addicted to snowboarding."
Already being an avid rider himself, this made Maxwell realise he wanted to combine his two loves; comedy and snowboarding. Together, Andrew Maxwell, Marcus Brigstocke, and promoter and businessman, Brett Vincent started putting on gigs in Meribel, France.
“We did that for eight years, and it just became Altitude in Meribel. We were there for the first three years, then through our connections with Snowbombing, we got a much better offer from the Austrians - a welcoming people," adds Maxwell with a look that suggests the same could not be said of their previous hosts, “And we've been in Mayrhofen ever since."
"The comedians who come back most regularly get paid in Jager-bombs and hand jobs."
But surely there’s a large distinction between coming out to the Alps, doing a gig and fitting in some snowboarding, and organising a multi-language, international comedy festival on foreign soil. Why make the leap? “It came with the expansion of comedy festivals full stop."
“30, even 15 years ago, there was really only the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. And now you can have three festivals in one weekend in the UK. And people go away [to a ski resort] for a week anyway. They're in the unit time of a festival. So, it made sense. I mean, it doesn't make financial sense, you understand." I do wonder if Andrew Maxwell’s laugh as he mentions money has a hint of the gallows about it.
“It’s a labour of love," Maxwell admits. “If you're going to put all of your weight behind something, it has to be love. In show business, you make your money on a Wednesday night in a conference centre just outside Nuneaton. That's where you make your living. Altitude’s a beano, like I say. Just enjoying life. Scheduled pleasure."
“All the guys - as I say, it was me and Marcus that started it, but there are a lot of guys who are regulars - who are working for us at basically mates rates." Later in the evening he jokes that some of the comedians who come back most regularly do so in return for Jager-bombs and hand jobs. “Make sure you include that!" he insists, banging the table with his fist.
As it’s grown, since it was first conceived in 2006, Altitude has attracted some of the biggest names in British comedy. Eddie Izzard, Al Murray, Tim Minchin, Jimmy Carr, Rich Hall, Bill Bailey and Sean Lock have all played in recent years. It’s a veritable who’s-who of top-end comedy talent.
Given these are names who regularly sell out nation-wide stadium tours, how difficult is it to convince them to come to a small, snow-covered town in the Austrian Alps? Surely shots of strong, medicinal-tasting liquor alone don’t cut it.
“The great irony is that the bigger you get in anything, the less fun you have. There's more responsibility, and there's obviously more remuneration but comedy is a very social thing. There's always an MC, and three other acts so you're always in a car with three other people. You'll have company."
"But the bigger you get, when you're selling out arenas, you end up in the situation where there are less people. You're not in a fun environment. So, a lot of the comedians who come out, come out because it rekindles that fun."
Andrew and I are joined briefly by Brett Vincent, another third of the trio that, along with Marcus Brigstocke, founded Altitude. While Maxwell and Brigstocke are comedians, Vincent oversees the business side of the festival. While he’s there, Maxwell’s impish energy is subtly more subdued, like a misbehaving school child sitting quietly while the teacher walks past.
“People come for the camaraderie. And, unlike The Edinburgh Festival, there’s no pressure," suggests Vincent, picking up on the theme. “Everybody is around their friends, doing what they love. That’s all." He adds, before disappearing off into the night again.
Sitting and talking with Andrew Maxwell is a surreal experience. It’s like having a private audience at a show intended for 250 people. It’s intense, but somehow relaxing. Every statement is delivered with sharp wit, something you’d expect on stage but maybe not in person. His words seem somehow chaotic, yet precise, arguably not unlike the festival itself.
It’s hard to tell if it was Maxwell’s charm, the mountain air, or the glasses of Stiegl, but I felt myself becoming more and more convinced that holding a comedy festival in a small Alpine town is the most sensible idea imaginable.
In a bid to add objectivity to my own thoughts, I start to ask about the problems that Altitude must have had to overcome since those individual gigs in France turned into the festival of today. After all, Altitude began right at the start of the global financial crash and UK recession. More recently, the Brexit vote has led to the value of the pound crashing.
Mention of the word ‘Brexit’ immediately lit a fire in Maxwell’s eyes. “Instantly, with Brexit, it's added an extra 20 per cent cost to all Euro-denominated holidays. The people who were never going to come out here. Old cunts. Rural old cunts who voted to leave. They were never going to come out here anyway." Maxwell seemed to be in his element, mixing the most troubling current affairs with blistering comedy.
“People need a laugh! Also, for people to get, for want of a different term, political humour, they have to be concentrating on these things. And the rise of populism has literally popularised politics. For better or for worse, people are talking about it. People are sure as shit talking about the US election more than whether Obama was going to beat Mick Romney or not."
And what of the future of Altitude. What impact does this financial, political, and social uncertainty have on a comedy festival in the Austrian Alps? Will we still be coming back in another ten years? Maxwell is philosophical.
“Literally, we're in the lap of the Gods, year on year. I have no idea. The will is there from the comedians, and the locals. It's just a case of seeing how much the Tsar, Brexit, and The Hulkster can fuck our world up."
"But, who know?. At the end of the day, there's the will of the town, and every single year we make friends with loads of other resorts. And it's a mixture of good clean fun." After a beat, he adds, laughing “And dirty fun! The two funs."
The night continued as we headed to The Scotland Yard pub across the other side of Mayrhofen, amid tall tales of festivals gone by. The first Altitude in Meribel saw the local authorities temporarily shut the festival down when an unseasonably large dump of snow made the marquee where the stage was unsafe to use.
“We had to get the fire brigade to hose the roof down, and because it’s France, it’s a great fucking expense. Now if I’d have burnt the fucker down, they’d have come out for free!" roars Maxwell.
There was also the story of being milked by a local who was hired to do nothing more than yodel, and the time he persuaded Brigstocke to climb into a heating duct, unaware of whether he’d survive the experience, when they were both giddy with the stress of running the festival one year.
I wanted to know if a comedy festival could add to the experience of coming to the Alps, or if it would detract from it, and after just a few days at Altitude the answer was clear. Comedy and spending the day up a mountain do remain two distinct worlds, but ones that can, and do sit together very happily.
But more importantly, maybe now more than ever, whatever your political leaning, the constant drone of negative, distressing, and depressing news from every angle needs to be countered.
We – the people – need a laugh more than we have for a generation, maybe longer. And three men and their comedy festival may not be able to change the world, but for one week in Austria every year, they can definitely make you happy.