Karen Koren, the founder of the Gilded Balloon, has a very cool office. Overlooking the New Town, the woman responsible for launching the careers of countless comedy greats sits surrounded by pictures of her prodigies. There’s even a poster for Bill Bailey’s ‘Cosmic Jam’ from the time when Fringe tickets were only five or six pounds. Thomas Martin talks to her about her current role in the Gilded Balloon.
“Of course, the official job title is Artistic Director, but I would probably call myself ‘Risk Taker’”, Karen explains, “because what I’m really passionate about, what always drives my programming strategies, is new work. That can often mean new pieces by established people, maybe older comedians presenting new material, or moving in a different direction, but it can also mean that I have to take some risks to find new artists. So every year I fly to Melbourne, Montreal, London; to all these festivals and nights that showcase emerging talent, and I try to bring the best to the Gilded Balloon”.
It all sounds terribly taxing. “Luckily, I have enormous support from a great staff, as well as returning acts who are very loyal. The Gilded Balloon is a family-type organisation, and we like comics and companies that want to come back to us. We have Andy Linden performing this year, and he was with us back in 1987 in a play with Arthur Smith and Caroline Quentin. Sean Hughes is back as well; he was one of the first of those rock and roll comics that the girls all queued up to see. The Balloon is celebrating its 25th year, so I’ve been looking at some photos of Sean from back in the eighties, surrounded by women – and I just can’t see why! Must have been all that Irish charm”.
Karen is famed for fostering the careers of comedy pioneers. We talk for a minute about the current paradigms in comedy, before I ask her who will be the next to redefine its nature. Her finger flicks out immediately, pointing at a framed poster of Flight Of The Conchords’ Folk The World tour: “Those two, absolutely. I remember Rhys Darby’s girlfriend, now wife, telling me all about this New Zealand pair, that they were terrific, and when she told me what they were called, I just laughed and said ‘what a stupid name!’ Then David O’Doherty saw them, and he told Daniel Kitson and all the rest of his underground comic friends, and suddenly all of the Conchords’ audiences were these incredible comedians, and the message began to filter down that these two were amazing – so I just had to have them at the Fringe”.
“You see a lot of people, usually younger comics, trying to do what they do – and failing, of course. They’re funny because of who they are, because of the relationship between them, and comedy must be unique to the person who’s doing it”.
Karen has a busy year ahead, touring Doon MacKichan’s ‘Primadoona’ to America and Australia, as well as around the UK – but there’s more! “Gilded Balloon is instrumental in promoting and developing the Scottish comedy circuits, particularly in less central areas, like Inverness, Aberdeen, and St Andrews. So far the response has been great, although the smaller venues aren’t coming out as much as they could be. We’re also organising all of Tim Minchin’s Scottish dates. His stadium tour is going to be quite incredible – he’s supported by an entire orchestra!”
As long as Karen Koren continues working, it seems that the Scottish comedy scene has all the support it will need.
Photo: Steve Ullathorne