Winner Profile: Altitude Comedy Festival

Mountain top lunchtime silent disco...naturally. Image is copyright Anthony Upton 2023©.

What does it take to win Best Overseas Festival at the UK Festival Awards? The simple answer is votes, not the most votes, it’s all about the proportion of your audience that feels like showing you the love, it kind of levels the playing field between larger and smaller festivals.

In 2022, Altitude Comedy festival’s Audience showed the love and they were crowned winners. We went along and talked to the main protagonists to find out where it came from, where it is and where it’s going… metaphorically rather than geographically, given their love for its current location.

Before taking a trip back to the Altitude’s genesis, we have to talk location: Mayrhofen, it’s beautiful, an Austrian Alpine idyll, nestling in the Zillertal (the Ziller river valley) in the Tyrol region of Austria, 2077ft above sea level, between two (at the time of visiting) snow-capped mountains, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a ski resort, but it’s so much more. Sure, if strapping your feet to one or two planks is you bag, there’s everything you need, from absolute beginner to absolute nutter, but as the ski season draws to a close, it reveals more opportunity to partake in a more diverse range of activities and, once a year, immerse yourself in a fine array of comedic talent delivering unique, special performances.

Catching up with two of Altitudes founding fathers, comedians Marcus Brigstocke and Andrew Maxwell, we’re offered a history lesson as well as an interesting insight into the connection that comics have with snow sports.

Brigstocke tells us how and why Altitude began.

The whole point of this, to begin with, is that I love being in the mountains, so I set gigs up with a guy. I literally phoned a venue that I’d been to once, called Dick’s Tea Bar and I said, ‘Could I speak to your manager’? This guy picked up the phone and I went: ‘Look, you don’t know who I am, but I’m on Radio 4, occasionally on the telly – it was very early in my career – and I think stand-up would work in the Alps. He said, ‘oh, interesting thought, give me a week, let me think about it’. He called me like a week later and he said, ‘come and do it’.

“That first one was in Chamonix and that was it, there were just gigs for ages 6 or 7 years. And he (Maxwell) and I were probably, more so than anyone else, just passionate about it, mostly about the being in the mountains thing. But as comics, I would say my experience was that every comic who came had this, this sort of weird, I don’t want to overstate it, but like a transformation in themselves that they’d all done this thing all day, whether it was going for a walk on a mountain top or skiing or snowboarding or sledging or whatever, they all seemed a bit changed by it.

Brigstocke and Maxwell, founding fathers.
Pic: Andy Lenthall

Everybody’s approach to it, be they walkers, skiers, snowboarders or whatever, the one thing we all have in common is comedy, everybody just seems to love it. The list of people who’ve been, and there’s hundreds now, and who don’t like it at all, I think is maybe one. And that’s Lee Mack; mostly because of the journey to get to the Alps, he didn’t want to fly, and they tried to come by train. It took him about 42 hours, he never really forgave the mountains for that failure. But everybody else loves it.”

Was it just a nice earner while you were enjoying the mountains?

(Maxwell laughs)If we ever hit break even, we’ll let you know”

Maxwell offers an explanation:

“There’s something strange in comedians, it doesn’t matter whether they’re stand ups, improv, or character, and that’s pretty much your three types, but there’s a moment where we all relish being ultimately alone; right there, in the spotlight, the limelight, where there’s no way out, you must do it. And that is every turn on a snowboard, there’s no way out, you’re in God’s limelight, you’re in the Alps; you’re literally on top of the world, looking down on creation and every turn you’d better fucking try. I mean, that was not intended, we discovered that with time, it’s a happy coincidence.”

Brigstocke:You have to be 100% in the moment, whether you’re rattling down a hill on some plank or other, or on stage, there is a weirdly similar feeling to it. It’s really strange.”

Maxwell:And there’s also like the pleasure of introducing people to a new thing. A few years ago Tim Minchin was out here, he’d never snowboarded before.”

Brigstocke:And as well as the considerable talent the man has, he learned to snowboard proficiently in under an hour. We said ‘presumably you were a surfer, were you, Tim? He said ‘no, I never took to it’ Christ alive man.”

Maxwell: I even saidWere you writing songs when you were coming down that mountain? You where weren’t you? And he replied… ‘of course!’.”

As well as introducing comics to snow sports, was there a sense of introducing comedy to the apres-ski world?

Brigstocke: “I was amazed that stand up wasn’t already a thing considering how big it was then and when you think how many venues do Après as a thing. Sometimes it’s a DJ, but very often it’s live entertainment and none of it had been comedy until we did it and that amazes me.”

And when did this feel like a festival rather than a series of gigs?

Brigstocke: “It was 2007. It was just before the financial crash of 2008, it just reached a critical mass where it felt like a festival, that was in Meribel. The people loved it, they got it and they came en masse. We had a circus big top that we put up in the car park; we also threw it out to the village and said, ‘listen, if you own a venue and you want any part of this, have a show, we will put one on for you’, because we wanted it to be as expansive as possible. And that was good and bad. The audiences went mad for it but, unfortunately, the way the town is run, in terms of the actual festival element of it, it was an opportunity, with some British people, to just cream money out of us. That wasn’t everybody, but it was enough that after a while we went, ‘we just can’t do this, we can’t do business with you’. There were four of us, just mates, we’d all agreed to put up an amount of money and it wiped out all four of us.

The attitude here [in Mayrhofen] from the get go has been – and these are all businesses, it all has to work – it’s been ‘how can we help you facilitate it?’ There’s something in the Austrian mindset.”

Do you see Meribel as a mistake to learn from?

Brigstocke: “We learned loads; in fact the festival nearly hit break even in the second year, so the turnaround was extraordinary when you consider it, a huge success. But still, the hill we had to climb in France was too steep, so Brett [Vincent] then came on board. We all knew Brett anyway, he’s an amazing guy, he’s extraordinary. His stuff at the Edinburgh Festival from the first time he did it, he just seemed to get… How do you do this? How do you make all these things happen? How do you get all the right people in the right place, facing the right way and everyone’s aware of what they’re doing? He’s just a master craftsman, so he came on board as I kind of stepped back from the business side of it. And thank God he did, he’s been amazing.”

You also seem to have struck gold with the location.

Brigstocke: “I think we have, for so many reasons, not least because of geography, the flat valley base means people who are not skiing all day, every day are very happy here because it’s beautiful. I mean, Heidi’s right around the corner, wherever you are, about to come gambolling out of a little sheep barn in a dirndl.

“The food is amazing and a bit different, most people have eaten French food and Italian food and stuff. Not many people have had strudel, schnitzel and all that kind of stuff.  So yeah, we have struck gold here and it seems to be a very good fit being the week before Snowbombing. I wish I was still the right age for Snowbombing but I know I’m not. But the atmosphere is sublime for me.”

Talking about atmosphere, I’m sensing an incredibly positive one between the performers.

Brigstocke: “Yeah, the hardest thing with this, for Brett is who not to bring. The list of people who want to come and do this is huge, absolutely huge. We’ve got Dylan Moran this year, which is just amazing, because you think skiing and snowboarding, you don’t instantly think Dylan Moran, right? With the big headline acts, because it doesn’t pay very much, it’s kind of like, do you want to be in the mountains with nice people?”

Maxwell: “And the people we’ve had? I mean, Sean Lock had the time of his life, God rest his soul. There was a wonderful night downstairs from here in the nightclub. We were in the ticket/coat office I think we got 32 people in there, and Sean was literally like an octopus. Anytime anyone passed, he’d leap out and just pull them in and shut the door. I don’t know what we were doing in there, simply giggling, but it seemed to me like a very perfect Altitude moment.”

Brigstocke: “The whole point at the start of it was everybody’s done the same thing all day. Some people ski, some people snowboard, some people sledge, some just walk around up there. But basically, we’ve all shared, there’s a bond. There’s something about that, there’s something very unifying and it affects how people do their stand up.”

Does that unique situation seem to lead to unique performances?

Brigstocke: “Al Murray, the Pub Landlord, did his show in French in France at Altitude. We talked with him about it a lot because obviously he was very nervous; it’s a big, exposing, risky thing to do.  He did it, he nailed it, he completely nailed it. It was incredible

“We mentioned Tim Minchin already, Tim being here and writing and performing music that was written just for this, it’s so it’s amazing you can’t replicate it.

“The comics who struggle on stage, and this isn’t the easiest gig in the world, are the ones who bring too much of their baggage to their set and don’t bend in the direction of the festival. Something special is happening here, and anyone who acknowledges that, the audience senses it. We’re very conscious of that and we need to make sure that what they see across those shows is different enough that they’re still having fun by the end of the night.”

And with the audience enjoying the slopes with the acts, there’s a lot of engagement.

Maxwell: “Yeah, increasingly the word family gets used. That’s partly because there are some people who come every year; they can’t imagine not being here. There’s no greater compliment than that, as far as I’m concerned. That’s different for comedy, that’s different from anything else that exists, even Edinburgh.”

“Yeah, increasingly the word family gets used” Audience, crew and performers gather after the final performance on the final day.
Image copyright Anthony Upton 2023©.

With unique performances fostered by a unique atmosphere in an exquisite location, we turn to Altitude promoter and, some would say, saviour, GetComedy’s Brett Vincent to chart its move to Mayrhofen and the journey to its current format. Starting with the move from Meribel to Mayrhofen:

Vincent explains: I’d been mates with both of them; with Andrew I was actually running his show Fullmooners and doing his promotion back then, and I was even close to managing him. And Marcus; he’s basically been brother’s best mate since I was a kid. I’d done Edinburgh Fringe and London promotions and they’d asked me a few times to come out to Meribel and to help him with the street promotion and different aspects of the festival, which I could never do because it always fell at the wrong time of the year, which was Edinburgh Fringe deadlines which was a big thing for me then.

And then Altitude just stopped. I heard about how the French and Meribel had screwed them over and I wanted to see if I could revive it. My business partner at the time, John Hughes, who ran Bestival introduced me to Gareth Cooper, of Broadwick Live, Gareth said, ‘Oh, why don’t you bring a couple of comedians over, come and see Austria, come to Snowbombing and we’ll give you a venue to do a couple of comedy events, we’ll try and sell some tickets and see how it goes.

Andrew and Marcus came over. We also had, I think, Tom Rhodes, Mark Walker, Craig Campbell a couple of other comedians from America and Rufus Hound…we did Altitude at Snowbombing for the first time in 2011 and it was bonkers!

Whilst I was there, I’d searched out all the different venues that they used, to see what could work. And the Europahaus was amazing, perfect for our big gala shows. Their racquet club is something that I’ve always aspired to do, it’s a 2500 capacity tennis court and I’d still love to, 5 or 10 years down the line get 2500 people in there and do proper ‘Live at the Apollo’ style filmed TV stand-up shows. They had the two big venues, so it was then just trying to find venues that were small enough to do something like après ski and the late shows. Gareth then introduced me to Erich, who ran the Strass Hotel, and that started off a great relationship. We didn’t use them until year two, and year two is when I used my contacts to get someone that could finance the show.

I was introduced to a financier called Christopher Melton who was in with lots of festivals and numerous other festival projects around the UK. He was part of our kind of circle; Andrew knew him. Andrew’s wife, Suraya knew him, my business partners knew him and a few of the others knew of him; he LOVED the sound of the festival and came in and helped finance Year one.

That was crazy because it was just me on my own trying to start a brand-new festival with a load of money and really no one knowing about it, except for the people in Meribel because Meribel was sold to people in Meribel who were already skiing there. It wasn’t in the UK, so there wasn’t huge promo about in the UK.

My whole idea about it is, if you book ’em they will come. I was given a £100k budget and managed to book Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle, Tim Minchin, Kevin Bridges, Ed Byrne, Milton Jones, Phill Jupitus, Michael Winslow from Police Academy, there was also the likes of, I’m pretty sure, Joel Dommett, Rob Beckett, Katherine Ryan… the line-up was incredible, it was the best of the best in the UK at the time. The first year was our first sell out.”

Was it marketed solely in-resort or did you manage to promote it in the UK and get people to go to Mayrhofen for the festival?

“Then we could afford PR, we could afford adverts, we could afford sponsorship, we could afford partnerships. We partnered up with the Telegraph who allowed us to put on a comedy show at their Ski Show and also Evening Standard, who gave us about €1 million worth of advertising.

So, what we had was perfect for the tourist board in regards to ads and perfect for us because we were selling tickets and getting it out there. We were also partnered with Outgoing, which was the Snowbombing packages company. We kind of used all the parts from the year before and then just threw loads of money at it. Unfortunately, year one, as much as it was completely sold out and we did an amazing job, booked loads of amazing things, we lost about 350-400 grand.

As much as I was running half of it, I still wasn’t running the financials, that was all run by Melton and the team at GetInvolved, that did the PR, sponsorship and did the budgets. I was put in my lane so to speak to just look after booking the acts and running the festival on the ground.

Year two, I had to really scale back by order of Melton, we had to drastically change the line-ups. We had to go back to the drawing board, restart it and rejig the whole festival to kind of what it is now. Basically, three shows a day, a certain number of comedians doing a certain amount of time each and not just loads of comedians descending on town, causing chaos and only doing a couple of shows here, there and everywhere, which was costing us a lot of money.

Year two was great; we had a couple of hundred people less than the year before, but it was a great year.”

Skiing optional, as are lederhosen and clothing in general. The Thinking Drinkers and Andrew Maxwell bask in the spring sunshine.
Image copyright Anthony Upton 2023©.

And then your backer pulled out of the festival market, right?

“Correct. Melton pulled out of all his festivals in the UK. With that, I had to pay out that years costs and booking fees at around £100,000 from my business.

At the end of that year, Melton said ‘look, I can’t cover these costs and I’m getting out of the UK market. Do you want to buy Altitude for a pound?’ Even covering 100 grand previously I thought there was something in it and thought, ‘okay, let’s do it.’  We transferred it over and myself and Paul Betesh at Ticketline, took the festival on and since then we have tried to not only scrape back the money that I lost in 2013, but also keep it running and make sure that we don’t lose money and that we break even every year. We still take people out there and have a great time, we still try and promote it as much as we can but now on a shoe-string budget.”

Brett Vincent: He’s Extraordinary. Imagecopyright Anthony Upton 2023©.

Have you managed to scrape back the money that you invested to rescue it?

“We were so close in 2019, and in 2020 we probably would have done it but we lost out again, due to COVID. A week before the whole world went into lockdown, we were still trying to run a festival. We’d spent on all the promo, we’d paid all the comedians deposits, all the costs had already gone out to the town, flights, transfers and loads of other costs had been paid – we lost it all. 2020 would have broken even easily or made us money but sadly we lost another 30 grand and got no help from either government in Austria or the UK. What a time that was!”

Mayrhofen – Obviously, they were they used to a festival because they’d had Snowbombing there and they’re happy with that. Was it easy to add another week of festival?

“Yes and no, originally, we were two weeks before Snowbombing, so they had a week gap in between. There was a couple of years when I was trying to just recover all the money that I lost, and in some places, I only had one headliner, so numbers were dwindling. We were given strange times of the year. We tried January, we tried Christmas, we tried early March, we kept being guided by the tourist board, ultimately that caused a rift as ultimately the festival dates were totally down to them. So in 2017 we had to take a break as it wasn’t working.

When we didn’t do it for a year, I was just like… ‘I miss it, so much!’.  I just went, I’m just going to do it myself, so I booked the whole thing with my own money, without the tourist board. This was 2018 and it was the best one as I decided to go the week before Snowbombing and use some of their infrastructure and we shared transfers and other costs. We had great acts, we used the best venues and ended up having the best time. And that’s the formula that you now see. It became so much freer; that year built the template. And luckily for me the Tourist board came to me and said, ‘we want to back you again’. I was delighted!”

Have you noticed a shift to non-skiers attending, present company excepted?

“We’re getting more and more non-skiers, and this is something that we’re slowly adapting to. I always thought the way to make this festival bigger and to grow it to where I wanted is to go after skiers and boarder. So, I did the ski shows, I advertised it in Ski and Snowboard Magazines, to try and bring people from France, Bulgaria, Scandinavia or wherever they were normally and try and bring them to Mayrhofen and try to move people away from where they normally ski. But what I’ve realised over the years, is that’s virtually impossible; where people learn to ski and have been skiing for all their lives, they are probably going to keep on skiing there. It doesn’t matter how much entertainment, or how great it is elsewhere, when it comes to skiers, they’re so used to what they know, that they want to go and do a certain ski run because they know it so well, that’s where they learned or that’s where they went the fastest or had an amazing time. It’s so hard to change that mindset so two years ago, I went ‘right, okay, let’s advertise this to the comedy goers, let’s get on some podcasts. Let’s get more stuff at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, at the Galway Comedy Festival and really show this as a comedy festival.’  In the last two years, it’s gone from probably 95% skiers to 65% skiers. We’re slowly building this by telling people that you don’t need to ski or board and as well as great comedy there are things for non-skiers like the Schnapps Museum, Ice Caves, Dairy Farms, Toboggining, or you can go tandem paragliding or go walk or cycle up the mountain. Plus, the town is FULL of saunas, spa’s wellness centres and the restaurants and bars in Mayrhofen are incredible. We are truly blessed with an amazing venue, town and support from the locals.”

With a formula that works for acts, audience and organiser, we asked Christina Kaponig, from the Zillertal Tourism Board if it works for Mayrhofen too. She explained:

I think, in these times, it’s more important than ever to have an event that is for the for fun, for happiness. This is where it’s very important in these times. And of course, Mayrhofen is not just skiing; Altitude is a very nice change, it’s something new, because not everybody is here for skiing.

It feels likw Mayrhofen has a more diverse range of events as well as activities.

“Maybe Mayrhofen seems very old in its tourism, but in its development for tourism Mayrhofen, I would say it’s the only village in the whole valley that is more open. We have traditional, but we also have Altitude and Snowbombing. We have the traditional music in summer, but we offer for every taste, every genre. It’s an important part of Mayrhofen’s diversity, not only the traditional, it’s more than skiing from Monday to Saturday.”

And the local businesses, do they see the advantage of having these extra season-extending events?

“Yes, of course, there are really nice clients here and at this time we are more flexible as well with the [room] allotments. It’s a nice idea to end the season with our British clients.”

It’s easy to see that Altitude Comedy Festival is a gem in the world of comedy festivals, it has the unwavering love and support from its dedicated audience.

It’s evident that Altitude was born out of a passion for both comedy and the mountains. The combination of stunning natural surroundings and the thrill of snow sports creates an atmosphere that has a transformative effect on both the performers and the audience. The shared experience of spending the day on the slopes, followed by a night of hilarious performances, unifies everyone involved. It’s an opportunity for comics to step out of their comfort zones, explore new talents, and bond with their fellow performers.

Mayrhofen has turned out to be the perfect fit for Altitude, with its breath-taking landscapes, delicious cuisine, and a welcoming atmosphere. The festival has become a cherished tradition for many attendees, who can’t imagine missing out on the unique experience it offers. The camaraderie between the performers and the audience is unparalleled, creating a sense of family that sets Altitude apart from any other comedy event.

The performances at Altitude are truly one-of-a-kind. Comedians embrace the festival’s spirit, delivering exceptional shows that often push them to the outer reaches of their comfort zones. From Al Murray performing in French to Tim Minchin creating music inspired by the mountains, each act brings something special and unrepeatable to the stage. The audience recognizes this authenticity and appreciates the effort put into crafting a memorable experience.

Altitude Comedy Festival has succeeded in creating a festival that thrives on its unique location, an extraordinary atmosphere, and unforgettable performances. It has become a haven for comedy lovers and a place where comedians can fully immerse themselves in their craft.

And that’s how to win UK Festival Award votes.

Thanks to the whole Altitude team for hospitality, insight and absolutely no pressure to ski whatsoever.

Brett, Mhairi and ‘Baby Boss’ Sonny Vincent, production and bus marshal, Tom Branston, Samuel Willott, Caro Russell, Canavan Connolly, Simon Baines, Kate Askins, Rachel Fackey, Sarah Holgate and Annabelle Turton, all kept safe and secure by Dutchy and Will and recorded for posterity by photographer

And then there was Carlisle….