Eight years ago, while returning home from a stag do in Blackpool, Scott Gibson began getting headaches that were so excruciating he rang the NHS’s 24-hour helpline and then had a stroke while on the phone. They sent an ambulance, but he turned it away and simply took to his bed instead – for four days. As he lay there, one thought kept going through his head: “I must be OK because I’m young and healthy.” Finally, he tried to head back to work, only to find himself going blind in one eye. Somehow he made it to hospital, where doctors diagnosed an aneurysm an inch-and-a-half deep behind his right ear. He needed major brain surgery, they said. The operation took seven hours.
After Gibson pulled through, he was determined to live life to the full – to live the life he’d always dreamed of, in fact. “I always wanted to be a storyteller,” says Gibson. “And, from day one, I knew this would be the first story I’d tell.” So, as a lifelong comedy lover, the Glaswegian embarked on a college standup course and was soon gigging regularly. In 2012, he took redundancy – £632 – from the call centre where he worked to focus fully on his new career.
But it wasn’t until last year that he made his Edinburgh fringe debut – after a false start in 2015, when the Stand Comedy Club, which has venues in Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh, refused to book Life After Death, as he called his show. “I don’t know why,” says Gibson, now 32. “I don’t know if they thought I was worthy of a room.”
In Edinburgh, however, he proved an overnight sensation. The unheralded Glaswegian swiped the coveted best newcomer comedy award with a show you’d happily watch even if there were no laughs in it, so gripping is his near-death tale. Looking back, Gibson says he is glad about the enforced wait: the extra year’s work contributed, he believes, to his extraordinary success. I could fill this whole article with quotes expressing the burly Scotsman’s astonishment at winning his gong, joining a pantheon that includes Sarah Millican, the Mighty Boosh and Tim Minchin. “I never thought in a million years I’d even be nominated,” he says, having arrived at the festival with “no manager, no PR, no buzz. Didn’t even have a press release. I don’t know if that helped, having no expectations. But at no point did I think, ‘I’m going to win an award with my debut show.’”
Even being shortlisted, says Gibson, propelled him into a glamorous new world. “The nominees turned up to have press pictures taken – and there’s free coffee and bacon rolls! I’m thinking, ‘This is how the other half live!’” Of 18 acts nominated, Gibson believes he was the only one without an agent or manager. He credits his venue, the Gilded Balloon, with providing the support that made his triumph possible.
What made it doubly sweet, he says, was that the main award was won by his compatriot Richard Gadd, a first ever Scottish double-whammy and a rare instance of Edinburgh’s comedy awards recognising local talent. “Rightly or wrongly,” says Gibson, “we [Scottish comics] have an idea we don’t belong at the fringe. There is a voice in our heads saying we cannot compete with London, or the establishment.”
That’s partly because, for Scottish acts, the fringe is awkwardly positioned between home gig and alien environment. “It’s a home gig in that it’s in Edinburgh,” says Gibson, “but not in terms of the audience.” Then there’s the lack of a sustainable comedy circuit in Scotland, meaning acts can only ever do short sets in pubs, and seldom the hour-long narrative or themed shows that prosper on the fringe.
“It’s a hard apprenticeship,” says Gibson. “But it’s the best, because if you come through it, you can play anywhere.” So will his triumph be a confidence-booster for Scottish acts? “There’ll have been comics in Scotland who heard the result and went, ‘Brilliant! Next year, I’m going.’ And others who’ll say, ‘Well, that’s us for another 25 years.’ That’s unfortunately how we think, and it’s stupid.”
At any rate, Gibson will be back, with a show called Like Father Like Son, about “the male figures in my life and how those relationships formed me”. Already nearing completion, it will be one in the eye, Gibson promises, for anyone thinking: “All right, one-trick pony, let’s see what you’ve got.”
In the meantime, he is midway through a run at Soho theatre in London. Before his fringe success, getting a gig there was all he dreamed of, the apex of his ambition. However, his aspirations have not been much affected by awards glory. “I just love doing standup,” he says. “If you can pay your bills, go on holiday once a year, and do standup … ” The ex-call centre employee’s voice tails off. “I don’t know what else you’re wanting. It’s just a good life. Life’s good, man.”
•Scott Gibson: Life After Death is at Soho theatre, London, until 14 January.