Edinburgh Fringe: Zach Zucker's Spectacular Industry Showcase ripples with impact of Highland Park sniper tragedy

Like thousands of other entertainers, American performer Zach Zucker was looking forward to bringing his latest show to the world famous Edinburgh Fringe, where he was first discovered seven years ago.

He still is, but his world has changed. Zach was, and still is, a clown who makes, in his own words, 'very silly shows'. Shows he has never allowed his political views to colour... until now.

Originally, the plan for this year’s production at Monkey Barrel was no different to that of any of the five previous productions he had brought to the Capital. In fact, the show entitled Zach Zucker: Spectacular Industry Showcase was to have been a 'spectacularly silly show', Zach intent on making audiences do nothing more than 'laugh as hard as they can'.

That changed on July 4 when a gunman opened fire on the 4th of July parade in Highland Park, a city near Chicago and Zach's hometown – the 29-year-old's mum lived on one of the streets on which the massacre took place and heard the shots. His friend’s mum was shot in the ankle and he knows the family of the shooter.

Zach Zucker in Spectacular Industry Showcase Made for TV Pic: Dylan Woodley

As he prepares to travel to the Capital for the Festival, he reflects, “It’s hard not to let your experiences bleed into your work when you keep unexpectedly bursting into tears.

“But this isn’t an 'everyone feel sorry for me’ Edinburgh show, it’s still a clown show, but yeah, some super-f***ed up s*** just happened so it's definitely going to affect some of the work.”

He adds, “One of my friends who I grew up playing basketball with, his mom got shot in the ankle. Another friend’s mom got hit by glass bursting off a window. I know the shooter’s family - his sister was my friend growing up and his dad, Bob, ran a late-night sandwich spot that we always went to called Bob’s Sandwiches...”

Being so close to the tragedy, which took seven lives, Zach recalls that initially, on hearing reports, he experienced a moment of disbelief.

Zach & Viggo on the Royal Mile at an earlier Edinburgh Fringe

“I keep crying, at times feeling fully paralysed by the constant re-realisation that this is real and actually happened.

“That’s what most of the past weeks have been; bursting into tears without any notice, lots of attempts at numbing the pain, reaching out to childhood friends and doing everything I can to just get through the day.

“It was terrifying. My hometown was attacked. My mom was on her way to the parade and lives less than a half block from the shooting. I marched in that parade as a kid. Two of my friends' parents were shot. Another friend threw his grandpa over his shoulder and ran.

“It was the place to hang out with your friends as a teenager... so to see this place where I have life-changing memories from the age of five to 18 covered in blood and bullet shells with people running for their lives… it absolutely breaks my heart.”

Zach Zucker in his Junior year on the varsity baseball team, Highland Park Giants, in 2010

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The emotional trauma Zach continues to experience has unsurprisingly found its way into his work.

He expalins, “It's still first and foremost a comedy show, really fun, stupid, dumb and (hopefully) funny. I’ve never really shared personal stories in previous shows, if I have I’ve hidden them in throwaway bits, so I imagine there are now going to be tones and colours to the pieces, characters and songs that have been influenced by everything I’ve been feeling.”

One character in particular in Spectacular Industry Showcase owes much to how Zach is feeling.

Zach Zucker in Spectacular Industry Showcase Made for TV Pic Dylan Woodley

“I have a character, Zach America, who wants to change the world so he decides he’s 'running for politics in 2024' and lays out his campaign for his vision of America,” he says.

Explaining the reasoning for sharing his feelings in such a way, he continues, “I believe we have a duty to speak up when it’s uncomfortable. Vulnerability outside of 'comedic context' scares the s*** out of me but I’m even more scared of not being the person I know I can be.”

It's perhaps fitting too, that he should be speaking out in Edinburgh.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without the Edinburgh Fringe,” he reveals.

“Because the PBH Free Fringe accepted our show Zach & Viggo in 2015 we were able to tour the world six times and live a life I never dreamed was possible. Although, while the impact the Fringe has had on my life will never change, I am thankful I am not totally reliant on it as my sole source of life choices anymore, there were definitely earlier moments in our careers where the ability to generate income for food, shelter and future jobs was directly tethered to our success in Edinburgh.

“My comedy partners and I have thankfully found additional ways to support ourselves since our days performing in the basement of CC Blooms - 'We love you, Mitch!' - but the personal and professional connections made in Edinburgh have given us a chance to chase our dreams like the total maniacs that we are.”

Preparing for his sixth Fringe run, Zach admits it’s not without a little trepidation.

“With the least amount of prep time to create a show, leaving behind my most successful character, moving to a brand new venue, taking a big creative risk and with everything to lose and almost nothing tangible to gain… it terrifies me. It’s these moments I realise I do this because I love my Fringe family more than myself, nothing makes me happier than being onstage in front of the Edinburgh audience and all I want is for everyone who’s helped us along the way to feel it’s worth it.”

Zach Zucker: Spectacular Industry Showcase (Made for TV), Monkey Barrell (4), 7.50pm, August 3-28, tickets here.