By Simon Fearn
To be in Edinburgh in August is to lose yourself in an enveloping soup of comedy (over 1,700 portions of it to be precise). In every conceivable place where posters can be put, stand-ups are threatening to make you laugh. The advertisements blur into one, resulting in a single homogenous comedian, either laughing at their own jokes into a microphone or pretending to look mischievous.
If you’re a relatively unknown comic, getting yourself heard must take more than a contrived pose on a poster. This year, Edinburgh is packed with comedians who have become household names through panel shows, such as Phil Jupitus (Never Mind the Buzzcocks), Paul Merton (Have I Got News for You) and Alan Davies (QI). If your wit has not been splashed across the small screen and already attracted a sizeable following, cheap jokes or tired self-deprecating anecdotes about your failures as a human being won’t quite cut it.
During my time in Edinburgh, I saw some really great comedy shows that wriggled out of Live at the Apollo-style blandness. BEARD’s The Grin of Love served audiences a slice of gorgeously surreal comedy akin to the best of The Mighty Boosh, whilst Christian Reilly’s Songs of Insolence attacked public figures via gleefully silly songs. But I also saw Nick Hall’s Dodecahedron, a tired character comedy where the punchlines included impressions of Nazi doctors and pretending to have sex with a bike. To be fair to Hall, his show was limited by its PG-rating, but it was still pretty poor, the worst part being a cringe-worthy impression of Stephen Hawking which should never have made it beyond the school playground.
Ideally, the fringe should function as a reaction to our main source of comedy: panel shows that “consign women to the margins and treat male clubhouse banter as if it were Wildean wit“, according to Guardian journalist Brian Logan. Hollywood’s sense of humour also seems to have retreated to the Dark Ages, with films like Get Hard and Ted 2 making fun of anyone who doesn’t happen to be white, middle class, or male. We should look to Edinburgh as a bastion of hope, a signal that intelligent and inventive comedy is out there somewhere.
I’m no comedy connoisseur, and don’t claim to have seen the best comedy the fringe has to offer this year. My first stand-up show was Ed Byrne a few years ago, whose laddish humour had me in stitches during the show. But since then I can’t remember any of his routine, other than the fact that it was founded on the idea that anything sexual is inherently funny. Blue humour is an easy and sure-fire way to entertain the majority of your audience, but recently I’ve tried to appreciate comics that work a little harder for their laughs.
Take Aatif Nawaz for example. The thought of reviewing a show called Muslims Do It Five Times a Day at the fringe initially sent shivers down my spine, but he was actually one of the most humane comics out there. His premise was that laughing at Muslims when they do stupid things is much less harmful than avoiding the topic altogether, and this was brilliantly realised in a section entitled ‘Top Five Fatwas’. It felt liberating to be able to laugh so hard at a taboo topic, and a lot more rewarding than a rerun of your average stand-up clichés.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch was also a highlight, and is probably one of the most intelligent shows at this year’s fringe. Its protagonist was a transgender rock star from East Germany, whose live set of bizarre glam rock is regularly interrupted by her anecdotes about her troubled past. Here the gags included the accidental killing of a bus full of school children, and a song about Hedwig’s botched sex change, referring to what was left of her penis as ‘the angry inch’. The uncomfortable balance between comedy and tragedy still has me in a state of unease, whereas Ed Byrne only survives as an amusing night out I once had.
Of course I’m not trying to act as some kind of Comedy Thought Police, bringing down the full force of Moral Law on people who laugh at jokes about blowjobs (there were plenty of those in Hedwig and the Angry Inch). Everyone’s entitled to their own sense of humour, and there is definitely space for a generous helping of blue in the rich palate of modern comedy. I just wish some of the acts I’ve seen at the fringe would make it into the mainstream, and could be on telly instead of Frank Skinner, John Bishop, and all the others who recycle increasingly colourless material.
Ross Noble, a fringe veteran, shares my concerns. In 2012 he told The Guardian his dystopian vision of a comedy circuit monopolised by ‘someone who looks like Jim Bowen doing material that’s halfway between Frankie Boyle’s and Michael McIntyre’s’. But it’s not too late! The fringe is a place to put aside the big names (who are probably all sold out and really expensive), and discover some up-and-coming talent. Pick something that’s free out of the brochure, the odder the better, and see where it takes you. You may be disappointed, but there’s a possibility you could stumble across some tragically undervalued comedy.
Illustration: Mariam Hayat