Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Fringe Drawback #1

There are plenty of thing wrong with the Edinburgh Fringe. I glossed over them in the last post, and I propose to gloss over most of them in this post too. I merely mention the one that is of the most interest to regular reads of this blog, and comedy writers in general.

The drawback in question is this: The Fringe does not reward good comedy writing as much as good comedy performance. If you're a theatre-type, there are Fringe Firsts for well-written plays, and that's all fine and large, as Bertie Wooster would say. But the big comedy prizes are undoubtedly skewed towards the writer/performer, and the vast majority of comedy shows are by and starring writer/performers. Every now and then you get a bunch like The League of Gentleman, which contain a non-performing writer, but this kind of arrangement is the exception, rather than the rule.

This isn't necessarily a good or bad thing. But it is a thing. Okay, probably a bad thing. I guess it happens because the Fringe is ultimately a complete free-for-all - an unsubsidised Hayekian arts festival. No attempt is made to link writers with performers, or performers with writers (and nor should there be).

The result of this is there are dozens of shows put on by performers/actors who aren't really writers. And they struggle to make the standard hour-long format work. Writing a show that lasts half an hour is pretty hard. Writing a show that lasts an hour is very difficult. Stagecraft and experience will get you so far, but it won't quite paper over the cracks. My experience of the dozens of Edinburgh shows I've seen is that the good shows tend to be a brilliant performer making ordinary material sparkle. Sometimes you get a brilliant performer with brilliant material (eg Bill Bailey (see last post) and these types often win the big fizzy liquid prize). But the Edinburgh comedy shows I see are normally okay, but could do with a major rewrite, and serious edit and some extra jokes.

Impact on Television
All of the above, however, does have one big consequence. Producers and commissioners who are looking for the next big thing, they keep seeing writer/performers. This has coincided with a shift towards writing/performing in television terms, and therefore the panel game, sketch show and chat show where comedians talk to other comedians who have been made famous by panel games and sketch shows.

There are dozens of suitable candidates for a seat on the next panel game. But the next Great British Sitcom seems elusive. It's easy to forget that the vast majority of great British sitcoms are written by writers with no interest in performing themselves. I'm sure Clement and Le Frenais, John Sullivan, Esmonde and Larbey, Galton and Simpson, Carla Lane and the like would have run a mile from an Edinburgh show of their own. And yet Edinburgh is a huge engine room of comedy in Britain today. It has also been forgotten that the great comedians of the past had writers and often didn't write much of their own material.

I have no solution to this problem. The BBC do have The Writers Room and are doing their best to encourage new writing. But my advice to writers would be to keep writing scripts, but if you come across a comedian or funny actor, grab them, write for them and make them a star. It seemed to work for Richard Curtis.

Happy Fringe-ing.


  1. Good post, and you're right - This is definitely "a thing", and the same thing has happened in popular music - Everyone's a singer/songwriter now.

    Good idea in your last para too - There's a gap in the market without a doubt!

  2. Has there ever been an attempt to use the hour to put on two different 30 minute performances, possibly by different writers and groups of performers. Seems an almost 'sitcom double bill' format might be suited to the festival.