Monday 8 August 2011

Fringe Benefits and other crap puns with 'Fringe' in the title

And so the internationally acclaimed fringe festival that has been out of control for years has kicked off again. It's over three weeks long. Everyone knows that's too long. It's unsustainable, but staggers on, consuming the life-savings of comedians, theatre companies and entrepeneurs. From a distance the entire enterprise is preposterous and bewildering.

Until you get there.

I've never taken drugs. Seriously. Had one puff of a cigarette and coughed. Never been into booze either. But Edinburgh is a drug - and it's taken me years to kick the habit. My first trip to Edinburgh was for my sister's wedding was in 1993, I think. Just after I left school. I went to see Moray Hunter & Jack Docherty do a two-man show, having seen them on Absolutely. Even though I was huge fans, the show itself was pretty ordinary. It was a fitting start to my Edinburgh experience - hype, expense, excitement and mild disappointment.

I was determined to take my university revue (Durham) there. They had performed at the Fringe in 1994, I think - a show called Toilet Humour which contained the wonderful Alex Macqueen (Thick of it, Inbetweeners et al). And so my rag-bag revue did a show in 1996 called 'The Usual Sketches' at St John's Church Hall (which has been re-branded several times since then) Somehow we broke even. We returned sharper, tighter and funnier in 1997 and did Massive Deja-Vu at The Gilded Balloon and lost a fortune. But had fun. (Hugh Laurie came to see our show.) Then I returned in 1999 with two members of that revue with a show called Infinite Number of Monkeys, which was nominated for Perrier Best Newcomer. Then another show in 2000, Infinite Number of Monkeys Do Gravity, and then a shorter run in 2001, Infinite Number of Monkeys: The Complete Works. (All above starred the artist currently known as Tim FitzHigham who has been a fringe staple for most of the years since.) Then there was a sketch show in 2002, or maybe 2003, called Innocent Bystanders containing Alex Macqueen again, a duo now known as Domestic Goddi and the now-retired Sports correspondent, Jonny Saunders (from Chris Evans's Breakfast Show).

I recall all above with fondness. I have ignored in my mind the hours spent giving out flyers and promoting the various shows. I have ignored the stress, the rain, the resentment at the success of others less 'worthy', the dreadful things I ate and the awful reviews. I remember only things like regularly standing next to a nice young Kiwi chap called Brett who was promoting a little music double-act bizzarely called Flight of the Concords. (What happened to him? Back in NZ now, probably. Just sad.) I remember frisby in the park, a few full houses, some good reviews, a Perrier Newcomer nod and seeing Bill Bailey for the first, second and third time at the George Square Theatre. (I got in free the first two times with my Gilded Balloon pass. To ensure I got in a third time, I bought a ticket with my own money.)

Since 2003, I have only really visited Edinburgh during the fringe a few times. I've planned and plotted plenty of new shows to take up, even to the point of creating show titles, making enquiries and setting up accounting spreadsheets full of wildly optimistic numbers. My wife, rightly, rolls her eyes, knowing full well that professional and personal commitments - and lack of thousands of pounds to lose - will prevented my return with a show of my own anytime soon. But I still get withdrawal symptoms.

In Praise of Edinburgh
There is plenty to be said about Edinburgh - mostly in favour, actually. It forces comedians to write new material annually. Annually! A new hour of material! Most American comedians would look at that as suicidal. For them, it's mostly honing an act over several years, aiming to get a six minute set which will land them a slot on The Tonight Show. And yet the British, and quasi-British, comedians rise to challenge. Similarly, sketch groups throw themselves together to create something that is frequently dreadful, but occasionally inspired. Somewhere, I have a flyer for a show by a new sketch group called 'League of Gentlemen'. It happens. And Edinburgh is often the catalyst.

Finding an Audience
In Edinburgh, new comedians, sketch-groups and theatre troupes alike will find an audience. It may be small, but it will be people they don't know personally. Hundreds of thousands of people turn up to Edinburgh with an open mind looking to see 'stuff'. This is an astonighly rare phenomenon. Put on a comedy show in London, a city of 8 million people, and you will find a far smaller group of people willing to try something new. Almost every London comedy sketch show is only really watched by friends, and friends of friends. In Edinburgh, you get to find out if you really are funny. It can be an expensive, painful experience, but those tend to be the ones we learn from the most.

There's plenty wrong with the fringe, and future posts will, no doubt, bring these up. There's plenty of good new developments too. It is stupidly commercialised in places, but then there's a Free Fringe things, which are a splendid development.

I'm heading up there myself in a week to be part of a BBC panel thing (here) so these shortcomings will be glaring obvious and blog-worthy. But until then, I am saluting the daft vortex of lunacy that is Edinburgh Fringe.

May your venues be full, may your audiences be merry and may your hangovers be short. (And two out of three's not bad.)


  1. Just back from this year's Fringe. It is more extraordinary each year, but wildly addictive. think Glastonbury atmosphere with music replaced by comedy. And without the drugs.
    Nick Helm was a highlight; 'The Table' is mesmerising; 'Suitcase Royale in Zombatland' was one of the weirdest hours of my life so far but worth it; 'Sammy J- Potentially' is a brilliantly clever and well-construced stand-up show; Soweto Entsha will lift your spirits and have you floating back out into the Edinburgh rain.
    Don't ask too many questions, don't look at your bank balance or your watch, don't try to do more than 4 shows per day. Just go up and enjoy one of Britain's greatest inventions.

  2. Interesting fact, the New Zealander called Brett you were standing next to's comedy band, Flight of the Conchords, achieved international fame, spawned an American TV series about them, Brett is now an Oscar-winning songwriter and the other half, Jermaine Clement is currently starring as the villian in Men in Black 3. Just goes to show how everyone starts small.