Should you ever risk your life for a laugh? That question crossed my mind on the first Sunday of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Nothing to do with fear of Covid-19. I was halfway up Arthur’s Seat – having unwisely attempted a shortcut via the extinct volcano’s steepest, craggiest side – and nearly fell off. At the top I met a small crowd of comedy enthusiasts who had gathered to see Barry Ferns’s show, advertised as taking place there. We’d been stood up by the stand-up; it was cancelled. C’est la vie.
But the fact that it drew a crowd at all proves how willing this year’s entertainment-hungry audiences are to go off the beaten path. There are far fewer shows than usual – the Assembly, for instance, is staging around 45, down from 450 – and fewer seats in those shows, as the legal requirement for social distancing in Scotland only lifted yesterday. As a result, the scarcity of tickets has upended Fringe’s usual supply-demand dynamic.
In a normal year it’s impossible to walk down the Royal Mile without being handed a hundred flyers by comics competing for attention. This year, there are no flyers and few posters, but shows are drawing crowds without them. Outside the Assembly Roxy, I bumped into Isabelle Farah, a promising new act staging her debut comedy-theatre hour at the venue: “Nobody knows who I am, and the room’s sold out!” she told me, baffled and delighted.
Figuratively – if not literally, as I learnt on Arthur’s Seat – performers have climbed every mountain to make the Fringe happen at a few weeks’ notice. The largest arts festival in the world is usually an Olympic event for comics, following a long run-up of months spent refining their routines in clubs. But this year it’s been a standing start. The riskiness of the endeavour adds a certain frisson. As beardy contrarian Garrett Millerick put it, “I’ve spent 15 months writing these things, and I have no idea if they are funny or needlessly offensive.”
It’s not unusual to see comics with script in hand, making notes on the fly. As a result, most of the shows are billed as previews or works in progress, and understandably closed to reviewers. When perennial Fringe favourite Josie Long asked her audience to lower their expectations, she put her usual optimistic spin on it: “Bring the bar to the floor, and we shall all dance on the bar!”
Long was performing at the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society, a long-running and admirably odd club night where audiences shout “a noble failure!” after each act leaves the stage. That cry, like the night itself, sums up the best of the Fringe’s adventurous spirit – a willingness to try anything that might get a laugh, even if it may not work. It’s perhaps more apt than ever this year, when everyone is patently winging it. The Fringe is a mad laboratory for comedy: where else could you find something as joyously weird as “Big Foam Head Plays the Hits” (Scottish comic Rosco McLelland hiding under a Frank Sidebottom-like bonce), boogying to Cher’s Believe while hitting a small wooden frog with a stick?
Not everything is quite so outré. Plenty of stand-up comics offered a relatable, if melancholy, look back at life in lockdown. “It was the end of the world, and it was boring,” complained Chris MacArthur-Boyd, who could have been speaking for all of them. Irish comic Catherine Bohart (soon to release an Amazon Prime special) had been doing therapy to overcome OCD behaviours such as obsessive handwashing – until they became government policy. And poor old Garrett Millerick got gout. (Binging on Stella and Tiger King can do that to you.)
Over at the Gilded Balloon, Scottish stand-up Jay Lafferty looked for lockdown’s upsides, enthusing about being able to wear loungewear every day. But now, like the rest of us, comedians have had to go back to the grind in proper work clothes. For John-Luke Roberts, this entails donning a tattered tuxedo for a live version of It is Better, a vinyl album he recorded during lockdown, his absurdist stand-up set to gently tinkling piano accompaniment. Musical comic Amelia Bayler, meanwhile, dresses as a slice of pizza to sing her electro ode to food manufacturer Dr Oetker, in an hour adapted from the interactive show she streamed during lockdown.
Both Bayler and Roberts offered an insight into how material created in and for lockdown might translate to the outside world: Bayler joked that her banana bread song, written in 2020, already seemed like an ancient artefact. As it happens, they’re both performing in the basement of the Monkey Barrel. Opened in 2015, it’s a relatively new presence at the Fringe, but has this year become its beating heart, with a packed programme including critics’ darlings Fern Brady, Mark Watson, Olga Koch, Nish Kumar and Jordan Brookes. It has assembled a better comedy line-up than all the historic “big four” venues (Underbelly, Assembly, Gilded Balloon and Pleasance) put together – a feat perhaps made easier by its stability as a year-round club, while many Fringe venues are August-only pop-ups.
As ever at the Fringe, part of the fun is following the word-of-mouth: hearing which potential comedy stars of the future are being talked about excitedly in bars and cafes across the city. The act I’ve heard tipped is a silly sketch duo called Soup Group, whose props-based clowning positions them somewhere between Spencer Jones and Tommy Cooper. After a dreich year, a hot serving of Soup sounds like just what the doctor ordered.
Fringe benefits: 5 shows not to miss
Long’s last show, Tender, featured one of the funniest accounts of childbirth I’ve ever heard. The much-loved Fringe veteran is now pregnant again – which should provide plenty of material for this work-in-progress show, which promises her usual mix of the personal and the political.
Monkey Barrel (monkeybarrelcomedy.com), Aug 23-29
Winner of the coveted Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality, Masli is best known as part of the sketch troupe Legs. But this year the Estonia-born clown makes her solo debut. Judging from her delightfully weird club appearances, it’ll be something quite special.
Monkey Barrel (monkeybarrelcomedy.com), Aug 18-22
A West End hit in the brief window between last year’s lockdowns, the Scottish Netflix star’s stand-up show Hubris mines shockingly bad-taste topics – Hiroshima, school shootings – for unlikely comic gold.
Corn Exchange / Festival Theatre (edfringe.com), Aug 11-15 & 21
Shah’s last show, Dots, was a fiercely intelligent, moving hour of stand-up that touched on big questions of life, death, family and religion. It sets a high bar for this follow-up.
Monkey Barrel (monkeybarrelcomedy.com), Aug 10-15
Terrible Wonderful Adaptations
High-concept theatre meets lowbrow mucking about, as a group (led by John-Luke Roberts) try to adapt an unadaptable text for the stage. Previous efforts have included the iTunes Terms and Conditions, the 1997 Lib Dem Manifesto and Allen Ginsberg’s beat poem Howl.
Assembly Roxy Central (assemblyfestival.com), Aug 13