‘It’s where I learned how to be a comedian’: Nish Kumar on why the Edinburgh fringe still matters

<span>Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

At the last Edinburgh fringe BC (before Covid), more than 3m tickets were sold for 3,841 shows at 323 venues, reported the New York Times. Those numbers, according to one comedian who attended (me), are “loads”. For what started as a side event to the international festival, it is staggering. To performers, the fringe has become a combination of arts festival, summer camp, trade show, shop window and breeding ground for alcoholism.

But with reports that artists are turning their backs on it in the face of escalating costs, does it have a future? If it does, will there be performers, or will it all be holograms, like Abba and Tupac? (The first of those questions is worth considering; the second was a waste of my time and yours. The answer is obviously yes.)

But first, because I am pathologically incapable of engaging with any subject without centring myself in it, a little of my own history with the festival. I have performed at almost every conceivable level: from student comedy and free fringe shows to theatre, standup comedy and presenting for the BBC. This year, I will do a week of shows, performing Your Power, Your Control, which I began work on at 2021’s greatly reduced and socially distanced festival.

We Are Klang, AKA Marek Larwood, Greg Davies and Steve Hall, in 2006
Early inspiration … We Are Klang, AKA Marek Larwood, Greg Davies and Steve Hall, in 2006. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

I first attended the fringe in 2006 as a member of the Durham Revue, a student comedy group that is like the Cambridge Footlights, minus the prestige and the everything. We spent all day handing out flyers with our faces on them to uninterested passersby, before performing an hour of sketch comedy. Our evenings were then spent drinking badly watered-down lager from the venue bar and trying to see as many shows as humanly possible.

The truth is, I was in heaven. I was a lovely brown sponge, soaking up everything I could. I saw Greg Davies screaming in a portable building as part of the sketch group We Are Klang, an experience I would have subsequently at even closer quarters as a contestant on Taskmaster, a show the bearded weirdo Alex Horne developed initially for the fringe. I also saw a seminal performance by the even more bearded and even weirder Daniel Kitson, a comedian, playwright and professional recluse.

The fringe never stopped being an education for me. When I was starting to write hourlong shows of my own, I went to see Bridget Christie and realised everything I was doing was shit and needed to be overhauled. I have watched shows by contemporaries, such as my ex-flatmate turned sitcom superstar Rose Matafeo, the sketch masters Lazy Susan and the genius/serial award-loser James Acaster, that reminded me why I fell in love with comedy.

When I hosted Edinburgh Nights for the BBC in 2018 and 2019, I was even forced to watch things that weren’t comedy. I saw Rachael Young marry live music, dance and Afrofuturism in Nightclubbing, a show that paid homage to Grace Jones. I saw Pussy Riot and was fortunate enough to interview them, where I was informed that they hadn’t been smuggled out of Russia to perform at the festival, as reported in the press, but had travelled “by unicorn”.

Related: Nish Kumar: ‘Do they just hate my jokes?’

When I wasn’t watching shows, I was performing; learning how to be a comedian, step by excruciating step. In 2010 and 2011, I performed in a sketch double act with Tom Neenan. We were called the Gentlemen of Leisure and the show was a parody of The Culture Show on BBC Two and was exactly as financially profitable as it sounds. But we learned a huge amount about joke-writing and the partnership ended up with Tom becoming my partner in crimes against comedy on various radio shows and The Mash Report.

Meanwhile, I was doing standup on the Free Fringe, where the audience members aren’t charged, but can offer a donation to the performers on leaving the venue. The aim is for the donation to be in cash, but we were often compensated in old playing cards, flyers for our own show and bits of string. Still, these were formative experiences, performing on 25 consecutive days, accelerating my development more than months of infrequent gigging on the open mic circuit in London possibly could.

This is not to say that the festival has been without its lows. And my Gods (I am Hindu), those lows were low.

In 2007, I was chased off stage by a heavy metal band – the venue had been double booked and the band and its fans were not in the mood for my brand of whimsy. That year, my student sketch group did a gig that went so badly that we exited through a fire escape so as not to have to speak to any of the other performers.

In 2011, Tom and I arrived at our venue to find a bucket where the second row of seating should have been, as the cave we were performing in had sprung a leak. In 2013, a group of audience members waited outside to beat me up.

Despite all this, I love the fringe. It is where I learned how to be a comedian and created work opportunities that I continue to benefit from. On my 30th birthday, I was nominated for the Edinburgh comedy award and offered a slot on Have I Got News for You and Live at the Apollo. Then David O’Doherty and I spent an hour searching for chips at 6am, so it wasn’t all glamour. The producers of The Mash Report saw me do a political show in the aftermath of the Brexit vote in 2016 and felt I would be a good fit as host for the nascent TV series.

At times, it can feel as though defending the fringe is morally indefensible, like eating meat or supporting Manchester United. Landlords have been encouraging students to stay in their flats in August, leading to a shortage of properties and driving up prices. The Fringe Society was forced to launch a drive to find Edinburgh residents who would be willing to rent properties to performers for less than £280 a person a week. Some performers are staying out of town in caravans or on campsites.

Meanwhile, the Fringe Society is facing criticism for scrapping its app, a valuable tool for performers to direct audiences to their shows, sell more tickets and hopefully mitigate some of those astronomical rents.

The fringe is supposed to be a place where performers can come to experiment and evolve. However, it is turning into a playground for those born wealthy – like Monaco, but with more people who went to clown school.

It has been heading this way for years – and I am not exactly an example to the contrary. I grew up middle class and went to a fancy university that subsidised my first two trips here. More significantly, when I started doing solo standup shows, my first three were paid for by a management company. At the time, the going rate for a solo show (including venue hire, accommodation and PR costs) was about £10,000. I was performing in venues that were so small that even if I had sold every single ticket I would still have lost money.

Some performers are staying out of town in caravans or on campsites

It would be disingenuous not to acknowledge my fortune. It would make me no better than the swines in our cultural and political life who are the children of wealth, but proudly proclaim that they “did it on their own, without any help”. It is our most pernicious myth, aside from the one that brussels sprouts taste nice if you fry them with bacon. Your dad bought you a flat and the thing that tastes good is bacon. Sprouts taste like small, hard farts.

This is to say nothing of the woeful underrepresentation of female acts, ethnic minorities and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Organisations such as Fringe of Colour and Best in Class work hard to address this, but wholesale change is needed. No one seems to be able to put the finger on who is to blame. Landlords, venues, PRs, Edinburgh university and the Fringe Society blame each other, but in the end the bill is footed by performers.

It is no wonder that younger comedians are increasingly seeing the benefits of social media exposure to their careers; the startup costs required are minuscule in comparison to those of doing a show on the fringe. But allowing the fringe to slip slowly into obsolescence would be a shame. At its core, it offers performers a boot camp to hone their skills and a collision of different styles of performance.

Related: ‘Someone’s making money but it’s not us’ – the comics spurning the Edinburgh fringe

Being a performer at the fringe can feel like being a character on a film set in Las Vegas, because the house always wins. And I mean one of the bleak Vegas films, not Ocean’s Eleven – there is no sign of Clooney or Pitt. The only time it resembles Ocean’s Eleven is when you hear some drama student attempt a truly disgraceful cockney accent that would make even Don Cheadle say: “Bleeding heck, guvnah.”

I still believe in the fringe. Perhaps that is inevitable, given my whole life is tied to it, like a pointless Forrest Gump. My birthday is in August, so I can measure my life through the festivals I have attended. My first years I was there, I spent almost every waking moment with Tom and Ed Gamble. In the past three years, I have been best man at their weddings. In 2010, I met a woman who was funny and charming, but whom I presumed disliked me intently. In October, we will have been in a relationship for 10 years. I cannot separate my own life from the fringe and the city of Edinburgh. It has given so much to me, professionally and personally.

But even I understand that it stands at a crossroads. It must find a way to recapture its egalitarian spirit to remain relevant. It is not enough for charitable organisations to fill in the gaps; systemic change is needed. I say this not out of malice, but simply because I strongly believe, to quote my own mother: “If you love something, you must be willing to relentlessly point out everything that is wrong with it,” a phrase she often says to and about me.

Nish Kumar: Your Power, Your Control is at Assembly George Square, 22-28 August