Veteran stand-up Stewart Lee explains the lure of the Fringe, 10 comics, young and old, tell us whether the scene is all smiles. And, for the punchline, a concise history of ‘alternative comedy’Rich Hall (in hat, then clockwise), Sean Lock, Stewart Lee, Tameka Empson and Phill Jupitus
Next year I’ll turn 40, and for my generation of stand-up comedians there’s a Year Zero attitude to 1979. Holy texts found in a skip out the back of the London listing magazine Time Out tell us how Alexei Sayle, Arnold Brown, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders destroyed the British comedy hegemony of Upper-Class Oxbridge Satire and Working-Class Bow Tie-Sporting Racism with a few explosive, post-punk punch-lines. Then, with the fragments of these smashed idols and their own hands, they built the pioneering stand-up clubs The Comedy Store and The Comic Strip. In so doing they founded the egalitarian Polytechnic of Laughs that is today’s comedy establishment. Every religion needs a Genesis myth and this is stand-up comedy’s…
The comedy community I joined in the late Eighties still retained traces of its birth in opposition to both the political and the entertainment establishments of its day. But what’s happened to comedy on the front line, in comedy clubs and at the Edinburgh Fringe? Would the pioneers of yesteryear recognise the territory they carved out?
In the Eighties, London clubs such as Jongleurs and The Comedy Store hosted stand-up comedy, satirical songs, and even magic. Now a massive chain of Jongleurs and Comedy Stores nationwide sells simple man-and-a-mic stand-up to audiences of stag and hen nights – they’re a branded franchise, like TGI Fridays or Pizza Hut, serving up comedians and chips in wicker baskets before the disco and late bar. For this reason, the better acts that play Jongleurs gigs have a set which bears little relation to their best work. The London Comedy Store declares itself the National Theatre of Comedy. But like Jongleurs, the Store is now a night out first and foremost, and a platform for adventurous work second. Their bookers ignore the risky, innovative acts that would justify their hyperbolic marketing in favour of guaranteed crowd-pleasers with often breathtaking people skills, squashed talents struggling to work good material into an environment where it’s not necessarily wanted, and a few jaded veterans hanging in there for the not-enormous fees.
But the blandness of the big chains means that in every city that has a Franchised Laff Retail Outlet ™, at least one alternative venue seems to have thrived in opposition to it, such as XS Mallarkey in Manchester, or The Comedy Box in Bristol, which have almost no crossover with the franchises in terms of acts. The same sort of seismic shift that pitched The Comedy Store against Bernard Manning’s Embassy Club 30 years ago now plays itself out again, but in a post-Blair Britain. What we need is a phrase, such as Janet Street-Porter’s early Nineties classic: “Comedy is the new rock’*’roll” , to nail the New Alternative Comedy and we’ll have a full-scale movement, primed and ready, for fans and performers to align themselves to. The difference today is that the front line that the French and Saunders generation manned has moved North from Soho and Leicester Square and permanently repositioned itself in Edinburgh in August.
I first worked on the Edinburgh Fringe in 1987 (I’m approaching my 20th Fringe), so I feel qualified to state that, right now, Britain and Ireland have the greatest stand-up comedians on the planet and that the Edinburgh Fringe is, for one month, the world’s comedy capital. And they come from all over to be in the Scottish capital in August. There are brilliant Antipodean acts, such as Greg Fleet who is visiting the Fringe this month. All Canadians, meanwhile, are hilarious. But while American stand-ups, such as Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, crystalised the art form, their successors have largely forgotten what it is for. Whenever a high-profile US act tours here the quality of their work is usually disappointing. Any US comics with a real love of the form, such as Paul Provenza, end up returning to the Fringe again and again, in awe of our superior skills; or, as Rich Hall does, they spend as much time as possible in the UK, where the diminished commercial opportunities are vastly outweighed by the value of participating in a comedy community that seems to care about what it’s doing.
The schism in the live stand-up scene is most evident in Edinburgh. For the last few years at the Fringe, acts that would wither before the hen and stag parties of the franchised comedy club chains have received superb reviews and won awards, before returning to their usual life of obscurity, near-poverty and patronising dismissal by big club promoters. Conversely, reliable franchise-club headliners – who can clear £80,000 a year doing corporate gigs andJongleurs weekends – venture to the Fringe to sacrifice a month of massive pay-days in search of credibility, but usually wind up with a set of two-star reviews from the critics and massive chips on their shoulders. Why? Because in Edinburgh stand-up is actually reviewed by critics and consumed by audiences who believe it’s more than just something you go to to get drunk with a big gang of mates (one of whom will end the night chained to a dead horse with his pubic hair shaved off).
So, instead of complaining that stand-up comedy in Edinburgh is destroying theatre at the Festival (it isn’t), we should accept the fact that we are still world leaders in something, and that we got here without public subsidy or private investment, via endless clammy summers of little weirdos working away in tiny Scottish rooms at their own expense. At the Melbourne Comedy Festival and at Montreal’s Just For Laughs, a lot of public and private money is spent enticing comedians from all over the world to perform. Just For Laughs struggles to feel like much more than the Comedy Industry Trade Fair that ignorant journalists and cynical pundits accuse the Edinburgh Fringe of being. In Montreal, American actors pretending to be stand-ups perform endless strings of seven-minute showcases in the hope of a lucrative TV deal to audiences comprised largely of American industry insiders. The Montreal festival’s choices of foreign talent often reflect this conservatism, or are the result of strong-arming by powerful agents. Last year Just For Laughs took the bold initiative of scheduling a series of actual full-length shows by respected practitioners of the art of stand-up from all over the world, and local media and visiting LA media executives reeled with shock as they struggled to comprehend true stand-up comedy, beyond its degraded American form.
But nothing like the breadth, quality or quantity of Edinburgh Fringe comedy is achieved. At the world’s biggest and best arts festival, the performers in the Edinburgh Fringe effectively promote themselves and cover their own inevitable losses. In Edinburgh there is still a sense that strange things are happening without anyone’s permission. Unlike any other major festival in the world, there isn’t a selection procedure for the Edinburgh Fringe – the Fringe director is an administrator, not a curator or a programmer. People just invite themselves by booking slots, buying a “line-ad” , or entry, in the programme, and getting overdrafts to pay for their shows (an afternoon slot in a middling venue might cost a stand-up £5,000 to £10,000 for the three-week duration).
Sure, TV commissioners and journalists and agents can come and spectate, but the Fringe would be happening with or without them. From the bars of their hotels, industry visitors and cultural commentators may imagine the Fringe is the stock exchange with jokes: “Sell white male stand-ups! Buy female Asian sketch groups!”, “The improv market is about to crash! ” But here on the trading floor it feels like Babel, and it’s brilliant.’ Not that you’d know this from the comedy broadcast on TV or radio. A BBC Radio 4 producer earlier this year put the problem in this way: he explained how his father once came to the Fringe to visit him, and was exposed to talents in tiny rooms above pubs far superior to anything he came across on TV or radio, and was confused as to why this was the case.
The producer explained that the procedures which led to talent being spotted or commissioned were many and complex, and that it was often difficult to translate what was great about them to other mediums. Then eventually he heard the sound of his own dissembling voice and blurted out, “You’re right. It’s ridiculous isn’t it.” Few first-time visitors to the Fringe return with their sense of cosmic fair-play intact. “These people are br illiant,” they say, “why haven’t I heard of any of them when Joe Pasquale is a household name?” Well, I haven’t really worked in television or radio comedy for nearly a decade now, but here’s an urchin’s eye view through the letterbox of that big, fancy house.
We know that the BBC’s own trailers are as believable as their phone-in competiton results. Imagine if the BBC was actually allowed to make programmes as fascinating, tasteful and diverse as its promotional ” idents”. (I’m still waiting for that show where the contemporary dancers perform in slow motion on top of a skyscraper.) The most dishonest BBC ident is the one that alludes to everyone’s favourite sit-com of the last 10 years, The Office, as being a product of risk-taking enabled by ” the unique way the BBC is funded”, however, everyone in the business knows that the then controller of BBC2 hated it and tried to pull it after the first show. The Office was unique in tone, style and vision, and as such is not at all typical of television comedy commissioning procedures, which punish flair and reward malleable, cooperative conformity.
It’s unfair to single out any particular programme as an example, but perhaps the worst example of recent years is the BBC3 sketch show Rush Hour. Where classic sketch shows such as Big Train or Monty Python’s Flying Circus were defined by the distinctive writing and performing style of the teams, Rush Hour, and its contemporary ilk, are defined thematically, by subject. It is hard for TV executives to quantify style or a particular comic aesthetic. They are more comfortable talking about where a comedy might be set, or what kind of objects might feature in it. Rush Hour differed from many of the current crop, which have concentrated almost exclusively on the world of thirty-something relationships lately, to look instead at the hilarious world of transport. The result was a loveless, producer-led mechanism for squandering talents such as Marek Larwood and Adam Buxton, both of whom have appeared at The Fringe pursuing their own unique, individual ideas. This, like many current comedy shows, was clearly a programme that no one, in their hearts, really wanted to make.
Radio, by its simpler nature, could act quickly to capture blossoming talents in the moment with small mobile units. But Radio 4’s laborious commissioning procedures mean its comedy remains almost exclusively the kind of middle-class sketch shows where people wander in and out of shops asking for things, establishing an absurd premise, and working it through to its logical and predictable conclusion in irritating student-review voices. Radio 4’s most formally radical comedies remain the subversive quiz-show formats, such as Just a Minute and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, developed in the Sixties and Seventies by the now wizened veterans that still staff them. I am a middle-aged, middle-class man, who once wrote for a 1980s Oxbridge student review, and even I find Radio 4 comedy middle-aged, middle-class and studenty.
It takes courage to allow talents with a vision to follow that vision – and The Office happened despite the BBC rather than because of it – and the only place you will see the comedian’s vision undiluted by television executives is on The Fringe, or, increasingly, on the internet.
There are few modern sights more depressing than a 39-year-old man who has just figured out iTunes sitting down to write a piece about how he feels the internet may change the entertainment industry. At the moment, YouTube is full of genius-nerds developing their own funny 50-second fragments, that can generate enormous feedback without an orchestrated campaign. But now TV comedy producers want some of that internet excitement. Again, because none of them are smart enough to analyse the tone of individual aesthetics of comedy, they are excited instead by the delivery mechanism, in this case the internet. It was the YouTube success of some short pieces the writer-performer Peter Serafinowicz shot himself and posted that gained him his forthcoming BBC series, rather than his years of quiet and diligent work on various, hugely worthwhile projects such as Look Around You and Spaced.
But maybe the heady frontier days of the internet are already over. The suits are wise to it. Earlier this year, I took a script to a television production company. They suggested developing the characters on the web as icons people could interact with, to generate a buzz. I just wanted money to write a script, words and jokes and stuff, on pieces of paper, like in the old days, so I went home and cried. But on the positive side, if a stand-up comedian could eliminate the desire for mass acclaim, the internet could be one of the tools that relieves him or her of the need to cooperate with broadcasters. I have 5,000 MySpace friends. If each of them came to a gig, or bought a cd, every year, I would make a great living for the rest of my life without needing my popularity to be brokered by the unreliable interface of television or radio. The age of the MySpace comedian cannot be far off. Then we will be able to make the transition from the pre-lapsarian comedy paradise of the Edinburgh Fringe and bypass the broadcaster to achieve direct access to mass audiences, without needing to get any dirt on our shoes. Oh, let it be soon.
In the meantime, the Fringe remains the best place to experience the real cutting edge of comedy, and its role in facilitating cultural exchange, introducing new talents and establishing critical criteria is more important than it has been for some time. This is the good stuff. And a quick statistical scan of show titles in a festival that hasn’t been programmed by a governing intelligence, or inhibited by any across-the-board artistic policy, or dumbed-down by TV producers, will tell you what comics really want to talk about.
Last year the Blair government threatened free speech with their woolly, but only narrowly defeated, Incitement to Racial and Religious Hatred Act, and continued its “elephant in the room” approach to the causes of terrorism here at home by refusing to even discuss the possibility that British foreign policy in Iraq was in any way a factor. Twenty comedy shows in Edinburgh last year mentioned these subjects in their titles alone – but how many people caught, say, Abie Bowman’s plucky Jesus – The Guantanamo Years?
Television can’t respond to cultural shifts with the same speed or precision, and radio doesn’t seem to want to. As for the internet, its full potential for the dissemination of quality comedy has yet to be realised. Meanwhile, the Fringe comedy show is written and up and running, without any interference. And because the Fringe attracts people, in all fields of performance, who, however delusionally, believe they are doing their thing for its own sake, it’s the best barometer we have of where artists and audiences want to go next…
Stewart Lee’s new show ’41st Best Stand-Up Ever’ is at the Udderbelly @ The Underbelly, Edinburgh, 0870 745 3083, to 26 August