Edinburgh Festival: the fun starts here

Too big. Too many stand-ups. And Norwegian mime troupes. But Stewart Lee will there again tomorrow

Tomorrow morning I leave London in a brown Vauxhall Carlton with a cracked radiator for my ninth consecutive visit to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. As I sit here, washing my pants in preparation for the toughest month of their calendar, I remember: what a long, strange trip it's been.

The festival is all things to all comers: a chance to sample a broad selection of the modern performing arts; an opportunity for talent scouts to see a million and one new acts at venues that are all a short cab ride from their expense-account hotels; a forum for performers to try out new ideas, or to flog old ones to death in one last-ditch attempt at recognition; a Club 18-30 holiday for London's pan-sexual media whores.

The social dynamics of the fringe have changed subtly over the last 10 years. When I first started performing at the festival in 1987 I went as a student, sequestered to the misguided university drama group staples of a mid-day revue show and yet another mid-afternoon production of Death of a Salesman. Being a student at the festival in 1987 meant being generally hated by the ad hoc fringe "establishment" and blamed exclusively for the relatively smaller audiences for alternative comedy, serious grown- up drama, and European experimental mime theatre.

My stand-up got bad reviews from people who knew I was a student and great reviews from people who didn't; 50 of us slept on the floor of a masonic temple and washed each day in the toilets at Waverley station. We were the untouchables.

Two years later I very nearly gave up the whole idea of being a stand- up, having witnessed ex-Perrier award winning comic Jeremey Hardy taking time out on stage to attack the brilliant ex-student double act God and Jesus, an inspired surrealist duo years ahead of their time. It seemed so easy to make enemies I doubted whether I really wanted to get involved in such a hateful scene.

In my fifth Edinburgh, 1991, where I was now present in my newfound capacity of professional comedian, I discovered that once again I was on the wrong team. A new ad hoc fringe "establishment", fronted by the chairman of the main festival, now blamed the struggle for audiences faced by student shows, serious grown-up theatre and experimental Euro-mime on the corporate- sponsored beast of stand-up comedy.

This year I propose an alliance of comedians and students to round on the Euro-dumbshows and kick them all the way back to Sarajevo. Artists! Never darken the doorway of our private fringe festival ever again.

But this cannot, and must not, happen. The fringe's vitality is inextricably linked to the fact that the irregularities of its content are beyond legislation.

Just as the Stella Artois Assembly Rooms metamorphose into an absurdly hectic version of the South Bank Centre crossed with the Comedy Store, so the Richard Demarco European Art Foundation pursues an ever more theoretically rigorous programme of "out there" performance art that ranges from the utterly awe-inspiring to the utterly awful.

For each converted conference room full of TV executives watching a soft-drink-feted gag-merchant go through his chat-show-friendly paces, somewhere else a crowd of the self-styled intellectual elite sit in a dingy cellar watching a fat man urinating into his own face. And on a good night, if you're lucky, you'll be able to see both, and have time for a few pints in between.

Each year I approach Edinburgh with this mantra: "There is no such thing as pretention, and even if there is, then for one month at least, let it be encouraged."

As a performer, there comes a point where there is little more to be gained from watching your peers finding ever more inventive ways of achieving essentially the same results.

In 1987 I saw Arnold Brown and Gerry Sadowitz, two of the finest comedians the UK has ever produced, and spent the next five years trying to synthesise them. Nowadays I demand to be confused and upset, and maybe even entertained. The inward-looking thuggish enclave of stand-up could do with copping a few moves from the "arts". And the fringe festival offers even the most Philistine of visitors the whole range of "arts experiences" on a plate. With a big side order of tatties and neeps. Here are a few personal highlights.

1991: The Iceman! His act consists of melting some ice in a variety of methods, while making bad puns about ice. N...ice!

1990: A woman is locked, naked and wriggling, in an airless glass fish tank for an hour. God knows what it meant but it was brilliant and completely mad.

1991: An American performance artist wipes her bum on the Stars and Stripes and crumples sanitary products in the faces of men in the audience. I haven't shaved and leave with a ripped up tampon stuck to my chin.

1992: A group from Texas called The Freedom Tourists vomit up half-digested mayonnaise into circular patterns to the accompaniment of a Frank Sinatra impersonator.

1993: I meet Gordon Strachan, a Christian mystic who has an exhibition of visionary photographs of stone circles. Despite looking like my granddad he informs me that he is able to fly into outer space at will. Cool!

1994: Damien Hurst's Rat Opera. I stand in the pitch black listening to minimalist music. My eyes adjust to the dark. There is a live rat clinging to chicken wire six inches from my face. I've yet to find a way of working the "live rat in face" idea into any mid-1990's comedy format, but it could be the way forward.

The festival begins in the bar at the Gilded Balloon, or the Pleasance, or the Stella Artois Assembly rooms, where the stars of tomorrow shadow- box the egos of their competitors, and ends in a makeshift venue in a shady part of town at 3am in the morning, where John Maloney plays bodhrn to accompany Nigel Kennedy on the violin, while a seventysomething American hoofer called Will Gaines tap dances. This event was not scheduled or sponsored, but an audience of people drawn north by the promise of big names in subsidised venues found something special and went away with a once in a lifetime story to tell. And that is the essence of the Edinburgh Fringe.

Stewart Lee is appearing in his solo show at The Pleasance (0131-556 6550) Aug 27-Sept 2

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