Comedy: One for all the laddies

Ross Noble Judith Lucy Supergirly Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh The League Against Tedium Dave Gorman Dominic Holland Pleasance, Edinburgh
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The Independent Culture
So far, the most exciting comedy discovery at this year's Fringe has been a man whose material isn't particularly funny. Luckily, Ross Noble doesn't have much material. His first scripted joke - about a pumpkin - arrived 25 minutes into his show; his second - about wizards' hats - came 15 minutes later. In the meantime, he improvised with awe-inspiring fluency and imagination - and this was genuine improvisation, not the do-your-usual-stuff-in-a-different-order variety favoured by Eddie Izzard.

Noble, performing in the same room as Johnny Vegas was when he inspired a similar buzz two years ago, is a 22-year-old from Newcastle. He dresses all in white, with an unfortunate peroxide mane to match, so you'd think he'd keep quiet about other people's clothing. But no. The sight of one spectator's red shirt sets Noble off on one surreal hypothesis after another: he doesn't just run with an idea, he somersaults and pole-vaults with it, but remains calmly matter-of-fact as he does so. In the shorthand of celebrity hybrids, Noble has the mind of Vic Reeves, the speed of Phil Kay and the hair of Michael Bolton.

It's a lot harder to define The League Against Tedium using this system, but I should think that Davros, Emperor of the Daleks, and Kierkegaard would be in there somewhere. The League is the latest guise of Simon Munnery. (The guise, incidentally, involves a frilly shirt, striped trousers and a Davy Crockett hat.) Centre-stage is a screen on which he projects slides, computer animations, and images of himself and the audience, captured by a hand-held video camera inside a toy sword. With me so far? Good, because he is also accompanied by a pianist, an opera singer, and a man in an ape mask.

It's more funny peculiar than funny ha ha. Last year, Munnery had some technological paraphernalia, but it was there only to augment his Nietzschean aphorisms. There are still a few of these, and they're still terrific: "If you can't beat them ... beat them," barks The League, with an insane grin, "because at that stage, they'll be expecting you to join them." But for his new show, Munnery has spent more time developing the gimmickry than the gags, and he has to fill the gaps with references to his genitals and mumbled, out-of-character comments about pub lock-ins. In Munnery's own account of the show in last week's Independent on Sunday diary, he wrote, "My heart's not in it. I've bitten off more than I can chew." Reluctantly, I'd have to agree.

Dave Gorman is another comic who isn't satisfied doing conventional stand-up. Or, as he puts it, he won't put on an Edinburgh show "unless it has the potential to be shit". Last year he devoted an hour to the lyrics of one Ian Dury song. This year, his ambition was grander still: to make the world a better place.

First, he posted letters to the UK's 2000 local papers, asking for global- improvement suggestions. Naturally, he was soon receiving pornographic photos, death threats and school projects about an alternative postal system. Next, he did his skewed best to carry out any practical suggestions he was sent, risking life and limb and a custodial sentence in the process. He recounts his misadventures in a deadpan, punchline-free lecture, illustrated with slides and an overhead projector. It's more stand-up journalism than stand-up comedy, but it's funny, unique and always weirdly fascinating. My only misgiving is that Gorman seems to be having his crackpot cake and eating it. He mocks people for replying to his advert in good faith and he laughs not just at their poor punctuation but at their strange obsessions. But who is more strangely obsessive than he is?

After Munnery and Gorman's multi-media extravaganzas, the bloke-with- microphone traditional format can seem tame, especially if said bloke's act comprises the domestic observations of a young husband and father. So it is with Dominic Holland. But mild-mannered as he may be, there is an understated artistry to his performance, especially in the slight frowns and moues he adopts when he acts out scenes of middle-class discomfort. With just a few facial muscles, he conveys the fathomless pain and self- loathing of accepting a cup of tea you don't want. Its a lot funnier than it sounds.

Enough about subtlety. Judith Lucy is an Australian Jo Brand after a year at Weight Watchers. She stands with a hand on her hip and drawls sarcastically about anything that fails to reach the standards of her favourite activities: smoking and drinking. Actually, her material is stronger than Brand's, and her persona more winning, but like Brand, she does tend to limit herself to soft targets. Most of us know that Hollywood stars are overpaid and that women's magazines contain stupid advice, while her critique of The Horse Whisperer movie - "Just shoot the f---ing horse" - only confirms the forthright Aussie stereotype. She finds a better target for her attractive balance of vulnerability and cynicism in a routine about hiring an "escort", as the euphemism goes. It's refreshing to hear Lucy's shrugging contempt for "the most mediocre one-night stand" she's ever had.

Supergirly made less of a case for Australian women's humour: this much- hyped karaoke comedy duo is little more than the Grumbleweeds in sequinned dresses. The Girlies sing pop hits with parodic lyrics, except on those songs where they keep the original lyrics but sing them in bratty voices. It's not very super. Louise McClatchy is an amusing actress, but you can't get much more dated and predictable than a Michael Jackson spoof with the refrain "you can't tell if he is black or white". Examining the hype more closely, it centres on Supergirly's celebrity fans. And when did you last consider Elton John and Sporty Spice to be authorities on comedy?

Ross Noble, The League, Dave Gorman: Gilded Balloon (0131 226 2151), to 30 Aug. Dominic Holland, Judith Lucy: Pleasance (0131 556 6550), to 30th Aug. Supergirly: Pleasance, to 29 Aug

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