A funny thing happened at the Edinburgh Fringe festival last week. By the time I'd come to the end of my first 48 hours of watching shows, I'd heard the same joke three times. As the days have gone on, I've heard variations on it a couple more times again. Nothing so strange about that, you may heckle. What with swine flu, Michael Jackson and the MP who bought a house for his duck using money from the public purse, there's heaps of recent material waiting in the wings to be whittled into a witticism. Admittedly, Sir Peter Viggers' bizarro expenses claim has cropped up from time to time (not in the form of a gag per se – just saying the words duck island is apparently enough to raise guffaws, and quite right too), but the joke was on none of these comically malleable current events.
Instead, the most popular joke at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe is about women and – excuse me while I darn my split sides – how they're terrible at following the plots of films! Boom boom! The stand-up Andrew Lawrence rants about it, Idiots of Ants do a sketch about it and even Laura Solon – whose character comedy results in one of the very best shows on the Fringe this year – drops in a sly reference.
What is going on? Cracks about women being unable to watch films "properly" have, like jibes at our rubbish parallel parking (ho ho) and constant nagging (tee hee) have been around almost as long as mother-in-law jokes, haven't they? Surely they have no place here on the Fringe, home of the avant-garde, incubator for new ideas and hunting ground for fresh talents.
Not so. Consider the following, also all heard this year: "My wife and I are more similar than you'd think. I want to earn money and be successful. And my wife – well, she wants me to earn money and be successful too." Thanks for that, Geoff Norcott. Or how about Lawrence's, "My wife was telling me the other day that I never listen. I said, 'milk and two sugars, love.'" And then there's Carey Marx's well-crafted put-down: "I was sitting next to a woman on the plane and she called me a misogynist. I said, 'Misogynist? That's a big word for a woman.'"
Misogyny, like microphones and audience baiting, remains a cornerstone of the male stand-up's set-up. What's happening at this year's Fringe is more complex, though, as comedians up here appear to be suffering from a collective gender identity crisis. It's not just the men. Sarah Millican's provocatively titled Typical Woman show weighs up whether it's better to be a man or a woman; Two Left Hands are an energetic duo whose feminist-skewed skits include foolish men trying to put Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie "back in their place"; and Anna & Katy, already being hailed by critics as the new French and Saunders, describe their surreal sketch show in the official Fringe programme as being "so funny you'll think they're men".
Everywhere you look, comedians are mining their gender for laughs. There is a "bromance" character comedy (brom-com?) about "Britain's Best Mates", and extended skits on masculinity called Rogue Males and No Sissy Stuff. John Gordillo's coyly titled relationship stand-up, F**konomics, comes with the tagline "Sex. Man. Consequences", while Alexis Dubus's Parisian alter-ego, Marcel Lucont, claims to be "France's premier misanthropist and lover" in his show, Sexual Metro. There are shows about being a blonde woman (Blondes), an old woman (The Virginia Monologues) and a typical woman. There are all-male sketch troupes who dress like they're in Reservoir Dogs and all-female sketch troupes with names such as Lady Garden. There's a show called The Shocking Truth about Men and Women. There's even a rom-com which riffs on the imagined diaries of Adam and Eve, the original man and woman. So can there really be anything new to be said on the subject? Is the men are from Mars, women are from Venus dichotomy still ripe for laughs? I decided to find out.
First, a little scene-setting is required. The 2009 Edinburgh Fringe has a one-track mind. The festival is fairly pulsating with sex. If it's not the sweetly unironic Las Vegas exotic dance troupe Chippendales enacting female fantasies with dickie bows and fireman's helmets, then it's an evening with the star of more than 250 porn films, Ben Dover, in Innocent 'til Proven Filthy!. Prefer something a little more genteel? Try Jane Austen's Guide to Pornography ("nudity, smut and dreadful wigs from the author of Buttboy and Tigger!"), perhaps, or Confessions of a Sex Reporter, a show by the brothel-creeping television presenter of Sin Cities, Ashley Hames.
Sex sells, and if all this titillation is a response to the recession, it's working. The Fringe has shown itself to be remarkably resilient to the credit-crunch so far (the inevitable Blow Up: The Credit Crunch Musical! notwithstanding). Though the vast majority of performers lose money by making the pilgrimage to Edinburgh, there are an unprecedented 2,098 shows this year, in 265 venues. Advance ticket sales (the only figures available at this stage) from the central Fringe box office show a 20 per cent increase on 2007, which turned out to be a record year for takings with 1.69 million tickets sold. Elsewhere, at the comedy hubs of the Gilded Balloon, the Underbelly and the Pleasance, ticket sales are up by between 30 and 40 per cent.
Still, the comedians weren't to know when they began writing their shows last September that this year's Fringe would defy economics. Perhaps that's why so many of them have chosen to go back to basics with shows about the oldest joke of all, the difference between men and women.
I begin my research with The Shocking Truth About Men and Women, the stand-up debut from Geoff Norcott, a former teacher and football-and-jelly wrestling pundit on the lads' channel Nuts TV. "Sexism gets laughs," explains Norcott apologetically, at the start of a set which attempts to flip the usual sexist jokes to discredit men instead of women. "Watching a man trying to manipulate a woman is like watching a dog trying to get a drink from a sprinkler," he summarises. "Ridiculous." He comes up with some fresh ways into his material – I liked his laconic new internet acronyms and his observation that, "having kids now would be like Robbie Williams rejoining Take That. It could be amazing but it might ruin the group dynamic."
Likeable as it is, it's not really breaking any ground on the differences between the sexes. Perhaps Britain's Best Mates, based on the currently popular-in-Hollywood concept of the "bromance", could shed new light. Phil and Phill are two mismatched fellows – one burly and tanned, the other weedy and translucently pale – in matching England rugby shirts, Levis and trainers. As they share tips on their "award-winning friendship" (the secret lies in the acronym ANT N DEC) we discover the affection and jealousy at the heart of their bond. It is an amiable, feelgood show quite unlike anything else on offer this year.
Over at the Pleasance Courtyard, Adam Riches' Rogue Males is the best of the boys' bunch, introducing a gloriously silly quartet of macho males whom he uses to poke fun at long-held ideals of masculinity. Riches' subjects are men "hewn from rock and spat from womb. Men who swim against the tide and shave against the grain", including a belligerent big game hunter and a bellowing lead actor. Riches' fine eye for surreal detail, combined with his manic energy and some daft interaction with the audience, make this show the most fun you'll have at the Fringe.
Over to the women. Female comedians arrived in Edinburgh even more beleaguered than usual this year, following a double-barrelled assault from Dara O Briain ("women just don't do stand-up") and – the treachery! – Germaine Greer ("women aren't as funny as men"). To prove them wrong, 80 female comedians performing at the Fringe marched to the steps of the Bosco Theatre last week and posed for photographs. Most of them had never met before.
"We don't seem to be allowed on the same bill as each other most of the time," says Tiffany Stevenson, the co-founder, with Phil Nichol, of the Old Rope comedy night, who is making her solo debut this year. She's also brought Girls with Guns, a late-night variety show featuring three female stand-ups and one male ("for guy candy") to Edinburgh for the first time. "To me, if you're outside the box, as a woman in this industry for example, you're instantly more interesting because your opinion is not already out there, thousands of times over," she says. "People like to pigeonhole women comedians. If you're playing the ditzy character, that's fine, everyone likes you. If not, you're a bitch. A male comedian gets away with a lot more. If he's rude about another man, he'd never be called bitchy."
Sarah Millican avoids the pitfalls of either ditz or bitch in her thought-provoking show, which seeks to reclaim the phrase "typical woman" for the good. Why, she asks, is it always uttered
with a disapproving tut in relation to bad parking, rather than as a celebration of all things womanly and positive? She's an unusual stand-up, lulling the audience into submission with her sing-song, girlish Geordie tones and mumsy glasses-and-smock get-up, before smacking them in the gob with a foul-mouthed gag about bodily functions or rape. Asking the audience what is best about being a man or a woman, she eventually reaches the conclusion that we're all a bit of both, but along the way there are troubling ideas. When a colleague compliments her figure, she's both outraged and girlishly flattered, and when someone mistakes her for a prostitute she's secretly thrilled. "I'm a rubbish feminist," she admits. Quite.
Looking like Amy Winehouse's older, wilder sister, Janeane Garofalo, the Emmy-nominated Hollywood actress turned stand-up, superlatively and vituperatively delivers a set which encompasses both Spanx and George Bush's war crimes. She, like Millican, is squeamish about appearing too strident, following up a perfectly timed rage against the thong as an instrument of patriarchal oppression with a piece about how much she likes cute calendars with pictures of sleepy puppies. Still, there are fine nuances to both of these acts and it's good to see feminism, for some years outmoded on the circuit, back on the comic agenda.
Leading the invasion of female sketch troupes to the Fringe this year are Lady Garden, Two Left Hands and Anna & Katy. Of these, the youthful sextet of Manchester graduates Lady Garden enjoy the highest profile, thanks to the presence among them of Beattie Edmonson, the daughter of Adrian Edmondson and Jennifer Saunders. Dressed in green tunics over leggings, the girls don't want for dynamism but their material is weak. I loved the pole-dancing versus maypole dancing sketch, and the regal, historical take on America's Next Top Model ("I have two ladies-in-waiting waiting before me..."), but the sketches rely on a relentlessly narrow sphere of "female" experience. Are all women really bitter divorcees to be found either in yoga classes or supermarkets? Must try harder.
Two Left Hands (Charlotte Hudson and Leila Hackett) are the most experienced of the three sketch troupes and the most overtly feminist in their outlook. They find new ways with old stories – praising the 1950s housewife, playing out a divorce over a game of Top Trumps and casting Macbeth's weird sisters on a Loose Women-style chatshow. They also make for uncanny Cherie Blair and Pauline Prescott look-alikes. Although not always worked through to the punchiest of punchlines, their sketches have bite and wit.
Best of all are Anna & Katy, a new double act in ill-fitting vintage floral dresses with barely enough material to fill 45 minutes, but bags of invention. Their surreal show includes sketches about a pair of South African brothers who can fly, posh girls "in gluten-free earrings" at a poetry slam, and a village fete. They also manage to make dialling a telephone number hilarious. It's not quite reading out the telephone directory and making it funny, but almost. Bravo.
Hackneyed and hoary it may be, but barring the yawnsome old misogynistic jokes which still (and probably always will) pepper stand-up sets like some kind of comedy comfort blanket, there is still comic mileage in gender stereotypes and the differences between men and women. The key is to be inventive about it – to create new archetypes like Riches' rogue males, to call yourself a feminist but dig deep into the difficulties of your stance, or simply to find a new way of looking at the world – as a woman or a man. "Different styles of comedy come in and out of fashion every year at Edinburgh," says Stevenson. "It's great what Sarah Millican's doing this year. Male critics will say it's been done before but it hasn't for a while and not in this way. I don't think any topic can be overdone as long as someone has got something new to say about it."
Novelty rules at the Fringe and the very best shows are those which dare to do something different. Across all the types of comedy on offer this year, highlights include Richard Herring's Hitler Moustache, an erudite, electrifying show about racism which peaks with a joke-free but compelling tirade about the BNP; Mark Watson's spoof hotel, staffed entirely by up-and-coming comedians; and Laura Solon's superb one-woman journey through a publishing house and its characters, from the dictatorial yet kindly oligarch owner to the ball-breaking New Yoiker agent. Of the newer and exciting talents, Mike Wozniak, an eccentric-looking chap with a bushy slug of a moustache, wriggling eyebrows and a tendency to over-enunciate, creates a bonkers but infinitely pleasurable hour of science trivia and spoof movie scripts, while the plummily posh Jonny Sweet (set to play David Cameron in a television drama about the Conservative leader's early years) creates one of the most charmingly off-beat shows I've seen for some time, with a tribute to his fictional brother, Arthur. It's the first time I've ever been hugged on my way in to a stand-up show, too. Elsewhere the male-female duo (a mixed-sex duo! Whatever next?) Frisky and Mannish have taken the Underbelly by storm with their category-defying cabaret/ comedy, School of Pop, performing Lily Allen in the style of Noel Coward and providing the solution to mysterious equations such as "Kate Bush + Kate Nash = ?".
The last word should go to Tom Basden, the if.comedy Best Newcomer award-winner in 2007 and creator of two of the best shows at this year's Fringe: Party, an exemplary satire about five friends setting up a new political party; and his own finely crafted comedy hour of songs, cartoons and silly facial expressions, Now That's What I Call Music-Based Comedy!. He too turns to the differences between men and women mid-way through his genial, ingenious set. His comparison begins mundanely (men are physically bigger than women), then takes a swerve into the surreal (men prefer things made out of metal, women things out of wood), before he admits that his sample group for women was, in fact, his two grandmothers. On this basis, he concludes that women tend to be a bit deaf, walk slowly and, most of all, are very, very proud of him. Which just goes to show that in the right hands, even the oldest material can be made hilariously new.
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