The Edinburgh Fringe is the Woodstock of comedy – and it offers the greatest prize there is for an art form that has less immediacy than the hit-driven world of music, but has a crowd every bit as eclectic and innovative as musical movements such as Britpop. Call it Britcom, if you will.
Every movement has a talisman, its Holy Grail. For Fringe comedians, it's the "Oscar of comedy" – the if.comedy award (the Perrier as was), which has boosted the careers of winners and nominees such as The League of Gentlemen, Steve Coogan, Al Murray, Ross Noble, The Mighty Boosh and Harry Hill. The buzz they created was deafening at times. With the Boosh, there's still a sustained ringing in the ears from all the hype; they, perhaps, have done more than anyone to create a comedy mania that matches the mania for music, most notably in their recent festival.
This year a host of comedians, some of whom have already been award nominees, are returning to the Fringe in the hope that they can maintain their buzz and perhaps even amplify it. Comics such as Mark Watson, Russell Howard, Michael McIntyre, Lucy Porter and Andrew Maxwell are back; their appetite for the jamboree appears undiminished in spite of the physical, mental and financial strains of the Fringe.
Maxwell has described the Fringe as "exams for clowns". When passed, these exams allow acts to tour up and down the country, widening their audience base. Building an audience in this way can be more effective than a handful of appearances on panel shows. That said, Mock the Week and Never Mind the Buzz-cocks (especially with Simon Amstell on board) have done much to build the notion of a young Britcom in-crowd.
Of course, overexposure can be as damaging as none at all. There's a good argument, sometimes made by the comedians themselves, that acts should leave a year fallow to regroup and to prevent the Fringe suffering from "inter-rail syndrome", where every show looks and sounds the same. However, many acts seem to favour successive Fringe appearances as the best way to further their development. No pain no gain – as long as it's not painful for the audiences, of course, which is the fine balance that must be struck.
This year, amid the continuing renaissance of live sketch shows, established stand-ups such as Des Clarke and Lucy Porter are doing solo gigs, but are also putting on sketch shows. It's an intriguing development that might see familiar stand-ups ply their trade under a different branding. Could we see a sketch "supergroup", made up of an ensemble of stand-ups, that will build even more of a sense of identifying comedy with groups, much as happens in music? But every trend has its obverse – and this year sees a solo show by Steve Hall, known to Fringe audiences as one-third of the sketch troupe We Are Klang.
If it's rambunctious sketch groups you want, then look no further than Pappy's Fun Club, who bear the same anarchic sketch mantle as Klang and are already inspiring "copycat" troupes filling a number of sketch-only club nights springing up as an antidote to the plethora of stand-up.
Meanwhile, back with the stand-ups, this year only a few of the big guns of Britcom are popping by the Fringe. Bill Bailey is in town, for one night only, a habit that some comedians see as almost an insult to the Fringe, but it's probably inevitable at that level of celebrity.
Jimmy Carr parks for a while longer at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, a venue that screams UN summit rather than Fringe. Omid Djalili, still finding success with Hollywood cameos, again plays The Pleasance's largest venue, the Grand. And Tim Vine, who once had the largest poster on the Fringe even though he wasn't there that year, is another reliable perennial on show.
Elsewhere, some of the lo-fi big guns of British comedy who like to "keep it real" are to be found at comedy's defiant outpost, the Stand Comedy Club – an if.comedy-free zone in terms of acknowledging the award, and an antidote to the big four venues of the Gilded Balloon, the Assembly Rooms, the Pleasance and the Underbelly. Both Stewart Lee and Daniel Kitson will be holding court at the Stand, and they will be joined by Andy Zaltzman, a purveyor of subtle but excellent political satire. In the spirit of the comedy sketch group, Kitson will team up with Zaltzman and others to provide happenings under the banner The Honourable Men of Art. Nothing like setting your stall out.
All tastes are catered for at the Fringe, but if you're looking for the essence of Britcom, then shoe-leather must be sacrificed. The development of the "Edinburgh Comedy Festival" by the big four has, on the surface, been designed to make the punter's job easier. Amid screams of "cartel!", the new festival is only joining a movement that was already taking place, though it's unlikely to win an if.comedy "spirit of the Fringe" award. While it is an attempt to sew up the market (and may itself lead to conformity), it also seeks to distil the essence of what's funny and give that accolade to a chosen few who regularly play at their venues.
Ultimately, we're obsessed by this "best of" approach to all things Britcom, something that's fed by a constant diet of comedy top 50 or top 100 shows. The latest concoction of TV clips asks us the question, When Were We Funniest?. I almost expect to see follow-up shows called How Were We Funniest? and Why Were We Funniest? to push the point yet further.
But, in the end, it's probably the Edinburgh Fringe Festival that will best answer those questions. And the winner of the if.comedy award is...
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe starts today and runs to 25 August
The new wave of comics at Edinburgh
It's not just music that had a Manchester scene; in the 1990s, the city built up arguably the best comedy circuit outside London, one that nurtured Dave Gorman, Chris Addison and Lucy Porter. Meanwhile, the boys and girls who had already made good, like Steve Coogan and Caroline Aherne, were still to be seen. Porter worked on The Mrs Merton Show before coming out from behind the camera to start her own comedy career. A Fringe favourite, this small-but-sassy comedian dines out on charm but has some killer lines to boot.
Comedy moment: "I'm a single woman in my thirties, so most of my friends are gay men and cats. Turns out that most of them are attracted by the stench of gin and regret."
Where to see her: Pleasance Courtyard (0131-556 6550), to 25 August, not 6, 13
A breathless delivery and a lo-fi view of the world have earned him comparisons to Ross Noble and Daniel Kitson respectively. Howard is compelling viewing when he's on form. The appeal of this bounding Bristolian puppy has been widened by numerous appearances on panel shows, including Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Mock the Week, and by co-hosting a radio show on BBC6 Music with Jon Richardson.
Comedy moment: describing how he drifted apart from a lost love "like two toddlers on Lilos".
Where to see him: Assembly @ George Street, Assembly Rooms (0131-623 3030), 20-24 August
The co-creator of Jerry Springer the Opera and one half of Nineties student darlings Lee and Herring brings a show called Scrambled Egg to the Fringe. Lee's routines are based on definite rhythms and repetition, but few comics have acts whose impacts change so dramatically with the slightest variation in delivery. Love him or hate him, and it's frequently both at the same time, Lee is a craftsman at work. He might not always make you what you asked for or expected, though, and that's part of his charm.
Comedy moment: [on the day of comedian Malcolm Hardee's funeral] "It's so nice to be here – better than looking at the corpse of someone you love being burnt."
Where to see him: The Stand (0131-558 7272) 3 to 24 August, not 8, 9, 15, 16, 22, 23
One of the candidates for the title of hardest-working men in comedy, the angst-powered Bristolian (who adopts a Welsh accent for his stage shows) has taken on all manner of challenges at the Fringe, including shows lasting between 24 and 36 hours and environment-themed jollies. Watson, also a novelist, has restricted himself to appearing in just one show for the Fringe this year, but with the title of "All the Thoughts I've Had Since I Was Born" he has his work cut out.
Comedy moment: on watching a film that was trailed: "You will never feel safe in your house again", Watson's response was: "I enjoyed it – but I had to move out."
Where to see him: Pleasance Courtyard (0131-556 6550), to 25 August, not 12
Irish comedians (Dylan Moran, Jason Byrne, Ed Byrne, Ardal O'Hanlon, Sean Hughes etc) are too influential and popular not to be part of Britcom, although they do come from their own, self-contained scene. Maxwell says that, for last year's if.comedy-nominated show, he wasn't doing anything different from his previous appearances. More of the same, then, please.
Comedy moment: "I haven't told my son anything about religion because I love him."
Where to see him: Pleasance Courtyard (0131-556 6550), to 25 August, not 6, 13
The relentless punster has broadened the base of his appeal with the sitcom Not Going Out, in which fellow stand-up Lee Mack co-stars. Vine, brother of Jeremy, and whose sister Sonia is also on the Fringe this year, rarely fails to amuse with his groanworthy gags, which he's put to good use to set the world record for the most jokes told in an hour. Now, that's value for money.
Comedy moment: "So I went down my local ice-cream shop and said, 'I want to buy an ice cream.' He said, 'Hundreds and thousands?' I said, 'We'll start with one.' He said, 'Knickerbocker glory?' I said, 'I do get a certain amount of freedom in these trousers, yes.'"
Where to see him: Pleasance Courtyard (0131-556 6550), to 16 August, not 6
Lancashire's answer to Frasier doesn't suffer fools gladly, especially ones who are messy and generally offend his anally retentive nature. Richardson is a hero for the OCD generation, dividing the world into "putters and leavers" and standing firmly on the side of the "putters". His if.comedy newcomer nomination last year was thoroughly deserved.
Comedy moment: talking about being anally retentive: "I don't enjoy myself as much any more, but at least I know where everything is."
Where to see him: Pleasance Courtyard (0131-556 6550), to 25 August
Zaltzman's former comedy partner, John Oliver, is now a rare example of a British comedian succeeding in the US, as part of Jon Stewart's Daily Show team. Given that Zaltzman bears a passing resemblance to Sideshow Bob in The Simpsons, it's a surprise that he's not crossed the pond. Oliver's David Baddiel-meets-Ben Elton persona might be more in your face than Zaltzman's quieter charm, but both are brilliant in satire – an area Britain excels in.
Comedy moment: "I think most illegal immigrants are coming here to see their local GP."
Where to see him: Stand Comedy Club (0131-558 7272), to 25 August, not 11
Many people are falling over themselves to praise the man informally known as the new Bob Monkhouse – and rightly so; no one has yet made me do a double-take and re-assess their act quite like McIntyre has in the past few years. McIntyre's beaming and bouncy persona has started to creep into more prime slots on television, and he recently lit up an edition of BBC2's The Apprentice with his enthusiastic contributions and some cutting remarks at Alex Wotherspoon's expense, in particular lampooning the candidate's predilection for pointing out his age, 24.
Comedy moment: describing how he gets a kick from asking box-office staff at a cinema in Leeds to repeat the name of the film he has gone to see: "T'Lion, T'Witch and T'Wardrobe".
Where to see him: Pleasance Courtyard (0131-556 6550), to 25 August
Pappy's Fun Club
These four men, one of whom looks like a mini Woody Allen and another like a diminutive Hugh Dennis, were a joy to watch last year as they romped around the stage and made the audience have a good time watching them having a good time. Transferring after Edinburgh for one night in the West End of London, they proved that their brand of goofy comedy can travel, a quality that a forthcoming Channel 4 Comedy Lab hopes to explore further.
Comedy moment: pretending to be Bob Dylan's bored and mystified backing band during a repeated instrumental phrase.
Where to see them: Pleasance Courtyard (0131-556 6550), to 25 August, not 11
No one performs for over an hour as effortlessly as Daniel Kitson. This year he will have plenty of help in taking a dim view of the world around him with fellow "lo-fi" comics Andy Zaltzman, David O'Doherty, and Alun Cochrane helping to make up the grouping known as The Honourable Men of Art. The bearded comic, oft attired like a shambling academic, has an uncanny knack of making a buoyant ego seem endearing, and gloom and despair fascinating.
Comedy moment: [his rhetorical take on being a panellist on The X-Factor]: "'What did you do today, Daddy?' 'I shattered someone's dreams.'"
Where to see him: The Stand (0131-558 7272), to 24 August, not 8, 9, 15, 16, 22, 23
Suttie is now known to a wider audience for her role as Dobbie in the last series of Peep Show, itself the most innovative TV Britcom product in recent years. Her debut solo Edinburgh show last year showed touches of Victoria Wood in terms of her dexterity with musical comedy and holds the promise of equally flattering praise this year. Behind a vulnerable persona lies a strident wit capable of insight as much as clever put-downs.
Comedy moment: She bitches, in song, about a bimbo American singer she meets at her local indie club: "I'm so full of soul / I've got no room for a brain."
Where to see her: Pleasance Courtyard (0131-556 6550), to 25 Aug, not 12