The Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a rom-com? Sure, why not? It's the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. That's the kind of crazy thing they do up here, right? It's a gloriously sunny Sunday afternoon and I'm sitting in a dingy pub basement off the Royal Mile watching a musical by an up-and-coming American comedian (Negin Farsad), which casts Israel as a gangsta rapper and reads the Middle East conflict as a kind of on-off, tortured romantic entanglement à la Rachel and Ross from Friends. The crowd, naturally, goes wild.
Over the last two weeks, I've also watched Obama Mia!, a musical comedy in which Barack Obama falls into a "hope-induced coma" just days before the election, Joe Biden is a permanently intoxicated dope in a Hawaiian shirt and Fox News is run by, well, a sinister stuffed fox. And on Sunday, I watched Showstoppers improvise a whole musical on the theme of the Big Society. The end result combined the revolutionary fervour of Les Mis with Bob Fosse fin-de-siècle stylings and a cameo from David Cameron, channelling David Bowie and, inexplicably, riding a llama.
Who said satire was dead? Leaving knockabout comedy musicals aside, though, what of our fearless stand-ups, demolishing political foibles and slaying sacred cows in crushing monologues, devastating skits and unanswerable one-liners? The Fringe is, after all, the spiritual home of satire. It was here, in 1959, that John Bird and Peter Cook were first spotted, in a Cambridge Footlights show, The Last Laugh, set in a nuclear bunker. It was followed the next year by Beyond the Fringe, with Cook, Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller, the show that kicked off the 1960s satire boom in surreal style and paved the way for That Was The Week That Was, Private Eye and, latterly, Have I Got News For You. Ben Elton, Alexei Sayle, Rory Bremner, Armando Iannucci and John Oliver, to name but a few of the brightest stars in the satirical firmament, all sharpened their teeth in dingy basements off the Royal Mile.
With an unusual new government in power, an Old Etonian in Downing Street, the rise of the BNP, a limping economy and, further afield, a newly vulnerable American president, 2010 should be a vintage year for political posturing, coalition comedy and government gags, shouldn't it? The Fringe's theatre programme this year is bursting with political hot potatoes – Guantanamo Bay in Lidless, the ongoing fate of al-Megrahi in Lockerbie: Unfinished Business, the South Ossetia war in Do We Look Like Refugees?! – to name but three excellent examples. I set out to find their funnier counterparts on the comedy slate.
My search begins, on a rainy Monday at midnight, at The Stand's week-night mixed bag Political Animal. The brainchild of Andy Zaltzman and The Daily Show's John Oliver, it's billed in the programme as "the Fringe's only and probably best political stand-up gig." Zaltzman is a genial host, providing a politics quiz in the interval and gentle gags on a range of topics from fair trade to voting. "Everything conspired against Gordon Brown in the last election", he muses: "Stuff, events and his own personality." Otherwise, it's political punning. Silvio Berlusconi is "a man who's been involved in more scandals than a dyslexic shoe-shop owner" while the BNP are "the only political party to be named after what would happen if they ever disbanded – a British national party."
Also on the bill are Alun Cochrane, who delivers some whimsical observations about "Barry" Obama, the BP oil spill and William Hague's role as Foreign Secretary ("That's a mistake. That scalp's going to burn in a hot climate.") and newcomer Max Dickens, who has a couple of nice observations on rubbish political advertising, but confesses he's not done many gigs to "such an intelligent crowd". Andrew Bird makes fun of David Cameron's face ("it looks like he's been drinking Botox") and lays into the BNP "because it's an easy target". And Andi Osho, the only female character on the bill (of whom more later) delivers some neat aperçus on Boris Johnson – "we've got a clown for mayor. It's like living in a Batman sequel" – and on Dizzee Rascal talking politics on Newsnight. Apart from Zaltzman, every single one of them apologises for not knowing much about politics, or not having much political material. If you can't find politics at a political gig, where can you find it?
I continue my search, without much hope. Perhaps Chris Addison, star of In the Loop and The Thick of It, will have something to offer. Not really, though his show about middle-class foibles – panic-buying bread-makers at the first sign of snow, battling with wi-fi – is very funny, if a little middle-of-the-road. He does have, though, one fantastic joke about his plan to bring down the BNP by buying all of the souvenir golly dolls he says are for sale via their website and then sending them back. "And then we'll see how they like it..."
It's the same story elsewhere. Kevin Eldon, star of Brass Eye and just about every other cult television hit of the last 20 years, has a piece about Tony Blair's contribution to world peace (it's a minute's silence) while the coalition Government is summed up in increasingly apocalyptic terms: "They're the new owners of the shop. And the shop sells fireworks. And the shop is on fire. And their solution is to put up the price on catherine wheels."
Otherwise, it's just the odd gag – Gary Delaney: "I bought a ticket for BNP: The Musical! He said, 'do you mind restricted views?' I said, 'what do you think?'" – or a vague nod to the current economic climate. Pappy's All Business sketch show starts from the premise that they're broke and need to do "cheap sketches" which can be unpacked from cardboard boxes, but it goes no further than that.
The exception is a trio of engaged and engaging female comedians who are, in their own ways, tackling politics and what it is to live in Britain today. Tiffany Stevenson's show Dictators is, at first glance, the most overtly political. Dressed in military garb on her flyer, Stevenson leads her audience through a list of "the world's top five dictators". It's all quite flippant– she wonders whether Hitler would fancy her, comes up with a new acronym for Obama, not POTUS but PILF, and jokes: "I went to China and bought my boyfriend a red Chairman Mao T-shirt. He put it in the wash and it destroyed all the other clothes." Her top five, it emerges, are Hitler, Mugabe, Gaddafi, OK! magazine and her mum. She's funniest and most passionate on these last two, reserving the full force of her vitriol for the oppressive regime of glossy magazines peddling unobtainable lifestyles. The personal is the political, after all.
Andi Osho's Afroblighty is a more coherent hour about Great Britain and cultural identity. Born in the East End to Nigerian parents, Osho is a warm and witty performer whose friendly delivery conceals some uncomfortable truths. She recalls the shock that she felt as a child when someone first shouted racist abuse at her in the street and, from there, riffs on notions of self via Nigerian princesses and black female politicians. "Floella Benjamin is in the House of Lords. Really? How'd she get in? Through the round window?" Most memorable, though, is the three-minute spoken-word piece, "Brit I Am", with which she closes her show. A list of everything that makes up the UK – sticky-backed plastic and Princess Di, Live Aid and the Second World War, Primark and Harrods – it's moving e nd to a thoughtful show about what being British means in 2010.
Lastly comes Josie Long, back on the Fringe after a year off, and on great form. There's much to savour in this hour – the belligerent and relentlessly pedestrian astronaut from Orpington with which she opens her show, her discovery of a website dedicated to one man's breakfast diet, and an encounter with a phoney paparazzo while travelling. But it's in the last 10 minutes of her show that she warms to its title Be Honourable! She is, she says, no longer afraid of talking about politics on stage. There are harsh words for Labour: "I understood Labour. Living under Labour was like hanging out with a dear, old friend who you deeply suspect has betrayed you". And even harsher words for the Conservatives. Life under the new Government is, she says, "like being stabbed with little pins every single day. I'm angry all the time. Every day they do something that upsets me and angers me." Baking rye bread, watching Korean films and living in Hackney close to organic delis is not enough, she tells us. There's a difference between being nice and doing good. Though her condemnation of all Tories as villains and her idealisation of Nye Bevan are a little childishly expressed, it's still a rousing call to arms. There's a fervour to this show which is lacking on the rest of the Fringe.
This trio are part of a strong female cohort at the Fringe this year. At the launch of the Edinburgh Comedy Award earlier this month, Nica Burns proudly pointed out that some 20 per cent of the acts eligible this year are women. Still some way to go, then, but it's an upward trend and, who knows, maybe 2010 will be the year for a female triumph? The last female winner was Laura Solon in 2005 and before her, the only other has been Jenny Eclair in 1995, and two best-newcomer winners, Sarah Millican and Josie Long. This year, Millican, Long and Solon, as well as Celia Pacquola, Pippa Evans (in character as Loretta Maine) and Ava Vidal have all returned to the Fringe with strong shows while Sara Pascoe, Osho, Jess Ransom and Nat Luurtsema are all impressing with debut hours.
So, if they're not talking about politics and the wider world, what are comedians talking about at the 2010 Fringe? Well, themselves, mainly. Though generalising about the comedy programme, all 121 pages of it, is a dangerous game, one of the clear trends this year is formal experimentation. Comedy is no longer just a man with a mike, standing at the front of a black box. There's still plenty of that to be found, of course, but the boundaries are blurring, mixing traditional stand-up with other art forms.
At this year's Fringe you can watch comedy in the dark, comedy mixed with film (Popcorn Comedy) and comedy game-shows (Comedy Countdown). Musical comedy is everywhere, capitalising on the success of Flight of the Conchords and a guaranteed crowd-pleasing atmosphere. There are angsty singers like Loretta Maine (sample one-liner: "What do you call a man that cheats on his girlfriend? Dead."), improvising hip-hoppers (Abandoman), rock pasticheurs (Dead Cat Bounce) and washed-up rappers (Doc Brown). There's a comedy-jazz fusion night, The Horne Section, in which stand-ups riff over a five-piece band, a comedians' musical, Gutted, and Karaoke Circus, in which funny men and women let loose their inner rock gods and soulful divas for our entertainment. Elsewhere, poets Tim Clare and Ross Sutherland combine stand-up with spoken word, while several comedians have veered away from stand-up into storytelling and theatre this year. Terry Saunders weaves adorable love stories with bite in Six and a Half Loves, while Henry Paker and Mike Wozniak let loose their imaginations in The Golden Lizard. Daniel Kitson remains king of the form. His poignant breakfast play at the Traverse, about the tiny, seemingly insignificant moments that make up a life, It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later, is one of this year's highlights.
In a reaction against all of this genre-crossing comes a set of comedians who play with the idea of a traditional hour with a microphone in more or less self-conscious ways. Gary Delaney has been a circuit favourite for years and now makes his long-awaited Fringe debut with Purist. As the badges he gives out at the end warn, this is a strictly "no whimsy" zone. "Don't expect subtext, narrative or characters", he says at the top of an exhausting hour. Even the classic warm-up patter has been stripped back. "Give me a cheer if you like good things! Boo if you hate bad things!" And then he's off, racing through hundreds of one-liners (personal favourite: "I could tell it was a Monopoly board from the word 'Go'."), a joke for every letter of the alphabet, good-taste jokes, bad-taste jokes, the most repeated jokes on the internet, and so on.
For others, simply telling jokes is not quite enough. You have to tell jokes about telling jokes. John-Luke Roberts's solo debut works on the loose premise that he is a serial killer, committing murder off-stage during the show. The real victim, though, is stand-up as he systematically dismembers the traditional trappings of the comedy show. Heckles are doled out methodically to every member of the audience, row by row, slapstick happens off-stage, punchlines are read out before set-ups and five-star recommendations come via a sinister kidnap video. In between, are lots and lots of good, old-fashioned gags.
Similarly Bo Burnham, the 19-year old sell-out sensation of this year's Fringe, kicks off his accomplished hour with a rousing song, at his piano, "What's Funny?", which lays out the rules of comedy and the shape of the show to come. For the rest, there are songs, raps, haikus and one-liners all delivered with an aloof world-weariness – "this song's about the idea of irony", he pouts, "strap in!" – which makes the silly punchlines even more enjoyable when they hit.
Old hander Kevin Eldon, too, agonises over how to fill his hour of comedy. "I can't make it all hilarious songs", he ponders. "I'm not Craig David." Instead, he makes fake attempts at Michael McIntyre-style observations and lays into the conventions of heckling. It's brilliant.
These shows are the best examples of experimentation, where playing about with form is simply an excuse for cramming in more material and more jokes.
There's a danger, though, that with all of this self-reflexiveness, all this comedy about comedy, the scene could become a little claustrophobic, a little turned-in on itself.
Thank heavens then for the few female comedians – particularly Osho and Long – who have looked further afield and spoken out this year. Without them, it would be tempting to see the lack of political comedy at this year's Fringe as symptomatic of a wider lack of comedy that has anything to say about anything at all.