Edinburgh is upon us. It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. An irresistible, terrible, fabulous pilgrimage. A marathon, and a sprint. Yin and yang. Bert and Ernie. This year's will be my 41st Edinburgh Festival, or "the auld Fringe", as we veterans call it. When I started coming to Edinburgh, I'm not sure whether there even was a festival. It was just a caravanning holiday, I think. I can't really remember – if you remember the Edinburgh Fringe, you weren't there.
But, at the prompting of the Independent on Sunday, I find myself recalling enough of the festivals I was at – and even several I've missed – to compile Jimmy Connolly's Survival Guide to the Edinburgh Fringe. You'll need it. Edinburgh, or "Auld Reekie", as the locals call it, is an endurance test, like spending three weeks down a mine in a Fife colliery. A rainy mine. With just a Fringe programme for a pick, and Arthur Smith as a canary.
Be you comedian, thespian or mere civilian, get out of your comfort zone. Experiment. Sup deeply of the spirit of the Fringe. Myself, I see no point just doing the 20-minute stand-up set I do all year round. In 2007 – my first show after five years' absence – I brought my usual 20-minute stand-up set to Edinburgh, and added 40 minutes of PowerPoint. My select crowd went crazy – but then, Fringe audiences are the most open-minded in the world. For my sins, the Evening News review branded me "an Edinburgh institution", making me sound like the Royal Infirmary.
Wherever you look, you can find mind-bending activity on the Fringe. Where else can you see comedy mixed with presentation software? Opera mixed with dry-stone walling? Theatre-going mashed up with monsoon conditions? I have this year's programme in my hands and I'm literally excreting excitement. And fear. Aaaaaay-Up Topless Comedy Meets Bottomless Talent? Can't wait. My old comedy mate Emma Thompson's sex-traffic drama Fair Trade? Almost too scary.
But don't go the mega-venues – the Pleasance, the Assembly Rooms – which are run by faceless corporate fools with zero respect for art. Get off the beaten track. Find the stars of tomorrow. The Edinburgh Fringe incubated Peter Cook, Rusty Lee and my mucker Tony Slattery. It makes stars out of losers. Before Michael McIntyre appeared here in 2003, no one knew who he was. Those were the days.
But be warned: the best shows aren't listed in any programme; they're performed impromptu in Daniel Kitson's bedroom or on the George IV Bridge, to an in-crowd that usually includes Simon Callow and members of Spain's fantastic Paco Peña dance troupe. Edinburgh is famous for premiering Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. But few people know that it never had a public performance. It took place behind a locked lavatory door in the flat I shared with the young Tim Roth. I'll never forget that night. I was BURSTING!
Don't spend a penny
Edinburgh is expensive. The big venues fleece comedians. The Pleasance kidnaps audience members, and ransoms them to their families to increase its vast profits. But there are ways of doing it on the cheap. Seek out shows on the Free Fringe, where shows are free, or on the Five Pound Fringe, where they're less than a tenner. That's where this particular "Edinburgh institution" (the Evening News) will be, in the fast-rising venue Dan and Alec's Health Foods on Fingzies Place, making my stand for independence – the true spirit of the Fringe. In my new show, I address some pretty heavy stuff; the faint-hearted might steer clear. Oh, to be like my mates Russell Howard and Peter Kay, great guys with the gift to make people laugh while keeping things really basic and mild.
You can also save money on one of my low-cost Late Night Edinburgh Tours, when audiences join me for a ramble and a laugh – an event hailed as "the very... spirit... of the Fringe" (The Scotsman). One night last summer my antics led from the Gilded Balloon to a Highland jig around Holyrood Palace gardens, into the fleshpots of the city's so-called "Pubic Triangle", then to a midnight feast near an Esso garage in Comely Bank. On that occasion, there was no audience – the Fringe ticketing system collapsed, I hear – but it's a route I'll re-trace with a choice crowd of night-owls later this month.
Remember to eat and exercise
Don't be seduced by the prodigious drinking: the last time it happened to me, I woke up to see Young Guns II star Christian Slater drinking Glenmorangie out of Aussie comic Adam Hills' prosthetic leg. It was wild. You're better off sticking to the non- alcoholic local delicacies: pies, Irn Bru and Irn Bru pies. I once ordered a salade niçoise in The Hardened Artery café in Stockbridge. In all my years doing comedy in Edinburgh, I never got a bigger laugh.
No festival is complete without a yomp up Arthur's Seat. The fastest climb ever was achieved by the cast of Fringe smash Jerry Springer the Opera, who were (and some believe that this disqualifies their record) being pursued by a mob of angry Christians at the time. Being notoriously hard on myself, I prefer the rigour of an intellectual work-out. I'm never happier than browsing the Old Masters at the Gallery of Modern Art, or watching some atonal Kazakh concerto at the Usher Hall. Then there's the Book Festival, where I've been entertained by all the "big beasts" in literature, from Doris Lessing to Harold Pinter, Sean Hughes to Jenny Eclair.
Trust word of mouth
At the Fringe, the buzz is everything. Talk to strangers. Don't read reviews: this "Edinburgh institution" never did, and never will. And don't trust the marketing. If you're handing out flyers on the Royal Mile, you're either a student, or you're desperate for an audience. I never, ever do it. I get students to do it for me. Talk to taxi drivers. If anything is, they are the spirit of the Fringe. After so many years at the festival, the locals and I speak one another's language. Last year, I asked my cabbie whether he could recommend any good theatre. Whether or not he understood the question, Hibs vs Kilmarnock turned out to be the most dramatic 90 minutes of my festival.
Come back for more
No matter how tough – and believe me, it's like getting whacked by Mike Tyson, sans gloves, non-stop for a month – you can't let Edinburgh beat you. OK, so half the audience walked out of my experimental 2002 show 55 Minutes of Funny. But what, as I painstakingly explained to the Pleasance when they refused to book me the following year, would a bunch of unimaginative tourists know, anyway? And now it is upon us again. Just as Auld Reekie would be in a poor state without its Royal Infirmary, it can rely on this "Edinburgh institution" (the Evening News) to be there come rain, hail or more rain. Whether or not I come back next year, one thing is for sure: I wouldn't miss the Edinburgh festival for the world. n
As told to Brian Logan
The Edinburgh International Festival runs from 4 Aug-5 Sep, eif.co.uk; the Edinburgh Fringe Festival from 6-30 Aug, edfringe.com
Fringe and Festival highlights
Jupiter Artland Year Two
For an escape from the Festival grind, this spectacular contemporary sculpture garden includes works by Cornelia Parker, Anish Kapoor and Marc Quinn. Thur-Sun to 12 Sep, Bonnington House, Nr Wilkieston (tel: 01506 889 900)
Kim Coleman and Jenny Hogarth
The City observatory opens to the public for the first time in years for this collaborative duo's video installation, which places the city under surveillance. To 15 Aug, City Observatory (tel: 0131 220 1260)
The Turner Prize prankster of lights-going-on-and- off notoriety offers a showcase of his new and recent work in this exhibition themed around progressions in size, height and tone (inset right). To 31 Oct, Fruitmarket Gallery (tel: 0131 225 2383)
The Divine Comedy
Raise those collective eyebrows ironically as arch orchestral-popster Neil Hannon and band play in support of their critically acclaimed 10th album, Bang Goes the Knighthood. Fri, The Liquid Room (tel: 0131 225 2564)
Following his spectacular reinvention, the expletive-spewing-rapper-turned falsetto crooner showcases the mellifluous retro-soul that sent him to the top of the charts. 20 Aug, HMV Picture House (tel: 0844 847 1740) The Phantom Band Mashing up folk, prog and electronica with deftly composed indie-pop melodies, this Glasgow sextet may just be the best Scottish band you've never heard of. 24 Aug, Electric Circus (tel: 0131 226 4224)
The Edinburgh International Festival's opening concert joins the BBC Scottish Symphony orchestra with principals Willard White, Jessica Rivera and Kelley O'Connor in John Adams' moving nativity oratorio. 13 Aug, Usher Hall (tel: 0131 228 1155)
A rare revival for Carl Heinrich Graun's little-known 1755 opera about the fall of the titular Aztec emperor (right), featuring a libretto by Frederick the Great, no less. 14, 15,17 Aug, Kings Theatre (tel: 0131 529 6000), Bliss Rapturously received in Sydney, Brett Dean's operatic adaptation of Peter Carey's first novel about an ad executive's visions of hell receives its European premiere. 2 and 4 Sep, Festival Theatre (tel: 0131 529 6000)
Lockerbie: Unfinished Business
As the furore over the release of the Lockerbie bomber rumbles on, this topical piece traces the efforts of victim's father Jim Swire to uncover the truth behind the bombing. Wed–30 Aug, Gilded Balloon Teviot (tel: 0131 622 6552)
David Leddy's Sub Rosa
Take a walk on the dark side with this acclaimed promenade production, centring upon the Gothic goings-on within a Victorian music hall troupe. Thur-30 Aug, Hill Street Theatre (tel: 0131 226 6522)
New York's Wooster Group brings its experimental sensibility to bear on Tennessee Williams' autobiographical play about a New Orleans writer struggling with his career and sexuality. 21-24 Aug, Royal Lyceum (tel: 0131 473 2000)
Idiots of Ants
Widely acclaimed for their slick, high-energy routines, this young sketch troupe return for a fourth year with the big-time beckoning. Wed-30 Aug, Pleasance Courtyard (tel: 0131 556 6550)
Something of a comedy bridesmaid, Eldon has appeared in everything from I'm Alan Partridge to Four Lions , but now has his first solo Edinburgh run. Thur-30 Aug, The Stand (tel: 0131 558 7272)
This foppish eccentric, known for his scatty stage demeanour, should receive a deserved publicity boost from the star power of his show's director, The Mighty Boosh 's Noel Fielding. Thur–29 Aug, Underbelly (tel: 0844 5458 252)
The New Art Club
At the lightest end of the dance spectrum, duo Tom Roden and Pete Shenton return with a greatest hits show containing their inimitable mix of comedy, choreography and philosophy. Thur-29 Aug, Assembly Rooms (tel: 0131 623 3030)
Samoan high chief and choreographer Ponifasio and his company MAU offer a mix of contemporary dance and ancient ritual. ' Tempest: Without a Body' and 'Birds with Skymirrors', 14 and 15 Aug, 17 and 18 Aug, Edinburgh Playhouse (tel: 0131 473 2000)
Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal
Despite Bausch's untimely demise last year, her company continues to thrive. Here they present Agua , her hymn to Brazilian culture. 27-29 Aug, Edinburgh Playhouse (tel: 0131 473 2000)
Hugh MontgomeryReuse content