Everyone's a racist, in their own way ...
The challenging humour of W Kamau Bell will be this festival's slow-burner, while fellow comedians find the funny side of romance, anatomy and food
Sunday 14 August 2011
It is often said that the Edinburgh Festival exists in a bubble, but W Kamau Bell is not going along with that. Certainly, the San Francisco comic's show does not want for scope.
Ending Racism in about an Hour is his playful mission – a mission made even tougher by the gaping rows of empty seats on a rain-sodden Sunday night. But if Kamau isn't packing houses come the bank holiday, I'll eat my 360-page programme: a more urgent performer at this year's Fringe I've yet to see. Swiftly dispatching with the hoary myth of a post-racial America, his quietly raging polemic gauges the "Richter scale" of racism, from open bigotry to subconscious prejudice. No one is left off the hook: the ignorant, the well-meaning, or the New Yorker audience member moved to beam that "the blacks love my husband!". "He's good with one more black," he bristles later.
"Race is not real" is his repeated mantra, borne out by an amusingly bemused detour into the vagaries of official racial categorisation. Elsewhere, there are stinging satiric broadsides against the Caucasian bias of People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive list and American football's penchant for Native American team names. And as for that racism-ending solution? Bell calls on white people to feel "white pride" and, thereby, a collective responsibility for white prejudice. There's an obvious contradiction here – to cleave to race or reject it? – that's never quite resolved. But no matter: this is seriously funny stuff, in the truest sense of the phrase.
As titles go, Dave Gorman's Powerpoint Presentation could hardly be less inspired. Gorman has been using the slideshow software as a cornerstone of his act for the past decade, while leading a raft of geekily-minded stand-ups to follow suit. Fortunately, that's where the laurel-resting ends. Eschewing the globe-trotting quests of yore, this low-concept hour instead opts for a discursive ramble around the recesses of the internet. The devil, as ever with Gorman, is in the detail: whether he's investigating the deceptions of fellow twitterer Jim Davidson or fake social networking accounts devised for phone adverts, his frenzied curiosity knows no bounds. It wouldn't be a Gorman show without the odd, self-imposed challenge, hence a climactic questlet to produce super-smelly pee, a rare duff note in a show that otherwise proves he doesn't need to stray far beyond his laptop to conjure a beguiling sense of adventure.
From the manic to the mellifluous. The guitar-strumming Isy Suttie has created a right little charmer with one-woman song-rom-com Pearl & Dave. A goofily-realised study of computer love, it charts the online reconnection of Suttie's childhood neighbour and his long-lost amour, eight years on from a Butlins brief encounter. Suttie has a rare gift for character comedy, and her careful delineating of Northern man-child Dave – monotonous, twitchy, brusquely emotional – and Southern housewife Pearl – gawky, fluttering, quietly despondent – is matched by her exquisite ear for the banal, everyday detail. With shades of Alan Bennett, the result is a happy-sad joy.
Conversely, hackneyed-wan is the prevailing mode of Phill Jupitus's Fringe comeback set. After 10 years off the stand-up circuit, the TV favourite acknowledges he's still "feeling [his] way back into it"; problem is, the stale observations of the subsequent hour suggests he's been on a decade-long sabbatical from life to boot. Or maybe it's just that his decision to theme the bulk of his set around the different ages of man is an inevitable catalyst for sweeping generalisations. So, apparently, twentysomethings like blue drinks, thirtysomethings are obsessed with Cath Kidston and fortysomethings are irrationally intolerant. A diatribe against Coldplay is less shooting fish in a barrel than torpedoing them. Indeed, when Jupitus slams the band as "the aural equivalent of magnolia", the criticism is too close for comfort.
Finally, a couple of reasons to be on your avant-garde. Disturbed mime-artist Doctor Brown was one of last year's word-of-mouth successes, and now has audiences flocking to the Underbelly – a considerable achievement for an act who might euphemstically be called an acquired taste. With the audience wrongfooted at every juncture, the venue, Becaves, is a bedlam of rubbish tricks, cryptic scowls, feral crotch grabbing and swinging genitalia. Brilliant "anti-comic" or prankstering charlatan? It's a moot point, though the show's lunatic spirit is certainly infectious, as evidenced by the audience's swift descent into peals of nervous laughter.
If you don't fancy anti-comedy, how about an anti-restaurant? Such is La Concepta, the location-shifting non-eating establishment of the ever-brilliant Simon Munnery. A 15-minute dining experience offering "haute cuisine without the rigmarole or the rigmarole without the haute cuisine", it replaces the banalities of real food with skit-ish specials (I particularly recommend the "Chilly Gymkhana") stewed in the coruscatingly nonsensical imagination of the anarcho-humourist. And all compliments to the un-chef: it's just the thing to cleanse any palate sullied by oil-dripping burgers and over-egged sets.
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