Edinburgh `98: Comedy - the new free jazz

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The Independent Culture
How to win friends and influence people in Edinburgh? Be a judge for the Perrier Pick of the Fringe Award,

of course. Last year James Rampton was on the panel. Come on, Rampo, who's going to win this year's gong?

PEOPLE IN Edinburgh at this time of year always contract Festival Fever, a temporary mental derangement brought on by near-fatal doses of hype and hysteria. The most severe cases of this lamentable condition are invariably diagnosed in comedians during the days leading up to the announcement of the Perrier Pick of the Fringe Award for the best comedy act at the Festival. Yes, that comic you see staggering around the courtyard at the Pleasance is frothing at the mouth - and, unusually, it's caused by a brand of fizzy mineral water rather than something imported from Colombia.

For most of the year, the mean and mercenary face of the comedy industry is hidden behind a mask of gags and good humour. But at the height of Perrier-mania, it is revealed in all its bitching glory, as backslapping turns to backstabbing. A Perrier can lead to bigger gigs or a radio show or - and this is the real holy grail - a TV commission. The thinking sometimes seems to be: "do so well live that you never have to appear live again".

When I was a Perrier judge last year, I was astonished by the number of new "best friends" I acquired in the week (awash with free drinks) before the nominations were made. Certain (invariably wrong) buzz-phrases did the rounds among the comedy-rati: "a nomination is in the bag", "the judges are really excited", and (the most popular by a country mile) "Channel 4 are interested".

Now the spume of publicity - exacerbated, it must be admitted, by articles such as this - is lapping towards tomorrow's midnight announcement of the winner, when tears and tantrums are not unknown. Johnny Vegas, a hotly tipped but ultimately disappointed nominee last year, has taken to sending up the hype-fest by devoting 15 minutes of his show to a spurious paean of praise about the top comedy award on the Fringe. He even - a la Formula One driver - wears a fake Perrier sponsorship logo on his trademark potter's smock.

Sadly, it hasn't helped him get on this year's shortlist, which was announced on Wednesday. That honour has fallen instead to (in alphabetical order) Ed Byrne, Sean Cullen, Peter Kay, Al Murray and Tommy Tiernan. Although it is hellishly difficult to boil down the 286 comedy shows at the Festival to a top five, it is still by one Perrier judge's own admission "a conservative list, considering the diversity out there".

But - with the exception of Kay, a dazzling but old-fashioned "one man and his mic" comic who makes jokes about wedding photographers and minicab drivers - at least all the nominees reflect the move at this year's Festival away from "have you ever noticed?" comedy. Eschewing formulaic observations about, say, Star Trek or Raleigh Choppers or mobile phones, performers are turning rather to surrealistic story-telling and sketches which could be summed up by the title: It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Anti-stand- up is the new stand-up. Matt Leys is the producer of the "So You Think You're Funny?" Award, which has been dubbed "the baby Perrier". In the course of the heats for his newcomers' award, he has seen in excess of 200 acts, so he is better-qualified than most to go in for a bit of light trend-spotting. "There is a tendency towards the hyperrealist and the imaginative. We've had sketches and character comedy; now comics are entering imagined worlds and spinning mad invented universes out of nothing. It's all about escaping from the everyday and the mundane and observational comedy - which is really rather boring. Everyone is sick of that. "The comedy scene now feels as varied as the early 1980's alternative cabaret circuit - as it was then called. You never knew what you'd get at a comedy club because people were taking chances. People are now taking chances again. Comedy is the new freeform jazz - only better, thank God."

Iain McCallum, who works for the leading comedy producers, Stone Ranger, couldn't agree more. "People don't want to hear comedians asking "hear the one about ...?" anymore. Stand-ups are reinventing their art form and pushing back the boundaries. I hope I don't sound like a prat," he adds, "but look at the way Picasso developed through the Blue and Pink periods to the Demoiselles D'Avignon. In the same way, stand-up is growing to accommodate a load of new strands like dramatic monologues."

Hettie Judah, a comedy critic, has sat through more than 70 shows at this year's Festival in her capacity as a Perrier panellist. "There is a limit to how much you can say with `my girlfriend does this and that'," she sighs. "There is a limit to the comedy of shared experience. After a while, it just gets boring. Someone like Adam Bloom talks about the mechanics of comedy in his act. It's hopelessly self-referential. Straight stand-ups are running out of material. So many of them are doing stuff which Alan Davies was doing five years ago - like anthropomorphising cats." Cullen, for one, has certainly travelled light years away from that sort of hackneyed material with his nonsensically titled show, Wood, Cheese and Children. Formerly one part of the Perrier-nominated trio, Corky and the Juice Pigs, he improvises songs based on people's names and invents off-the-cuff ditties about the ways in which apparently harmless food can kill you. He's bonkers - and I mean that as a compliment.

Critics have been similarly impressed by the pair of Irish nominees, Byrne and Tiernan. Both abjure gag-a-minute comedy in favour of elaborate story-telling. In A Night at the Opera, Byrne spins a long-drawn-out yarn about being taken against his will by his girlfriend to a production of Cosi fan Tutte. Tiernan's Undivine Comedy, meanwhile, recounts the occasion the comic performed a beyond-the-pale routine about the Crucifixion on RTE's Late, Late Show and became the first person this century to be sued for blasphemy.

"The Irish have a great tradition of story-telling," reckons Nica Burns, the director of the Perrier Awards. "There's the whole jokey thing of them having the gift of blarney. They've always been terrific writers; now it's turning into an oral tradition. The trail has been blazed by people like Sean Hughes, Dylan Moran and Ardal O'Hanlon."

So where does all this leave Murray, nominated for an unprecedented fourth time? It is rare indeed that you leave a comedy show feeling the same sense of exhilaration that you experience after a storming rock gig, but it happened to me last week. Murray's Pub Landlord is an electrifying act. I may be talking myself straight into Pseuds' Corner, but his magnetic performance as the archetypal Little Englander bigot provides often profound and moving insights into what it feels like to be a certain type of British male in the late 20th Century: dispossessed, insecure, and threatened by everything from French people to modern jazz. Oh yes, and it's killingly funny, too.

Highly as I regard the other nominees, I hope Murray wins. And I think this time he just might. If he does, I for one will be celebrating with a drink stronger than Perrier.

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