EDINBURGH FESTIVAL '98: March of the batty brigade

Forget stand-up. Forget everything you've ever known. The new Surrealists are here.

A doctor in a velvet smoking jacket silently injects a patient in a plaid dressing-gown. Suddenly the doctor levels a gun at his patient, only to be interrupted by a man with a white all-in-one Elvis kit and a handbag, who claims to be an inspector from the Salvation Army. He, in turn, is stopped by the patient, who strips off his dressing-gown to reveal himself as an alien wearing a glittery gold jumpsuit. Is there a surrealist in the house?

This sketch takes place early on in the gloriously titled I Don't Know If You're Familiar with the Voodoo Phenomenon of Zombie, But..., the new show from Universal Grinding Wheel at the Pleasance in Edinburgh. It is just one of many examples of "anti-stand-up" at the festival.

These acts - which also include The Mighty Boosh, Peepolykus, Hitchcock's Half Hour, and The League Against Tedium - are a move away from storm- the-barricades ranters and the wearisome "have-you-ever-noticed?" observational comedians. The new breed is inhabiting a defiantly apolitical and consciously silly territory. The only meaning is that there is no meaning. Rob Newman affectionately dubs the movement "The New Ponces."

Dana Fainaru, who directed Zombie, speaks for all the nouvelle vague of surrealists when she says: "people are tired of stand-up comedians and topical jokes. There's only so much you can flog mobile phones and political correctness and sexual perversions. And there's only so much people can take of topical, political, Ben Elton-type comedy - that has run its course. With so many stand-ups around, it's hard to pick one out."

You could never say that about the batty brigade. In The Mighty Boosh, for instance, Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding play two zoo-keepers miraculously transported into an enchanted forest. Here they encounter such people as a man with bananas for fingers which are used to make Smoothie milk shakes for a TV cookery programme. It's all very "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds".

Rich Fulcher, who plays the banana-digited character, reckons that, "comedy should be a surprise. If people expect a certain style - a stand-up talking about the differences between cats and dogs, say - then it becomes hackneyed. People know what to expect from observational comedy. This is an attempt to move into a different area."

In an apparently surprising admission for a comedian, Barratt says: "I can't do jokes. I've always come from left field and tried to subvert conventional comedy. I started as a rebellion against that - albeit a very soft and surreal rebellion. It's escapist. I want to create a world where all the rules are different. It should be magical to enter." "We're not angry young men," Fielding chips in. "We're vague young men. To win our battle, we're trying to confuse people."

John Nicholson is one of the three members of Peepolykus, who are performing Horses For Courses, a wacky new show about three clowns trying in increasingly absurd ways to act out a Chekhov-type play at the Siberian National Theatre. "We've devised ideas which we've had to cut because they're too satirical or political," he says. "If we start being too witty or clever, we lose it. When you watch children put on a play, you enjoy their enthusiasm. Kids take things to extremes and suspend disbelief in such a huge way. We want the audience to laugh at something stupid."

The modern-day influences on this school of comedy are obvious; you need look no further than Messrs Reeves and Mortimer, Izzard and Hill. Fielding, however, traces it right back to the original Surrealists. Donning a metaphorical tin helmet to ward off incoming flak about being pretentious, he ventures that, "the comparisons with Surrealism are quite applicable. For instance, the theory behind Un Chien Andalou, the film by Bunuel and Dali, was that the audience must never know there's a story line. Everything must be unconnected. That's why Surrealism has lasted so long. The idea of creating something where you've no idea what's going on is still relevant now.

"Also, the Surrealists were angry with the way they had been treated after the First World War. So they were trying to shock people and jolt them out of their humdrum lives, but it was funny at the same time. Andre Breton and a friend wrote an automatic text called The Magnetic Field. They got themselves into a state by staying up all night drinking coffee, so they were hallucinating with tiredness. When they read the text the next day, they laughed out loud. You can find out more about this on Noel Fielding's Guide to Surrealism on BBC2," he laughs before turning desperately to Barratt and saying: "quick, make a fart joke to get me out of this."

The modern-day manifestation of this produces what Fielding and Barratt call "the snot-bubble laugh." "It's not clever, it's not about the intellect," says Barratt. "It's very childlike. Sometimes it takes you two or three seconds to get your head round a joke and laugh at it. With a snot-bubble laugh, it comes instinctively - almost in spite of yourself. It's caused by something silly - like when a little kid says something unexpectedly bizarre."

It all seems rather simple, this daftness lark, doesn't it? People often view it the way they view modern art - with a sniffy "what's so clever about that? I could do that." But, Fielding contends, it's not as easy as it looks: "You can't blag it. Vic and Bob say that there's a skill involved in putting nonsense together that will make people laugh. It's like Les Dawson playing the piano wrong. You have to believe it. You can't say mad things just for effect. If I said, `I saw a seafood giraffe firing peas out of its wrist' in the same way I'd say `I saw a woman coming out of a pub,' people would soon get bored."

"You also have to have a structure," Barratt chimes in, "or it wears people out. It's strange, but something about lack of structure needs a structure itself. Otherwise after a while, it's like looking at a Rothko painting or a Peter Greenaway film. You think, `OK, I want to see something else now'."

This new school of the silly is not without its critics. All the acts have experienced walk-outs. "We used to hand out audience feedback forms," Nicholson recalls. "One said, `this is stupid, silly nonsense and I hate it.' Another said, `this is stupid, silly nonsense and I love it'." O'Neill has had similar experiences. "Unfortunately some people think, `I don't get it. Leave me alone'. We're resigned to the fact that 60 per cent of our audiences are in favour of the show and 40 per cent want to cause us harm or murder us for wasting their time."

The surrealists have taken over the asylum. To prove as much, O'Neill concludes - with a touch Dali himself would have been proud of - that his show is designed for "people with emotional deficiencies... or an allergy to yeast."

Universal Grinding Wheel, Peepolykus, and The Mighty Boosh are all performing at the Pleasance (0131-556 6550) until 31 August

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?