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