Edinburgh Festival `99: 2000? Pull the other one...

Comedians are bending over backwards to avoid the same tired, old millennial gags.
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Have you heard the one about the millennium? Yes, far too often, thank you. More than four months before the most hyped event in, oh, about a thousand years, audiences are already choking on a surfeit of millennium gags. Every time I hear yet another wearisome joke about the millennium bug ("is it catching?") or airplanes dropping out of the sky on New Year's Day ("people living near Heathrow will have to wear helmets"), I yearn for a time machine to take me beyond this most hackneyed of subjects.

The millennium is a big topic but there are more original ways of covering it than suggesting the Dome resembles a breast. Which is why the imagination of some comedians is to be applauded. Certain performers have gone out of their way to put a new spin on a tired old subject. Dave Gorman, for instance, has hit on the unusual idea of asking the readers of the 2,000- odd local newspapers in the country to suggest ways to create a better world for the new millennium.

In his show, Better World, he admits that using the word millennium "is always a good idea for dragging in the nutters - they can't resist it". Sure enough, Gorman has received such outlandish proposals for improving the planet as introducing a new style of post box and making criminals parade the streets with a sandwich board detailing their offences. One inspired correspondent suggested the best way to ameliorate the world was to put "all freight on the canals."

Gorman is always trying to steer clear of predictable ground - last year he devoted his entire, hour-long Edinburgh show to a line-by-line analysis of the Ian Dury song, "Reasons to Be Cheerful".

"I'm most proud of the fact that I've now done Edinburgh five times and I've never once called a show `Gorman Wisdom' or `Gorman Conquests'," he laughs.

Stroking his unfeasibly large sideburns, he says that part of the thinking behind this show was to avoid an approach that has already been done to death. "I can't imagine doing an hour of `my computer won't work' material. The idea of taking a cliche like a kettle not functioning is really fruitless. The best thing about 1999 is that it sounds like a bargain. If I wanted to do a straight millennium show, that would be my one joke and I'd be desperately trying to weave 59 minutes worth of other jokes around it. But I want to go on a journey with my show. I don't want to know what's going to happen next."

Hattie Hayridge comes at the millennium from an equally abstruse angle. In her new show, 4.15 in the Afternoon, she envisages a world two years hence where the Millennium Dome has been converted into "Centreponds Pleasuredome, a leisure complex with the rustic charm of a duck-pond setting". For entertainment, people pay to feed Prozac to the plastic ducks on one of the 53 fake ponds.

Hayridge conjures up a vision of a consumerist hell. "It's a universe where you have to pay for everything," she says. "There are already fewer and fewer real things around. Everything has been turned into an unreal theme-park or tourist attraction. What will we have next? Ye Olde Museum of the Computer Operator? You can't even eat anywhere that isn't themed these days. I tried to get haggis here the other day, but all I could find was American-style bars. We all bow down to the great god Progress, but what we've actually created is a leisure-world nightmare."

For Hayridge, the Dome sums up all that is wrong with our soulless, commercialised world. "I tour around the country doing gigs, and all I see is people selling crap because that's what they think tourists want. It's a world built on buying and selling crap and the Dome is the epitome of that. It's a monument to style over content - and in that respect it's fitting because that's what we have become. The millennium is just about people trying to make as much money as they can - from entertainers to babysitters. The eclipse was the people's millennium because it was free and there weren't so many people trying to rip us off."

But perhaps the most oblique approach to the millennium has been taken by comedian Richard Herring. "The subject will become unbearable by the actual time of the millennium," he sighs. "There'll be millions of gags about the same thing.

"Comedians will all be saying `have you ever noticed how the Millennium Dome looks like a ...?' you fill in the rest, I can't be bothered."

To side-step those cliches, Herring has written It's Not the End of the World a play in which four characters flee to Fiji to avoid the brunt of the millennial apocalypse predicted by Nostradamus. He and his cast took their research to extremes by actually going to Fiji to soak up the atmosphere.

The play picks up on the prevailing mood of fatalistic millennial angst. "People are obsessed by it because they want to believe in a controlling influence," says Herring, brandishing his well thumbed copy of Nostradamus: Countdown to Apocalypse and surrounded by Fijian artefacts such as a wooden tribal mask.

"If everything is pre-ordained, then you don't have to take responsibility for anything. People rely on it because it gives them a sense of security. They love the feeling of release that fatalism gives them. It's also about wanting to believe there's magic and something more to our lives than just our lives."

But Herring encourages a good deal more scepticism about the import of the year 2000. "People try to impose patterns on things," he continues. "That has enabled us to be successful evolutionary animals. We can spot patterns, like pregnancies, and learn from them. But we can also spot patterns where there aren't any. Something tells us that the year 2000 must be significant. It isn't. It's just the 1999th anniversary of the day we decided to start counting. I read a good book, Questioning the Millennium by Stephen J Gould, about how it's not even the anniversary of Jesus's birth. At the millennium, people will be committing atrocities to fulfil prophecies. They'll look for ways of making it work. We can tweak anything to suit our meaning. In a car, you stop and look at the milometer when it reaches 2000, and everyone goes "wooo." The millennium is just a massive milometer."

Not all these comedy ideas work, but at least these three artists have put a bit of thought into coming up with something different - surely what the Festival should be about.

Herring's only worry is that Nostradamus is right and the apocalypse comes before It's Not the End of the World finishes its run. "If that happens, we'll have to postpone the show until the re-evolution of Man. I'll leave a copy of the play in a secure drawer."

Dave Gorman's `Better World' and Richard Herring's `It's Not the End of the World' are at the Pleasance (0131 556 6550) to August 30. Hattie Hayridge's `4.15 in the Afternoon' is at the Assembly (0131 226 2428) to August 30