Edinburgh comics are no laughing matter, say the critics

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The Independent Culture

The Edinburgh Festival has made the reputations of many of Britain's best-known comics, from Stephen Fry to Eddie Izzard and Harry Enfield. But this year the city is decidedly low on laughter. That elusive thing, the Edinburgh Festival buzz, has decreed that comedy has lost its sense of humour.

There are still laughs to be had. The novelist A L Kennedy had the audience doubled up with laughter when she read a new, unpublished short story about a dissatisfied janitor to the Book Festival. A new play, Gagarin Way, has seen Gregory Burke hailed as a writer of great comic timing. And performances in the mould of Sexing Alan Titchmarsh, an extended sketch billed as drama, have garnered broad smiles. Even the title raises a titter.

But the word among the critics is that only a handful of performers, including the smutty singer Jackie Clune, the improvised show Pickups and Hiccups and the stand-up comedian Daniel Kitson, are in the running for the prestigious Perrier Award. Rob Deering, who comperes the Comedy Zone at one of the main venues, the Pleasance, admits that even the most conventional of stand-ups these days do not tell jokes. "They just talk about stuff," he said. The rarity of the gag-teller is such that the likes of John Moloney publicises his show with the fact that old- fashioned stand-up is exactly what he does.

A more typical comedy act is Garth Marenghi's Netherhead, which indulges in surreal story-telling, involving the death of a young boy and a camel, and is closer to the wilder edges of theatre than to Frank Skinner or David Baddiel.

The Independent critic Steve Jelbert says that with the exception of the highly rated Daniel Kitson, he can see no one in this year's festival to rival the talents of Garth Marenghi, who was one of last year's "genuinely imaginative" star debutants. By contrast, Mr Jelbert believes the judges of this year's Perrier should consider boycotting their own Best Newcomer award.

Instead it is theatre that is claiming the comic high ground with an inventiveness that was once the remit of the best comedians. The actor-writer Jack Klaff, whose one-man show, The Whole Shebang, is at the Assembly Rooms, said he learnt enormously from acts such as Ben Elton and Harry Enfield when they were all on the festival fringe about 15 years ago.

"We all stole from it in a way. You couldn't say, 'That's stand-up and we're working in theatre'. You couldn't ignore it. But we have now learnt from the brilliance of the comedy guys. In theatre we can use comedy, but we have an entire spectrum of other stuff as well." Besides, he said, at a time when politicians were all engaging comic script-writers on their speeches, perhaps traditional comedy had become too established a form. It was those artists combining music or masks who were making the running. "That sort of thing would once have been considered uncool, but people are rejoicing in it. The comedy boom has opened things up." Green Ginger, a puppetry and mask company founded by one of the Spitting Image puppeteers, Terry Lee, sees its brand of dark humour as directly in the line of Monty Python. With its show, Bambi, the Wilderness Years, Green Ginger is one of 29 companies being supported by the British Council in a showcase of British talent at the Pleasance.

Chris Pirie, one of its members, said it had been difficult in the past to persuade British audiences that anything involving puppets was not simply a children's show, but that was becoming easier.

"There's a strong market for dark twisted humour. Look at the success of The League of Gentlemen and Chris Morris's Brass Eye," Mr Pirie said. And certainly if you listen to Daniel Kitson discussing his aunt with Down's syndrome, there is still a great deal of dark, twisted humour among the stand-up comics, too.

Rob Deering said that many of the old cart horses of conventional comedy material "such as the differences between men and women" were out. "And if you see someone talking about politics you can bet real money they're only talking about one thing, "John Prescott punching that farmer". But observational comedy was not dead, he said. "Boring observational comedy is dead. Every comedian is doing a view of life, you just learn to do it from more interesting angles."

Comics had turned inward, with a more reflective examination of the human condition. "But they are still funny," he insisted. "I don't think it's a bad year, it's a consolidating year. But within that, the standard is very high. If you go to the majority of shows, you're going to have a laugh."