Make them laugh again

One-liners are back in at Edinburgh; Ben Elton-style rants are out. Some comedians are even turning to theatre to get their message across. James Rampton reports
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The Independent Culture

There are two things that are guaranteed at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival every single year: rain and rows. The festival only starts today, but it's already living up to its promise. The city has endured a week of downpours, while a metaphorical storm has been brewing for some weeks about the over-commercialisation of comedy.

Stoking the fires of this particular argument is Tommy Sheppard, who has run The Stand comedy club in Edinburgh since 1995. He wants The Stand to take a stand against "the increasing commercialisation of the Fringe: the extortionate prices, the industry jamboree where the comedians are product, the audience consumer and the big prize is all".

He is especially enraged about the fact that certain comedians appear to use their allotted hour at the festival as a mere screen-test for the platoons of TV producers who parachute into Edinburgh every August. "Some comedians are shamelessly pitching to TV producers," fumes the director of The Stand, which is hosting such top-class acts as the Perrier award-winning Daniel Kitson, Dara O'Briain, Fred MacAulay, Simon Munnery, Norman Lovett, Arnold Brown and Owen O'Neill. "But the worst thing is that, as programme budgets are going down, some agencies are trying to sell their clients to TV not as comedians but as presenters of Big Brother discussion programmes." Whither comedy? "The Comedy Festival is becoming a light-entertainment trade fair that I'm happy to have nothing to do with," continues Sheppard. "You can't keep dumbing down and adopting a celebrity-magazine approach to a genre that's about social commentary, holding a mirror up to people and making them laugh. A noble tradition is being corrupted by the constraints of low-budget TV."

He is equally dismissive of the plethora of awards on offer. These range from the Perrier, still the Oscar of the comedy universe, and Channel 4's and the Metro Gilded Balloon's "So You Think You're Funny?" gong, to the Tap Water award (launched in 2001 by performers such as Rob Newman and Emma Thompson, who have called for a boycott of the Perrier because of the commercial policies of the mineral-water firm's parent company, Nestlé), and a newcomer this year, the Richard Pryor award for ethnic comedy.

Sheppard condemns the way that awards have been so dominant at the Comedy Festival. Awards, he feels, are "a piece of nonsense, based on an entirely arbitrary, delusional judgement about what's funny. They don't bear any relevance to what's successful. I think people are increasingly bored by them."

All good knockabout stuff, but he really needn't be so glum. British stand-up is nothing to get down in the dumps about - in fact, it's in rude health right now. Punters are flocking to live comedy in the sort of numbers that would turn some other art forms green with envy. To pluck an example out of the air, when Peter Kay announced that he was going to play the 9,000-seater Nimex in Manchester on his "Mum Wants a Bungalow" tour, the venue sold out in a matter of minutes. The 67,000 tickets for Billy Connolly's month-long autumn run at the Hammersmith Apollo are expected to exit the box office just as quickly. While in the video and DVD market, copies of Ricky Gervais's stand-up show have been flying out of the shops.

To underline their popularity, stand-up comedians are beloved of advertisers and are used to shift everything from alcoholic beer (Kay again) to non-alcoholic beer (Connolly again). They are also employed to boost publications - any magazine with, say, Gervais's face on the front is guaranteed an instant lift in circulation.

Nica Burns, the director of the Perrier awards, asserts that "live British comedy is booming - it's the envy of all other nations. Eddie Izzard has said that on any given night in London, there are 45 comedy clubs - you can' t find that many in the whole of the US. We're famous for our sense of humour, and that's borne out by the number of people who go to live comedy - far more than anywhere else in the world. "Loads of comedy clubs are opening all over the country - Jongleurs now has 17. British comedy is in a very healthy state - how fantastic when other art forms are shrinking."

The epicentre of the British stand-up scene is, of course, the Edinburgh Festival, when, every August, the entire comedy circuit descends on the city. It is the industry showcase, in which 250 of our finest (or, at least, our most tenacious) comedians strut their stuff. But what makes it so special? Stewart Lee has taken time off from directing Jerry Springer the Opera in London to appear at his 17th Edinburgh Festival. Over nearly two decades of appearing on the Fringe, he has built up a wealth of experience - and a devoted following. Ricky Gervais, for one, remarks that Lee "is the cleverest, funniest, most cliché-free comedian on the circuit. But he likes jazz."

Lee, who confirms Gervais's worst fears by listening to Sonny Rollins as we chat, reckons that the Comedy Festival fosters a uniquely creative atmosphere. "I love the idea that, as a performer in Edinburgh, you can develop an idea over an hour without anyone telling you how it should be done.

"But more than that, it's such a fertile environment up here," reflects the comedian, who has just been flicking though the festival programme, picking out shows he'd like to see. "There's something called Killing Paul McCartney - I've got to see that. Chances are that it'll be rubbish, but it doesn't matter. Over the next month, I'll go to 60-odd shows, and see things that I'd never otherwise have seen. You get a crash course in stand-up.

"A lot of stuff in Jerry Springer The Opera came from things I have seen in Edinburgh over the past 17 years. For example, Derevo, the Russian clown troupe, have a high seriousness that is very funny. I used that same tone in Jerry Springer The Opera. That's the great thing about the Comedy Festival - it's such a fecund cultural exchange."

The sheer diversity of fare is certainly impressive. If you want to watch the editor of Viz magazine explain exactly why Swearing is Big and Clever, or see Doctor Bunhead's Recipes for Disaster, a children's show that will demonstrate how to make "DIY breakfast bombs" and "glowing gherkins", then you can.

Burns applauds the originality of what's on offer. "There's a huge desire to experiment. You see comedians trying out new ideas here that they could never manage in a 20-minute slot on the circuit. For such a highly developed industry, it has certainly not become stale."

Nor does she believe that the festival has become over-commercialised. "Calling it a trade fair misses the point. It's great to have one place where everyone comes together with the same goal - to be entertained. Where's the negative in that?" Going on to defend * * the Perrier, she adds: "At the festival, there is the opportunity to be spotted - all careers are about getting noticed. The public are benefiting because they are seeing shows that they can't see anywhere else. Where are the punters losing out? Anyway, industry people would miss the Perrier if it were no longer there. What would they have to bitch about?"

So, what sort of comedy can we expect at this year's festival? What is, if you like, the state of the nation's humour? Politics will certainly be running through a lot of acts. So much has happened in the world during the last year that it would be perverse if comedians were completely to ignore it. For example, Lee will be tackling "attitudes to other countries and races in light of 9/11. I'll be talking about hysteria and panic. In the past, politics was harder to define, but in the last year, clear ethical breaches have made it easier to write about. People are more agitated - they have been energised by the unavoidable awfulness of the news recently, and the fact that it's so clear that on Iraq we're in the wrong. I think a lot of comedians will be talking about similar things, but I just had to talk about it".

Sheppard also points to "a resurgence of political satire. At The Stand, we're doing an ensemble show called Political Animal, with Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver. It won't necessarily all be left-liberal. It's possible that we'll allow some pro-Bush Americans in - I'm told there are some, but would they be funny?".

Some more experienced comedians have also tried their hand at play-writing. Simon Munnery has penned Buckethead - Phenomenon anon and on, a new piece about a future world where "it's all a bit much really, and some people have taken to wearing buckets on their heads in response". Jenny Eclair, a former Perrier winner, has written and performs The Andy Warhol Syndrome, which zeroes in on a former reality TV star after her 15 minutes of fame are over.

Meanwhile, Helen Lederer, of Absolutely Fabulous and Naked Video fame, returns to the Fringe for the first time in eight years with Finger Food, a play about a struggling fortysomething TV presenter who is anxious to make her splash in the pilot for a new cookery show.

Lederer reveals why, after a successful stand-up career, she is now moving on to plays. "I was keen to say something about the prevailing lifestyle fascism, and why people want to be on TV so much. I wanted to have fun with the times we're living in, but in a dramatic context. I couldn't have done that through stand-up."

Eclair, who made her name as a fearlessly lewd comedian, agrees that, for the time being, plays are a better medium for conveying her ideas. In that, she is following in the footsteps of many comedians - such as Stephen Fry, Alexei Sayle and Ardal O'Hanlon - who believe writing is a more enriching experience than braving the bear-pit of stand-up. "My stand-up isn't fashionable at the moment," Eclair admits with admirable frankness. "I've done stand-up for so long now that everyone is bored before I even open my mouth. I thought, 'give everyone a break - including myself'. It's nice to open my mouth and hear someone else's voice!"

As always at the festival, there will also be the usual quirky acts that rely on music (the inspired New Zealand duo, Flight of the Conchords, and Duel, in which a piano and a cello battle it out on stage) or spoof characters (the faux-New Romantic singer Gary Le Strange, or the send-up cabbie-turned-relationship-counsellor Keith Barret); or out-and-out stunts (the self-explanatory Mark Watson's Overambitious 24-Hour Show).

But if one trend emerges from the line-up at this year's festival, it could be summed up by a phrase once used (in rather different circumstances) by John Major: back to basics. In previous years, different fashions have held sway: we have been engulfed by tides of surrealism, character comedy, storytelling, docu-comedy, and sketch-shows. However, this time round, comedians appear to be eschewing such embellishments in favour of a more straightforward "one man and his mic" approach. Gimmicks are out; gags are in.

Sheppard welcomes this return of comedians who are "unplugged": "They don't need gimmicks, or to perform comedy karaoke. Good comedy should be unadorned. Humour is about words - it shouldn't need flash technology to make it funny. Comedians ought to be able to stand up and make people laugh purely through their voice and facial expression."

Burns agrees, chipping in that "in the last two years, there has been an over-use of video and slides - everyone had to try out their new toys. But that requires an art-school background, which most stand-ups don't have. Now, it's all about good writing, well delivered".

Lee admits that "for the past five years, I've been trying to impose a great structure on my material. Now, I feel I don't need all that. It was important to get rid of all the clutter. I'd been trying to put in too many things that stand-up didn't accommodate. Now I've got that out of my system and feel relieved I don't have a vast edifice to maintain. It's great to feel so flexible - I might change my whole set after two weeks. Now the show is just me speaking for an hour."

Russell Howard, an up-and-coming 24-year-old comedian doing his first solo Edinburgh, is taking a similar "stripped-down" approach. His blurb promises, "no slides, no costume changes... just a mic and a man". The aim of his show is simple. "It's not ground-breaking. It's not slides of me travelling to Peru - I struggle getting from London to Bristol. It's just about the little things that have happened to me." Howard is also reacting against the Ben Elton-style rat-tat-rat ranters who used to rule the circuit. "I wasn't schooled in political comedy - I'm not aware of much that happens outside my bedroom. My style is not to tell you how to think. I don't hide behind telling you that George Bush is stupid and Tony Blair is rubbish - that's just whingeing and not offering the audience anything.

"I like it when a gig is like kids staying up late around a camp-fire. That doesn't work if someone runs into the middle of it shouting, 'What do you think about Bin Laden, eh?'. And I thought we were just toasting marshmallows..."

Sarah Kendall, another rising star of the comedy scene, who won the Herald Angel award in 2002, chimes in: "In the 1980s, stand-up was an aggressive, combative form - it was the performer versus the audience. But aggressive stand-up is trite. Hard-edged doesn't equate to inspiring - in fact, quite the opposite. Once you get people's backs up, comedy automatically becomes stupid.

"But it's not like that anymore. I don't go on stage thinking that I'm trotting off to war. I'd rather perform to nice people who aren't going to make me cry. I'm all for acts of kindness. It's about being accessible and communicating the ideas in your head to a room full of people."

So why are so many stand-ups shunning gimmicks for a more down-to-earth presentation this year? One explanation is that audiences, who, since the "alternative-comedy revolution" of the 1980s, have had access to untold amounts of live comedy, are becoming more savvy and stand-up-literate. They expect honed material rather than throwaway stunts. Gone are the days when all a comedian had to do was dress up as a security guard or a Page Three Stunna to get a laugh.

James Taylor, who is producing 14 Edinburgh shows for Avalon, one of the leading comedy companies, thinks that this trend for straight gag-smiths is "all about being 'anti-hack'. Comedians are desperately keen to stay away from well-trodden terrain. Now, they are allowing their individual personalities to shine through on stage."

Kendall echoes this idea. For her, the intimate "unplugged" style works because live comedy is about searching for a mythical common ground with the audience. "Stand-up is such a personal form," reflects the comedian, who has been coming up to Edinburgh for four years, and this year will be regaling us with autobiographical tales of embarrassment about accidentally insulting a disabled person, and being confronted by stroppy nudists at her local pool. "I can see the attraction of gimmicky stuff - it's incredibly polished and showy - but you can't watch it for an hour. I wouldn't want to sit through an hour of props comedy.

"Stand-up is very much an individualist's style of performance. You imbue the material with yourself, and people bring themselves to the gags. You can' t be on stage for an hour without giving out a bit of yourself. At first, I thought that my material was very personal stuff, but as soon as I performed it, I realised that it's not personal at all because people identify with it. They don't say, 'I have no idea what you're talking about'. They say, 'yeah, the same thing happened to me'.

"I enjoy it when there's that level of recognition in the audience. When people laugh about an incident from my life, the comedy's warmer and you feel a sense of communion. The personal is universal."

Stewart Lee is at the Underbelly (0870 745 3083) to 29 August; Helen Lederer's 'Finger Food' is at the Assembly (0131-226 2428) to 30 August; Jenny Eclair's 'The Andy Warhol Syndrome' is at The Pod Deco (0870 755 7705) to 29 August; Sarah Kendall is at the Pleasance (0131-556 6550) to 30 August; Russell Howard is at the Pleasance to 30 August