Laurence and Gus; The Dinks; Natalie Haynes; John Oliver; Rob Deering; Will Smith, Pleasance, Edinburgh

How to make history and avoid it altogether
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

So many shows, so little time. The trickiest aspect of the Fringe for the comedy enthusiast is fitting it all in, especially as most of the famous names tend to perform in the evenings - so Laurence and Gus are a double-act to bear in mind. They're on stage at 3.15pm - when most of comedy's big guns are still sleeping off their hangovers - but their first Edinburgh show would be a hot ticket any time of day. It's called A History Of The World In Five and a Half Sketches. You won't learn much history from it, but it does indeed have just five and a half sketches: each one is a playlet, complete with scene and costume changes.

Maybe it's a reaction against The Fast Show, or against the hurried wackiness of much Fringe sketch comedy. Either way, Laurence and Gus are confident enough to set their own tone and pace, as they go on measured, minutely detailed explorations of tea-making in 18th-century St Petersburg and life as a careers advisor on Easter Island. It's an Oxbridge mix of cleverness and absurdity that puts them in the tradition of Beyond The Fringe via Armstrong & Miller, but their appeal isn't all intellectual. The performances are excellent, and there's a nice dynamic between Laurence Howarth's shifty inadequacy and Gus Brown's galumphing Englishness, enhanced as it is by a comedy chin of the Griff Rhys Jones mould. Laurence and Gus are Perrier contenders, and an ideal stop for any TV producers who are out of bed by mid-afternoon.

This is, I'm told, a record year for female stand-ups at the Fringe. Sadly, I haven't had time to see many so far, but by the end of next week I hope to have worked up a solid thesis on the differences between male and female humour.

I can start by saying that The Dinks is a show that only men would put on. The men in question are the triple act of Dan Antopolski, Craig Campbell and Tony Law, three established comedians - one English comic and two Canadians - who must have seen The Boosh and thought they'd have a crack at their own surreal revue. They chuck in anything that might pass the time, whether it be a naked man in a gimp mask, giant aliens from Yorkshire, or a waltzing song about hitting people weaker than you are.

Natalie Haynes, meanwhile, is someone I can't review without coming across as an egregious sexist. She's a bitchy, exhaustingly chirpy, neurotic, wittering chatterbox - and if that sounds misogynistic I can only say that I don't want her to get back to the kitchen; I just want her to be less complacent about how daringly outrageous she thinks her act is. Still, Haynes was nominated for a Perrier Best Newcomer award last year, and the women in the audience were the loudest laughers, so maybe it's a girl thing.

One of the less fortunate attributes of male comedians is their preoccupation with pop culture. John Oliver, for instance, is a perfectly nice chap who looks and sounds, through no fault of his own, like a cross between Frank Skinner and David Baddiel. He's a name to watch out for in the future, but in the meantime, he really should get out more. He namechecked Morph, Shakin' Stevens and John Craven's Newsround so often that I thought I was back in my college bar.

On the other hand, there are comics for whom pop culture is such an all-consuming passion that their geekishness becomes funny in itself. One example is Rob Deering, the grinning young star of Channel 5's 99 Things To Do Before You Die, and a shoo-in for the lead role if a Buster Bloodvessel biopic is ever made. His show, Superkings, is meant to dissect history's most monumental cultural icons, but he soon gets sidetracked into a debate about who's worse, The Cheeky Girls or Blazin' Squad. Deering has a disarming way with sarcasm, and such a natural, easy delivery that he could be entertaining his mates at a party. But he's better during those few minutes when his material isn't as insubstantial as Heat magazine's letters page.

Deering's knowledge of pop trivia is healthily scant compared to the act on before him,Will Smith, who, despite the name, is never likely to be confused with the movie star. Blonde, blazer-wearing and bulbous, Smith is so upper-class he makes James Hewitt look like a common oik. This gives him a point of view that's not often represented in stand-up, and he puts it across in such a likeable, self-deprecating manner he could have a movie career playing Hugh Grant's younger brother. This is his first Edinburgh show, and it is, to use language he'd understand, an absolute corker. Over the course of a cohesive, original hour, he reveals the extent of his nerdishness, showing us his cat club rosettes, and confessing how he spent his wild, teenage years translating Tin Tin into Elvish.

Eventually, though, as his misanthropy gets the better of him, it becomes unnervingly clear that his perception of himself and the world is a lot like that of American Psycho's Patrick Bateman, with whom Smith shares compulsive neatness and a love of soft rock (and murderous insanity). Lest we suspect that it's all a put-on, he finishes his must-see show with the awesome "Six Degrees Of Bergerac", in which he links any film suggested by the audience to a specific episode of John Nettles' Jersey detective show in six steps or fewer. At least he knows that no other comedian's going to steal his material.

All shows are at the Pleasance (0131 556 6550), to 25 August