Sex is back, there's no alternative: David Lister visits the Edinburgh Festival fringe and finds that British comedy is undergoing another change of direction

The stand-up comedian Kevin Day had just shocked his audience.

'Princess Diana threw herself at a glass cabinet . . . presumably in an effort to display herself to death.'

'That's a joke that splits the audience,' he mused afterwards with the clinically depressed air that comics have when they are offstage. 'Women find it hard to deal with. On the one hand you're making a joke about a woman in distress and they don't like it, on the other hand it's about royalty and privilege. But I do say nice things about the Royal Family later on.'

Hang about. This is the Edinburgh Festival fringe, the biggest collection of radical comics in one city on the planet. And they're worried about offending the Royal Family? If that weren't enough to send Ben Elton, Rik Mayall and company to early graves they could always go and watch Bob Mills, an alternative comedian who calls a woman in the audience ugly, says he's proud to be British and makes a joke about the troubles in Ireland.

'I believe in a united Ireland. They should send over five companies of Paras and take the south back as well.'

It is clear from the fringe's first week that British comedy is undergoing a change. But if it is no longer the alternative comedy of the Eighties (in more than 20 shows I did not hear one reference to John Major), how can one describe it?

Paul Blackman, in Edinburgh scouting for his London comedy venue, the Battersea Arts Centre, has the perfect phrase: post-politically correct. 'It's saying I'm comfortable enough with my own position on sexism, racism and the rest.'

There is, adds Kevin Day, quite simply 'no radical cutting edge to comedy at the moment. If there is a radical touch then perhaps it's a certain honesty about sex. In past years, male comics talked about how bad they were in bed. Now we say how good we are. We enjoy sex, the audience enjoys sex, let's be honest.'

But if we have arrived at the era of the post-politically correct, it seems to be in tandem with the sexually correct. Mark Thomas, one of the hottest tips for stardom, devotes the first half of his act to the usual wry observations about latecomers and plain old-fashioned gags:

'How many Labour Party members does it take to change a light bulb? Er, are you sure it's gone out?'

But the second half is virtually a sex-education lesson on men's failings, and how he'd bring up his son:

'I'm going out with my girlfriend, Dad.' 'OK, but just go and have a word with your mother about nipple stimulation.'

Sex is where the taste boundaries are being chipped away - most curiously by the hugely popular Eddie Izzard, who has not just come out of the closet, he's come out of his girlfriend's closet. After his brilliantly inventive debate on why dinosaurs are not mentioned in the Bible ('the perfect question to ask Jehovahs Witnesses knocking at the door'), he talks about being a transvestite. The audience is uncomfortable. Is he joking or not? He is. He isn't. Is he?

Choice of material is one thing, delivery is another. The basic question is whether to Stand Up or not. There are still good stand-ups at Edinburgh. Izzard is one, the laconic Jack Dee another:

'I went to a special school; for people with teaching difficulties.'

But stand-up may not be where the most exciting future lies. The most memorable image of the week was of Jenny Eclair, platinum- blonde, red lips, toes and fingernails, hyperventilating in her hour-long one-woman play. Eclair's descent into madness and crime is brought about by the pressures of her unseen mother on her to be a star. Hours after her 36-hour labour, she decided her baby had real talent 'like Mozart, Einstein, Hayley Mills'. Her growth is arrested so that she can play Gymkhana Gill on TV at 14. 'You couldn't be bouncing on a pony all tits and tampon strings.'

It is a superb performance: manic, original and touching. It illustrates two points about the fringe. Much of the most interesting work is women talking to women. Men can probably never fully appreciate the mother-daughter relationship.

But Eclair has turned from stand- up comedy to the narrative structure of a one-woman play. She is not alone in making that choice.

Ben Miller's meticulously researched tribute to Blue Peter, Gone With Noakes, is another example of comedy within a narrative structure. The seemingly unfunny line 'Go With Noakes is the greatest programme the BBC have ever made' gets gales of laughter because it is uttered by a character obsessed with a television show. According to Miller: 'The future is definitely in theatrical comedy. A simple string of gags is on the way out. Look at Sean Hughes. As soon as he switched from gags to something with structure and narrative he made it big on television.'

But committed stand-up Bob Mills disagrees. 'Basically, there has been a big backlash, so a lot of comics rearranged their sets into a theatre show; but it's the emperor's new show. Stand-up comedy should be one person and a mike and a spotlight, with nothing distancing him from the audience. What we are seeing now is a bastard form.'

Eclair thinks you can say so much more in a play structure, and the concentration of a theatre audience is so much bigger than that of a cabaret audience. 'I feel a responsibility to give a cabaret audience a good time, and a good time on a Saturday night has to equal a joke every 10 seconds. When I'm writing stand-up I have in the back of my head a fictitious audience, an audience I'm frightened of, 400 pissed 18-year-olds who loathe me. It holds me back and I end up underestimating cabaret audiences' intelligence.

'But writing for plays, you have an audience that has chosen to see the play. So a lot of us are moving to a more theatrical approach and we'll get knocked for it.'

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Services Representative

£15500 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This international company deve...

Recruitment Genius: Field Service Engineer - Basingstoke / Reading Area

£16000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established name in IT Ser...

Recruitment Genius: Transportation Contracting Manager

£33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...

Recruitment Genius: Experienced PPC Search Marketing Executive

£19000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue