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
A founder member of The Independent David Lister joined the paper in 1986 as Assistant Home Editor. He became the paper's arts correspondent in 1988 and is now Arts Editor and writes a column each Saturday. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Sunday 23 August 1992
'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.'
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