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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
science
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
News
Comedian Ted Robbins collapsed on stage during a performance of Phoenix Nights Live at Manchester Arena (Rex)
people
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
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: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links