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Edinburgh Fringe round-up I – clowns, rape gags and Stewart Lee

Thursday, August 30 2012

Now the 2012 Fringe is done, some closing thoughts ...

Stewart Lee

Clowning, rape gags and Stewart Lee moaning. You'd be forgiven for thinking these were the only three things to happen at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe.

The clowning I'll get to, while the latter two were old arguments, if not necessarily invalid ones. Tanya Gold's piece for the Guardian on the preponderance of jokes about rape could have been written at any time over the past five years, but as long as there's lazy misogyny in stand-up, it's a point that bears repeating.

Stewart Lee's article, again for the Guardian, bemoaned the over-commercialisation of the Fringe and took the moral high ground on anyone who sustains the "big 4" venues (Underbelly, Pleasance, Gilded Balloon, Assembly), claiming they are eroding the "spirit of the Fringe", that hallowed, elusive concept. Again, it retrod old ground, but interestingly it triggered a mini Lee backlash, even among comedians who idolise him.

The doom-laden article smacked of opportunistic publicity – and it worked, given it was the talk of the Fringe in the run-up. Comics weren't happy with Lee's righteousness about the big 4, and he was the subject of many a jibe both off and onstage. Stand-up comedian Andrew O'Neill summed it up with a seemingly unscripted aside: "Stewart Lee. I dunno. The guy's one of my all-time heroes but he's really getting on my tits at the moment. So it's ok for him to have three shows at the Underbelly before he gets his TV show but not the rest of us?"

But putting these three talking points aside, I also wanted to point out the bleedin' obvious: that day-to-day, hour-to-hour the 2012 Fringe was once again a sprawling, all-encompassing celebration of live comedy. Yes, it has its problems, but the sheer variety on show means that there is, to coin a cliché, something for everyone. Whether you like your comics in a kilt on rollerskates, miming Whitney Houston's death, standing still and telling jokes, if you like them with a topical edge, a tropical edge, a vicious tongue, a whimsical song, old, young, Nordic, caustic – all of life was there. Up against in-fighting, a recession and Mo Farah on the telly, the kaleidoscopic, fertile nature of the Fringe shone through. (Although had the Olympics gone on much longer it would've been a washout).

As with the live London scene, the Fringe is too large and atomised to be able to apply sweeping generalisations like "it's all going to shit", which was very much Lee's tone. There are so many niches and funny little corners that in fact it's probably about as varied as it's ever been. It just requires a bit of seeking out. Occasionally flicking onto BBC3 isn't going to cut it – get out there.

Dr Brown

Cheers of a clown

All three of the Fosters Comedy Award-winning acts – Doctor Brown (above), Daniel Simonsen and Tape Face – have had training in clowning, which is an extraordinary first for the Fringe, and not an unwelcome one.

While it's incredible that two of the three award-winning acts this year are mime acts (Dr Brown and Tape Face), the aspect of clowning that interests me most is the audience interaction. For most stand-ups, that means taking the piss out of the Americans. For the likes of Dr Brown and Tape Face (not so much Simonsen, who's a more traditional, if unorthodox, stand-up) it means getting someone onstage and making them a part of the show. Or diving into the crowd and bringing the show to them.

Equally confrontational are last year's award winner, Adam Riches, and Nick Helm, one of the breakthrough acts of recent years. Comics are reaping big rewards for treating the room not so much as a performance area, but as a playground. Perhaps this is just a phase, but as audiences get more exposed to it, it's possible that industrial-strength interaction will become far more commonplace, and a version of it might creep into the clubs. Which would of course lessen its impact, but still, it'd still be fun to watch.

The problem for ambitious comics and keen TV producers is that making the crowd part of the show works fantastically in the live arena, but not so much on TV. You can put a comic on telly and let them clamber about in the audience (Nick Helm has done precisely that in Live at the Electric), but that raw energy, fear and unpredictability is so hard to transmit to the sofa. People are used to audacity and confrontation from their TV shows, they don't necessarily expect it at a live show.

The other thing I think binds the likes of Riches, Dr Brown et al is that their acts work better over one hour than bite-size chunks. Some acts are just like that. Tim Key is another in my opinion. For all his TV exposure since winning the award in 2009, rarely has it been as the gently pompous poet persona that won him the award. He played that role in Charlie Brooker's Newswipe, which seemed a good fit, but he has mainly kept that that persona back for live shows only, performing his "Indian Summer" solo shows and as part of Freeze (alongside Tom Basden), just for fun.

Perhaps the above acts should take a similar tack – use their new-found popularity to open doors, but ultimately have one persona for the live arena and others for TV. Dr Brown appears to be doing so, having used new characters for his Channel 4 "Blaps" instead of attempting to recreate his live routines. Tape Face has enough of the old-fashioned stage showman to probably not have to worry.

As someone who strongly believes in live comedy as an end in itself, I'm excited about the prospect of not necessarily losing our best new comics to the world of TV.

Alternatively ...

Looking beyond this year's award winners to the nominees list – it's notable that there was no room for any mainstream stand-ups or character comics (the usual awards fare). Aside from Dr Brown (clown/mime), there was Claudia O'Doherty and Tony Law (genre-defying meta comedy), Pappy's (sketch), and James Acaster and Josie Long (both stand-ups, but neither very traditional).

None of these acts are found at a Highlight club or the Comedy Store, they have all germinated on the alternative comedy scene. As ever, the world of TV will determine which are ushered into the mainstream. It's a similar story among the five Newcomer Award nominees – none except Joe Lycett (and arguably Daniel Simonsen) are what you might call a regular stand-up.

It's one in the eye for those who think comedy is increasingly bland and the only way to get rich is to be a Russell Howard clone – again, this argument presupposes that TV is the only marker of success. TV is comedy's kingmaker, yes, but variety and originality is thriving regardless. if you love the stand-up you see on TV, great. But if you don't, then try the circuit, you'll almost certainly find something you like.

Perhaps those traditional comedy clubs who are struggling at the moment might also take heed of this year's nominees lists. Maybe audiences want more variety then just four stand-ups on a bill; if that's the case then it's up to the clubs to evolve.

Finally, it seems that the really big names are boxing clever when it comes to the Fringe. The likes of Rhod Gilbert, Simon Amstell and Russell Kane preferred to do short runs, while Reginald D Hunter and Stephen K Amos performed in smaller venues than they needed to. I'm all in favour of this, as it ensures the Fringe had some big-name clout, but without guzzling too many of the tickets.


August 31 2012, 5.05pm
Andrew O'Neill - who incidentally bills himself as the definition of Alternative and then joins the mainstream treadmill at The Pleasance - really missed the point about Stewart Lee with this moan:
"So it's ok for him to have three shows at the Underbelly before he gets his TV show but not the rest of us?"

Yes Stewart Lee did a bunch of shows at the Underbelly and was represented by Avalon - but this was during a time where TV ignored him - it was only when he realised this was not working for him and he went with a smaller agent and moved his Edinburgh shows to The Stand that he started building the audience that he has today and led to his renewed TV career.... He kind of wrote a book on this
August 31 2012, 5.22pm
How The Fringe is Financed
(The most read blog post of the Fringe)

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