How Comedy Captured the Edinburgh Fringe: Part 1

In the first of a series of articles to celebrate the Edinburgh Festival Fringe's 70th anniversary, we look back at the remarkable rise of stand-up comedy and how it came to dominate the once theatre-heavy programme

Feature by Ben Venables | 09 May 2017

When it comes to the Edinburgh Fringe, stand-up comedy is the poor relation of uninvited guests. At least, that's what its detractors suggest, and yet how it came to dominate the world's largest arts festival is the story of the Fringe's 70 year history.

This story happens only in the second half of that time. It couldn't be otherwise. After all, in its modern form, UK stand-up didn't get started until the late-1970s. It is a remarkable coup, and one for comedy fans to celebrate – though it seems not everyone is so joyous.

Michael Dale was Edinburgh Fringe Administrator from 1981-86. He's not one to beat around the bush: "Stand-up comics tend to be aggressive and obsessed with working-class values, or if not, are blatantly anti-middle class... Unfortunately, very little of it is funny. The performers are not very skilled, and the writing is usually pathetic."

Then there is legendary impresario Richard Demarco. He's co-founder of the Traverse Theatre and he's attended every single Edinburgh Fringe. In 2014, he hit the headlines – but only for the kind of comment he's been making for over quarter of a century: "There is an infestation of stand-up comics. It’s an epidemic for which there is no cure."

For Demarco, the festivals which began in 1947 to unify a world recovering from war are now about, "the kind of entertainment which degrades it."

We find it difficult to comprehend anyone who doesn't see stand-up as an art, as this implies. But, Demarco's concerns about commercialisation are not far from some expressed within comedy. Tony Allen was a pioneer of the new generation of stand-ups that shaped the modern style. He was also the first stand-up to perform in Edinburgh, with Alexei Sayle, at Heriot-Watt Theatre in 1980. And it wasn't long until, as he puts it: "Edinburgh Fringe quickly became a sort of stand-up comedy trade fair."

After Allen and Sayle, Stewart Lee was part of a new batch of comedians to descend on Edinburgh, a time for which he now feels remorse: "The bright new dawn of 90s comedy was rising, and we drove around Edinburgh under cover of darkness in a panel van, flyposting illegally with pots of paint and brushes, like the A-Team with jokes... all of us pasting over Jeremy Hardy's face again and again and again and again, like pathetic and ungrateful schoolboys vandalising a photo of the headmaster. Nobody on the Fringe had ever seen anything like it. Advertising! ... It was the beginning of the end, and I was an accessory."

But, anxieties about the Fringe came long before stand-up's tentacles bore into August. The argument that seems to wrestle for the Fringe's soul is an old quarrel, and starts almost as soon as the first few theatre groups arrived, without invitation, and set-up around the International Festival's edges, or 'fringe'. And, in the end, the joke might be on stand-up. The Fringe, with its highfalutin traditions, may push stand-up towards more theatrical shows. There is a view that it was the Fringe that actually conquered stand-up, rather than vice-versa.

None of this is easy to look into or establish with any certainty. Even reading every programme from the 1980s onwards and rummaging through news archives is of limited help in some respects. There's always something peculiar in how quick the packing away starts in Edinburgh after the August bank holiday. The Fringe is about the here and now – it's an experience, not a public record. While this makes for a great end of every summer, it is a disaster for research purposes.

The ascent of stand-up at the Fringe takes place roughly between 1981-2008. Comedy fans will recognise that first year for it features the inaugural Perrier Awards, but it's also the year of the 'super venue', which did far more to bring about the Fringe's current shape. The latter year is when the genre of comedy became the Fringe programme's bumper section.

Over four features, charting comedy's growth at the Fringe, there are landmarks for us to visit. All provoke debate. Was the 'super venue' a simple response to the Fringe becoming the largest arts festival? Or was it to the Fringe what Pandora's Box was to the world? The 1990s capture a golden age of now household names, but that decade is also significant for the seeds of a backlash; one that took comedians away from big venues and into pubs and bars – a move still unfolding in more recent years.

But this is to get ahead of ourselves.

Reasonable people might be suspicious. How was it that comedy only accelerated after 1980? Stand-up is not some recent invention. It isn't as if comedians only burst into existence after Alexei Sayle, who claims: "The Fringe then was entirely University revues and plays; there was not a single piece of stand-up comedy until me and Tony arrived."

Those revues do have a special place of their own in comedy history. Before the Cambridge Footlights and the Oxford Theatre Company held sway, these shows trace back in Edinburgh as early as the 1950s. Audiences had an appetite for humour, especially in the late evening. An early forerunner of this subgenre was literally titled After the Show.

The International Festival staged Beyond the Fringe in 1960, which heralded the 'satire boom'. Its title says everything about how the Fringe was now a rival festival. And, that the International Festival recognised the demand for comedy in Edinburgh. Away from revues, there's also Billy Connolly and Jasper Carrott, from the folk scene. Both performed in Edinburgh in the early 1970s.

With UK stand-up, it'd take books – like Oliver Double's – to untangle the roots of its family tree. But in short, the emphasis moved from sketches, characters and gags, to a style more like that of American stand-ups, such as Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. It is, or seems, less of an 'act' and moves towards comedians using their own voice and expressing a point of view.

If the Fringe offers a place for those who have something to say, it is little wonder new stand-ups like Allen and Sayle gravitated to Edinburgh.

Then again, this history is still not clean cut. And funny bones turn up where they weren't meant to.

Take John Dowie: "If you’re thinking of becoming a stand-up comedian (and who isn’t?) then here’s some advice: don’t start doing it in 1972. I did, and it was a mistake. In 1972 there were no comedy clubs, no comedy agents and no comedy future. There was, however, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe."

As this opening extract shows, Dowie's forthcoming memoir is a must for comedy fans. He was so far ahead of his time, he is on a different track. It is really Sayle and Allen who started the new era, but what Dowie does confirm is how alone stand-up comedy looked in 1972.

Within a few years, all this would change.

How Comedy Captured the Edinburgh Fringe

Read part two, part three and part four of Ben Venables' history of comedy at the Fringe

Sources: Tony Allen: Attitude, John Connor: Comics, Michael Dale: Sore Throats and Overdrafts, Oliver Double: Getting the Joke, John Dowie: The Freewheeling John Dowie, Stewart Lee: How I Escaped My Certain Fate, Alistair Moffat: The Edinburgh Fringe, Alexei Sayle: Thatcher Stole My Trousers.