How Comedy Captured the Edinburgh Fringe: Part 4

In the final part of our series celebrating the Fringe's 70 year history, comedy finally rules the Fringe programme

Feature by Ben Venables | 02 Aug 2017

All was chaos at the 2008 Fringe. A new ticketing system collapsed a day after going live. And the company hired to introduce it were in administration by mid-August. The long-standing free showcase, Fringe Sunday, didn't attract a sponsor and was scrapped. There were calls for the new Fringe director to resign. Which he soon did. The next Fringe AGM reported losses near £900,000. Many said a sales slump was down to the Olympics and the rain. As if the world's foremost sporting competition, and the bitter vicissitudes of Scottish weather, were unpredictable events.

In the same year, the Big 4 venues – Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly – remarketed as the Edinburgh Comedy Festival. A dissociate move that still helps mud stick when these venues get caricatured as a cartel. And the Comedy Award judges didn't award the Panel Prize. Instead, they said it was for 'all performers' and stuck the £4,000 prize money behind their bar at the end of August bash. And so it was that the award meant to convey 'the spirit of the Fringe' turned into a colossal bar tab.

It was also the year Comedy became the Fringe programme's superior genre, with 660 entries compared to Theatre's 599. For Traverse Theatre founder Richard Demarco – who told the Guardian, "The Fringe has been dominated by comedy for too long, which in my view is very unfortunate" – 2008 must have seemed both tragedy and farce.

This trend had started when stand-up comedians arrived in Edinburgh in 1980. By the middle of the decade, they were taking over 'super venues' and establishing comedy rooms of their own. In 1987, a stand-up won the Perrier Award for the first time, although Arnold Brown is unlikely to be the winner sponsors Perrier had in mind. As one of their 1980s adverts for the prize makes clear: "A sparkling opportunity for young people to turn their talents into a bubbling success." Brown's style of humour is rather drier than a bottled water company would want, and as an accountant who had first tried stand-up at 40 a few years earlier, he wasn't the age they had in mind.

Brown came to the Fringe from Glasgow via London's Comedy Store. He shared a two hour show with the jazz duo Jungr and Parker at the Gilded Balloon on Cowgate. It was a long wait until the prize next went to a Scottish comedian. So long, in fact, that this comedian hadn't yet been born. It was 29 years later, about 100 yards away, on the other side of the South Bridge vaults, at Banshee Labryrinth, that Richard Gadd triumphed with Monkey See Monkey Do. It was part of the Free Fringe and Gadd wondered if it would've been better in the theatre section. The move to bars and free shows, and the questioning of what makes a stand-up hour, speak of changes that took place in the Brown to Gadd years.

In the early 1990s, it seemed like comedy was the new rock'n'roll. Sean Hughes won the Perrier – at 24 – at the start of the decade. His programme entry for A One Night Stand ends on a pull-quote – 'a rising star of comedy' – from NME. This was a couple of years before Rob Newman and David Baddiel graced the music mag cover. Hughes did something audacious in Edinburgh, merging stand-up with a stream-of-consciousness style delivery. And he laced the humour with moments of poignancy. All in all, it was an hour you needed to shut up and concentrate on.

An 'Edinburgh show' can be a cynical term now. It implies a deliberate structure over authenticity: a theme and narrative arc, a dim-the-lights moment before wrapping it all up with a moral at the end. But British and Irish stand-up never had the same lineage as, say, its American counterpart. The 1980s alternative comedians were never known for doing straightforward sets. And the Edinburgh hour, for all its latter day critics, has given a time frame for comedians to use in novel ways.

Throughout the 1990s, agencies such as Avalon and Off the Kerb brought a professionalism into comedy and helped establish many acts. But Edinburgh did now seem more like a market. Jenny Eclair had performed in Edinburgh since the early 1980s. She had signed with Avalon, was about to break through, yet she seemed forlorn speaking to The Independent on the eve of the 1995 Fringe: "I'm just hoping to get away without crying in public. My usual trick is crying behind the locked door of the disabled toilet at Pleasance." Whatever she did in her makeshift green room it worked. Eclair's in-yer-face Prozac and Tantrums scooped the Perrier three weeks later.

The awards became ever more coveted. Initially set up to recognise emerging artists, a Best Newcomer category was introduced in 1992 – there were so many new comedians to keep up with. Yet this didn't mean the main award was now meant for big names. In 1999, there was a curious debate over Al Murray's Pub Landlord show. Journalist Nicholas Barber was on the award panel that year, and wrote in The Independent: "Murray... was shortlisted for the last three years' Perriers, and when the administration deemed him too famous to be eligible this year, his promoters, Avalon, complained of bias. A weird storm in a pint glass resulted, with the Perrier people arguing that Murray was a star and Avalon arguing that he wasn't." Avalon's argument – that their own man wasn't of any preeminence – won the day, and Murray won the Perrier. Less than one month later a sitcom deal for The Pub Landlord with Sky went ahead. It was worth a reported £3m.

It is important to note that the idea the Fringe turned into a 'trade fair' did not start with comedians. During the 1970s, Punch magazine ran satirical cartoons on the Fringe's growth and its media-hungry theatre companies. But comedy's rise exaggerated all this, and the Fringe seemed the antithesis of the open access counter-festival it had started as. In 1996, a single show, Peter Buckley Hill and Some Comedians, began the Free Fringe. Buckley Hill established a 'moneyless' model. The venue charged no rent, the organisation charged no fees, and the audience didn't pay to get in. The pubs went for it as it brought in customers, there was no financial outlay for the audience, and the acts could keep the donations made after the show.

Comedians who had been media darlings also started to resist commercial trends, sometimes becoming like Diogenes – the cynic philosopher who lived in a barrel. Daniel Kitson started shunning the industry, only communicating to his audience through his work and own mailing list. Rob Newman, the NME cover boy, started The Tap Water Awards (to embarrass Perrier over parent company Nestle's policies in Africa). And, '90s comedian' Stewart Lee – who had returned to stand-up at the new hub known as Underbelly in 2004 – was, by 2012, in a public spat with its founders.

Money seemed to be at the root of much evil, but attempting to explain Fringe economics wasn't a plain sailing task. A 2012 article by The Scotsman's Claire Smith reads like the start of a dazzling novel. "As soon as I say I’m planning to write about the economics of the Fringe some very, very strange things start to happen. I’m warned there are some dangerous people out there, and that there are some things I can never say. I’m told I will never ever be able to write the truth... I’m being charmed, flattered, persuaded. I’m being told extraordinary gossip. I’m lied to. People are pulling me into pubs and showing me their accounts. And then, in the space of 24 hours, I’m threatened with legal action, not once, but twice – by two people I previously viewed with respect."

In addition, wrangles between venues seem to have become a Fringe tradition and the free model a competitive area. In 2015, there was an epic dispute over the venue Cowgatehead. Two operators, the Free Fringe and Freestival, both claimed to be running the space. The Free Fringe's Peter Buckley Hill emerged with the rights to do so, but his communications with the now venueless Freestival acts struck all the wrong notes. Especially in a missive posted on a Chortle forum. It was headlined: 'COWGATEHEAD 2015: READ THIS IF YOU THINK YOU HAVE A SHOW.'

But despite the Fringe's spirit seeming to go sour, that spirit is what happens inside the venues. In 2016, in an 18th century vault, Richard Gadd fused audio and video with live performance, while running on a treadmill for nearly an hour. And though he worried it was in the wrong part of the programme, it was still recognisably a stand-up hour. A telling detail is that, unlike a one-person play, it would be hard to imagine anyone else performing Gadd's show – there is a certain unique connection between performer and audience. Owen Donovan is a Producer at Berk's Nest, and directed Monkey See Monkey Do. He says: "It was very much designed for the live show... That is why that show is so special, and why it resonated with audiences. He was doing something in that live space that couldn't be done elsewhere."

And doing something that couldn't be done elsewhere, having something to say, is why comedians come to the Edinburgh Fringe.

How Comedy Captured the Edinburgh Fringe
Part 1: The remarkable rise of stand-up comedy
Part 2: 1981 – the year that comedy breaks through at the Fringe
Part 3: Two forgotten venues – McNally's and The Comedy Boom – put comedy first

With thanks to Alan Gordon, Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Sources: Edinburgh Fringe programmes 1987-2016