Fragment of the Fringe: a Reflection. By Oliver Wood

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Image: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

The fringe, so say the mummers, has become over-commercialised in recent years. Too many agents, too much spin, a lack of government support, not enough genuine talent filling out the Midlothian tenements. But the fringe has been accused of all this before, probably, in fact, since its debut in 1947. Much like its host city, the idea that some gentler, more refined artistry has been eroded over the years is now an indispensable part of the festival’s narrative. And just like every year, we must play the game that all of this is a recent turn of events; for capitalising on mock outrage and unwavering support of the ‘wee man’ is part of that narrative too.

As we hark back to a nobler, less commercially driven fringe, however, it is impossible to ignore something: most of the shows are being given away for free. The veritable freshers’ fair taking place down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile teems with students pushing flyers into every hand that passes by. Unlike the vodka-dealing nightclubs they usually canvas for, however, none of this lot seems bothered about remuneration. Apart from the numerous shops selling shortbread tins and every piece of scotch-inspired tat imaginable, the idea that this festival is a money-making exercise, it soon becomes apparent, is an outsider’s delusion. For those of us here, the fringe presents itself with a marketing exercise in ‘brand exposure’; a meticulously planned operation, that is, for all but a handful of comedians, performed at a calculated loss.

According to recent articles by Gavin Webster and Stewart Lee, money has corrupted the fringe less than a palpable lack of interest in artistic authenticity. Lee recently accused comedians of following the ‘proven Russell Howard trope’ of ‘young funny man in a t-shirt’. Gavin Webster rebuked the ‘morons in general [at the fringe] who all tend to be over eighteen but under thirty-five’.

 

The debate on comedy-anorak Richard Herring’s podcast (The Stand Comedy Club), however, is less concerned with who has become a Macintyre and who is keeping it Eldon. The pressing question of the hour here is: are rape jokes funny? Perhaps it depends on your gender. The woman sitting next to me says that nothing about rape is funny, while Herring’s guest, Nick Doody, believes: ‘Rape is not funny; that is why I just did a joke and not a rape.’

 

While Herring has become the fringe’s unofficial compère (and wears a ‘King of Edinburgh’ t-shirt to prove it), he cannot help remark in half-seriousness: ‘my career has not taken off yet. I am hoping it is about to, after twenty-five years.’ The spectre of corporate philistines and unjust deserts lingers on. Whether there is too much money sloshing around Edinburgh or not enough, the universal axiom is that it has fallen into the wrong pocket.

 

There is more to Edinburgh than faux-embittered comics in underground caverns though. At a reasonably early 4.30pm the very worst elements of Drama Studies Level 1 (smearing any amount of paint onto themselves to catch a glance; pulling any kind of stunt to raise a comment) seem to have taken their fresher fair elsewhere. They have been replaced by what a man born during the post-war era would call ‘ethnic acts’: Japanese men in kimonos doing things with ceremonial sticks; African men in matching t-shirts dancing to a xylophone; Americans of both sexes contorting themselves with various paraphernalia. Like joss-sticks in a bedsit or dim lighting in a restaurant, these thankless souls are the ambience which prevents the fringe from turning into a glorified pub-crawl. It is impossible to imagine the festivities without them.

While the street entertainers and basement comics may be important, perhaps even integral to the fringe, it would be a mistake to assume they are the main attraction. Measuring the talent on offer by the yardstick of popularity, most of the big boys seem to be playing at The Assembly Rooms. Incidentally, Herring’s former partner in crime (or ‘Judas’ as he is jokingly referred to in the podcast) is headlining tonight. Luckily, tickets are still available. Inside the newly refurbished music hall it does not take long for Stewart Lee to bounce on stage. The crowd is immediately enthralled. ‘You are probably wondering how you came to a comedy show and ended up with an aggressive lecturer,’ he sneers. The best comedians always aim the first shot at themselves.

Construction, deconstruction; affirmation, denial; commentary of the commentary of the commentary. As with most Lee shows, once it picks up momentum, it is less a lecture and more like the recursive reasoning and bargaining of someone about to die. No one seems put-off though: the overall mood is that, while we might not understand it all, we at least understand there is much to be understood. This is a weighty polemic to be re-examined when the DVDs come out, not to be fully digested here and now.

With on average two thousand performances taking place each day at the fringe, catching everything here was never really on the cards. With enough time to see one more act, I head straight into the next venue. However, something is immediately amiss: the comic on stage appears to be talking but there is no sound coming from his mouth. Once difficulties with the microphone, ambient noise, and the possibility of mime have been eliminated it becomes clear why. It is a phrase from Lee’s earlier performance repeating in my head that is drowning him out: ‘I always wanted to play in The Assembly Rooms, just not to the people in here.’ Many a true word is said in jest. From the high-ceilinged theatres to the dungeon-esque laughter-pits, everyone here feels a bit cheated – those who never quite cracked the fringe, and those who did manage but discovered there was nothing on the inside to begin with.

Like every year, there is no point giving in to despair. As the hoardings are taken down, the funny noses put away and crisis loans secured, they must all repeat the old mantra: ‘it will all be different next time.’ For, along with the heroin-injecting agents, paid-off reviewers and corrupt council officials with a vendetta against comedy itself, the myth of a final moment of artistic recognition is an integral part of this festival’s narrative too.