t's grins up north
It's congested and overcrowded. The pubs are awash with tipsy twenty-something stand-ups, bitching about bad reviews or bad audiences. The acts are all 20 minutes too long. So why does William Cook love the Edinburgh festival?
Saturday August 3, 2002
Simon Munnery: a strange, alien genius whose only enemies are women and the sea.
Anybody who's never been to the Edinburgh Festival must wonder what the fuss is all about. If you stay at home and read about it, it sounds so dull and dreary. The papers are always full of rave reviews of supposedly unmissable performances by people you've never even heard of, and will probably never hear of ever again. And the TV is even worse. Where's the fun in watching a bunch of strangers having a better time than you? And then, one year, you go, and you have the best time since you were at university, or lost your virginity - or both.
You spend a fortune seeing shows you can hardly remember a few days later, and even though you never eat a proper meal, somehow you put on half a stone (that's Scottish fast food for you). But it doesn't matter, because you have a laugh, and although you'd learn a lot more seeing something highbrow, like continental mime, contemporary dance or experimental theatre, anyone who wants a laugh in Edinburgh in August is usually here for the comedy.
Comedy isn't the only thing happening in Edinburgh at festival time - but if it's your first time up here, you could be forgiven for thinking so. The grey tenement streets are wallpapered with sticky posters for all the latest must-see comics, covered in broadsheet superlatives you can never remember reading in the papers, and the pubs are awash with tipsy twenty-something stand-ups, bitching about bad reviews or bad audiences, or, if all else fails, each other. Everyone in every club and bar looks like a comedian.
You can see most of these up-and-coming comics in London any weekend of the year, and if the bigger names are out of town, that's because they're touring around the country. Odds are, sooner or later, you'll be able to see several of these stand-ups on the same bill, in your local comedy club, for about the same price as you can see one of them up here. True, stand-ups usually do an hour in Edinburgh, compared to 20 minutes on the club circuit, but for all but the very best of them, that's at least 20 minutes too long.
And yet somehow, it works. Some of the best comedy shows I've ever seen have been in Edinburgh, and even when I saw the same shows in London a few months later, it was never quite the same. So what makes it so special? Well, the main thing is the atmosphere. Built on a rollercoaster of hills and valleys, between a castle and a volcano, Edinburgh is rough and rugged, but breathtakingly beautiful - and for anyone born South of Berwick, it also feels intensely foreign. Cramming so many showbiz liggers and wannabes into its already overcrowded city centre is a congestion nightmare for anyone who actually lives here, but for everyone else, it's like a month of midsummer New Year's Eves.
Three big names, The Assembly Rooms, The Gilded Balloon and The Pleasance, dominate comedy during the Festival, and with shows running every day from before noon until after midnight, on half a dozen stages in each venue, the ambience is more like a nightclub than a theatre.
The Assembly Rooms is the grandest of the three - a neo-classical palace in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town. The Gilded Balloon is the liveliest - a cavernous maze in Auld Reekie's medieval Old Town. The Pleasance is the friendliest - a cosy cobbled courtyard in the shadow of Arthur's Seat.
The best comics tend to use their hour to do something different from their usual club sets, the result is a unique blend of stand-up comedy and sit down drama. The comic who personifies this stand-up-sit-down hybrid is Richard Herring. Herring is probably most familiar as one half of Fist of Fun - his daft yet erudite double act with Stewart Lee, which seemed to be on TV or radio for most of the 1990s. Herring also wrote his own Edinburgh show each year, and he's still going strong.
Herring's golden oldies include several very accomplished, conventionally constructed plays, like Punk's Not Dead - old friends reunite to watch The Sex Pistols' reunion gig, and discover that, rather like The Pistols, they're not quite as radical as they used to be.
However the style he's made his own is his one-man comic lectures, like Richard Herring is Fat, Richard Herring is All Man and Christ on a Bike - in which Herring, a short, fat, middle class man from Somerset, measured himself against the most charismatic man who ever lived. By the end of the show's Edinburgh run last year, 88 people believed Herring was the Son of God. Jesus got 112 votes, a majority of 24.
Herring's latest magnum opus is Talking Cock, a masculine alternative to The Vagina Monologues. "According to Freud, women envied his penis and that's why none of them wanted to go out with him, because they were jealous of him and his amazing cock," reveals Herring. "The relative penis size of a human male is bigger than that of any other primate. So, after all, it is man who is the king of the swingers, despite all the monkeys' boasts in song."
The Pleasance mounts shows throughout the year in London - but in Edinburgh, it's only open for a few weeks every August. Yet there is a comedy club in Edinburgh that runs throughout the year - and during the Festival, it's become a serious rival to the Festival Fringe big three. The Stand was founded in 1995, by former Labour Party worker Tommy Shepherd and aspiring stand-up Jane Mackay. Several premises later, it's become the flagship of a small but booming Scottish circuit, with another purpose-built club in Glasgow, regular gigs in smaller towns, and an annual Highland tour.
This summer's treats include Simon Munnery, aka The League Against Tedium, a strange, alien genius whose only enemies are women and the sea. "Not only is it the best venue in Edinburgh, I firmly believe it is the only venue in Edinburgh," says the most original comic on the Fringe. "Facts may contradict me - but my faith remains unshaken."