The Edinburgh Fringe Festival began in 1947 with just eight theatre companies taking part. It has expanded considerably since then to include comedy, music, dance, opera and musicals and is worth around 75 million quid each year to the Scottish economy. The Fringe is divided into a number of smaller festivals and each of these make up the Fringe Festival. Over one third of all shows in 2009 were comedy performances, slightly ahead of theatre, while music accounted for one sixth of the shows. In just over three weeks, Fringe 2009 sold (wait for it) 1.86 million tickets to over 34,000 performances of more than two thousand shows in 265 venues. Phew! In contrast, I was only able to buy 12 tickets to a dozen performances of twelve shows in ten venues. I guess I’m going to have to get more organised next time. Nearly a quarter of all shows at the Fringe are free and many more cost just a fiver to attend. It is also possible to get tickets for half price on the day for some performance in a 2-for-1 deal. The Fringe does not have a selection committee and, so, is open for anyone to set up their own show. These year there were nearly 19,000 performers putting on shows from sixty different countries. All of these people had to come up with money for travel, accommodation, meals and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, they have to pay a registration fee for their show and print up and distribute posters and flyers as well. Therefore, it may come as no surprise to learn that very few performances actually break even, never mind make a profit. For most of the performers, taking a hit financially is a small price to pay for the the amount of exposure and attention that putting on a show at the Festival brings. I’ve already provided some exposure for the musical acts that I saw this year, so here’s a few words about the more serious business of comedy at this year’s festival
This year’s first show was Nicholas Parsons’ Happy Hour at the Pleasance Courtyard. My friend John and I remembered him as the host of Sale of the Century, a TV panel game from the 70s and 80s. John told me that he’s also the presenter of a BBC Radio 4 quiz show called Just a Minute. In fact, the blighter has been its host since its inception in 1967 and has never missed an episode. Mr Parsons started out as an actor and was even Rector of the University of St Andrews between 1989 and 1991. This is the ninth year of Mr Parsons’ Happy Hour at the Fringe, where it takes place at the Cabaret Bar in the Pleasance Courtyard. His show lasts for over an hour and essentially takes the form of a TV chat show. Mr Parsons, who is quite sprightly for an 85-year-old, bounds onto the stage and launches into his opening standup routine. Mr P. is actually quite funny and the humour is heightened by his well-spoken accent and apparent old-fashioned ways. He then walks over to the front of the audience and chats with some of them for a while. This regular part of the show obviously stands or falls on the quality of the answers given by the audience members. Unfortunately, the conversation didn’t stand up too well on this occasion causing me to regret sitting near the back
For the remainder of the show, a couple of invited guests from the world of entertainment join Mr Parsons for a chat and a laugh. Each day brings new guests and these are drawn from the many comedians, musicians and actors taking part in the Fringe. First up on this day were a trio of female singers that go by the name of Fascinating Aida. Following a rather less than fascinating chat with one of them the group performed a couple of humorous ditties accompanied by piano. The next, and final guest, was far more interesting and extremely funny. Reginald D. Hunter is a standup comedian who hails from Georgia, USA, but has been living in London for some time. I recognised him from his appearances as a guest on such shows as Have I Got News for You and QI. He comes across as an easygoing but engaging individual and this was certainly the persona he presented to Mr Parsons on this occasion. Reginald subtly drew on notions of the submissive slave in thrall to the wealthy southern gentleman. Except that Reg turned this stereotype on its head and it was he who was in control throughout their talk. Reginald was overly polite to his host and constantly referred to him as Mr Parsons. He kept prodding Mr P. who seemed oblivious to Reggie’s teasing and cajoling. The two of them made a wonderful double act with Mr Parsons acting as the straight man to Reginald’s (very) funny man. Towards the end, Reg was inviting Mr P. and his lady around for dinner, drinks, smokes and more. What could have been an unexceptional hour was transformed into a quite extraordinary one by Mr Nicholas Parsons’ excellent choice of guest
Next, it was time to check out one of the festival’s many free shows. While you do not have to hand over any cash as you enter these shows, it is customary to throw a few bob into a bucket as you leave. They are often a bit hit-and-miss, but it’s not too hard to pick out the more interesting ones. We liked the look of Dean Scurry: Back to the Eighties at the Counting House. Both John and I grew up during that decade, so we reckoned that there was a good chance that we’d get our money’s worth from the show. It turned out out that Mr Scurry was from Dublin, so at least we wouldn’t have language problems. He highlighted at the outset that he would be getting married in a few months and that this show would be a final fling before getting hitched (a highland fling perhaps). He proceeded to give us an energetic 60 minutes as he regaled us with anecdotes about growing up in the Irish capital during the eighties as well as poking fun at the music, TV shows and fashions of that particular decade. He finished up with a lengthy but amusing tale about a nighttime prank that he and his brothers played on their father. His performance of this particular piece was quite brilliant and he made it easy for me to picture the story in my mind. If Dean is even half as energetic and engaging offstage as on it, then the future Mrs Scurry is a very lucky woman indeed
Next up was another free show, The Heresy Project: Kill Your God at The Hive. As I took my seat and had a look around I felt that it would have been more appropriate if the name of the venue began with the fourth letter of the alphabet rather than the eighth one. The show was presented to us by two guys, one from England and one from New Zealand. The duo set their stall out from the start and proceeded to give us their arguments as to why there is no God, with the fellow from the southern hemisphere playing good cop to the Englishman’s bad cop. It was a well-structured show and it was obvious that a lot of work had gone into it. Parts of it were amusing without being laugh-out-loud funny. Even their arguments were slightly convincing, in a Michael Moore-ish kind of way. They were unable to prove or disprove whether or not there was a higher power, but they managed to poke some fun at organised religion and its followers. Unfortunately, I felt that a lot of their show lacked real wit and relied a bit too much on crude humour and cheap gags instead. I think that it has the makings of a good show, but it needs some work. Perhaps my opinion is clouded by the fact that the bloke from England kept singling me out and making disparaging remarks in my direction. The reason for this was that he had asked at the outset for a show of hands from the audience to indicate our particular religious persuasion. Unsurprisingly, most of the audience claimed to be atheists and non-believers, even the guy with the white beard who looked like God. There was one believer and a few more, like me, who fell into the agnostic camp. You’d think I’d come in dressed as a bishop the way he carried on. As he continued to vent his spleen at those who didn’t share his views, he failed to see his polar reaction to believers was also a strong belief. Perhaps he focused on me because I chose to sit on the fence. I would apologise for being so apathetic, but I couldn’t care less. Still, if I was putting on a free show that relied on the audience to dip into their pockets at the end, then I would make every effort not to bite the hand that feeds me
A couple of hours later I got singled out again at the next show, but this time in a good way. The title of the show caught my eye as it’s a topic that I’m quite interested in. Alexis Dubus: A Ruddy Brief History of Swearing at the Tron was part of the the Five Pound Fringe. The practice of swearing is a popular pastime in Ireland and is one at which we have become quite adept. I’m also quite interested in the history and use of swearing in popular culture. One of Mr Dubus’ first tasks was to get us to shout out our favourite swear words at the top of our voices. A couple of usual suspects were prominent, but our host heard a couple of unusual ones coming from our direction. John revealed that his choice was the brilliant “tool” while mine was “feck”. When he saw that I also had the word emblazoned in large letters across the front of my t-shirt, he asked if I’d like to help him out later in the show. I was a bit sceptical, but it all turned out fine. In a section of the show looking at swearing and cursing in other languages, he asked me to read out a couple of sentences in the Bosnian language. I had a quick scan of it and, putting on a kind of Eastern European accent, I managed to say the following: “Dabogda ti majka prdnula na roditeljskom sastanku!” (“May your mother fart at a school meeting”). Alexis was quite impressed with my attempt and I even got a round of applause from the audience. The rest of the show was just as good as we were told about the origins of certain swear words, their uses in literature, film and tv, and loads of witty anecdotes. The hour was well-structured, moved along at a nice pace and didn’t include a second of padding. Mr Dubus is engaging and likeable and seems destined for bigger things. Not only was the show funny and entertaining, but it was also informative and educational. He comes across like a cool university professor whose lectures would be worth attending on a regular basis. Feckin’ brilliant!
The final show was another free one and we were back again at The Hive to see a Jewish standup who goes by the name of Sol Bernstein. Many of my favourite North American comedians like Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Groucho Marx are Jewish, so I was looking forward to Mr Bernstein’s set. He certainly looked and sounded the part in his dapper suit, typically Jewish accent and phraseology. His delivery was excellent and many of his punchlines brought a hearty amount of laughter from the audience. He was also quite self-deprecating and poked more fun at himself than the audience. I must say that I was quite impressed by the authenticity of his act, although this site suggests that he’s actually an Englishman in disguise. Well, he fooled me anyway. Here are a few of my favourite comedy sketches, humorous songs and funny poems that, I hope, will tickle your funny bone
Classic Comic Cuts