Nicky Woolf's Edinburgh Diary: Late-night comedy revues

Comedy at the Fringe is as much about the night-life as the day-life.

Edinburgh is as much about the night-life as the day-life, and it's not just for barflys; most comedians and comedy groups up at the fringe promote their shows by taking part in cabarets and night-time revues. It's a way to perform in front of new audiences and advertise a show, especially for young up-and-coming acts.

Dec Munro is the compère for revue shows Test Tube Comedy and Edinburgh Must-Sees. “At Test Tube we've had some acts that have done very well,” he says. “[Comedian] Tony Law did a set there that went down brilliantly, and literally half the crowd went to see his show after that. That also happened with Nick Sun, and with a beautiful theatre piece called Slow Clap. There is an element of promotion – but obviously it depends how well your material goes down.”

Spank, in a sweat-box of a basement cave at Underbelly, has gained a reputation for being the most raucous of all the late-night revues. There is a moment at the end when performers can make their pitch to the audience – as long as they are naked on the stage.

These late-night revues can be brutal for performers. In front of a drunken audience, it's possible to really strike a chord- if you bomb, you really bomb. “The audiences at some of the late-night places can be... testing,” says Munro. Because they're all wasted? “Yeah.”

Mark Cooper Jones is one quarter of sketch comedy act Wit Tank, regulars at Spank and other places; tonight, they are due to play another, Live at the Electric. “The experience is brilliant. Its lots of fun. It depends on the kind of act you are; we're quite a loud, shouty group. You have to shout over the top of the audience sometimes, but it's a laugh”

“It can get bad,” he continues. “I've seen people tank before, if they can't get on top of the crowd. You've got a bear pit in front of you, and if you have a weak beginning... it can be horrible.”

“Do you know the Scott Capurro story?” Munro asks. This tale has entered Edinburgh festival lore. Comedian Scott Capurro, having bombed on stage at the Gilded Balloon's Late and Live, was forced by a baying crowd to urinate on his own jumper and shoes, live on stage. In a surreal twist, Jimmy Carr, who was performing after him, had to mop it up before he could perform his act. “Arguably,” says Munro, “that's not the best way to promote your show...”

These are the kind of laughs comedians at the Fringe would die for. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era