When a knob joke is better than Brecht
Comedy has ruined Edinburgh. The Fringe, formerly a venue for alternative theatre, is now merely a s
In my capacity as a stand-up comedian, I was asked by the New Statesman to produce a defence of comedy in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The problem was that, like Josef K in The Trial, I was not aware of the exact nature of the charges. Apparently, comics attend Edinburgh only in the hope of snagging a TV gig, while the proliferation of comedy has both wrecked the Fringe as a hotbed for alternative theatre and dumbed audiences down into stand-up leeches, willing only to go and see 40 minutes of knob jokes, rather than 40 minutes of Brecht. What a shock. As a comedian myself, I'd assumed we were loved. Suddenly, I feel I have been living a lie.
So what is our defence? It is fair to say that most comics go to Edinburgh in the hope of some career advancement. Despite increased audience numbers, most shows still lose money - often thousands of pounds. It is difficult for a young comedian to justify a personal loss of up to £10,000 for the sheer pleasure of performing alone. Without TV gigs, corporate work or bookings at chicken-in-a-basket chains like the Comedy Store or Jongleurs, no stand-up makes enough to shrug off that kind of loss. At best, most Edinburgh-bound stand-ups hope to raise their profile among promoters, or simply to become better comedians, having had the luxury of performing their own hour in their own space for a month. Believe it or not, there is huge camaraderie among comics, despite the spiky portrayals in Annie Griffin's recent satirical film Festival. Television executives who snaffle talent from the Fringe should be viewed with suspicion any- way. Most acts are working all year all over the country. Any suit who snags them during some expenses-paid trip north isn't really serious about his job, and should be spat at in the street.
Besides which, these days the TV deal isn't what it was. With the advent of cable and digital TV, there's a lot of televisual static that needs filling today. Who better to do it than stand-up comedians, who can work without a script, and will perform, literally, for peanuts? BBC3 comedy shows are made on one-third of the budget for BBC2 shows ten years ago, even before factoring in inflation. A hack of a stand-up comic, with the kind of bland material that will play well at Christmas parties, Jongleurs or the Comedy Store, will make more in a year than a new comic on a TV development deal, and 20 minutes of jokes will last them a lifetime. Television isn't necessarily attractive: there's a whole generation of youngsters carving out their own alternative circuit in major cities who view it with suspicion.
The proliferation of comedy at the Fringe is not self-generated. Remember, one of the wonderful things about the Fringe is that it does not have an artistic policy. You pay for your space, and if people come, then you'll come back. The growth is in response to public demand, and I doubt that it has been at the expense of theatre. The Fringe has simply become bigger.
Even in the unlikely case that comedy may have stolen audiences from theatre, there may be reasons for this. London has the biggest comedy-club circuit in the world, and the Edinburgh Fringe rewards comic risk-takers. Stand-up in Britain advances in leaps, and despite what you may see on television, is becoming ever more fascinating at the grass roots. American, Australian and Canadian comedians come to this country because they want to be a part of it. This gives the lie to the - admittedly arguably facetious - last point on the charge sheet: that stand-up on the Fringe has dumbed audiences down to the point where they are willing only to go and see 40 minutes of knob jokes, rather than 40 minutes of Brecht.
On the contrary, an audience that has seen Will Hodgson, Will Adamsdale, Simon Munnery, Josie Long or Daniel Kitson will probably have been dumbed up. And surely, in the 21st century, we are beyond condemning a performance for its subject material. There are lousy knob gags. And there are sublime ones. There are knob gags that are infinitely superior to a poor-quality production of Brecht, and which contain more poetry and wit than the average theatre production. All human life begins with a knob gag. There is much that comedy can learn from theatre; but there is probably more, about pacing, accessibility, simplicity of staging and the way to sell strange ideas to suspicious crowds, that theatre can learn from comedy. And I speak, albeit arrogantly, both as an Olivier Award-nominated theatre director and as a working comic.
We live in strange times. The government drip-feeds us facts on a need-to-know basis and it appears that whole areas of discussion - such as suggesting there are links between the London bombings and Iraq, or criticising religious belief - are prohibited. On the night after the last round of London bombings I saw a young Asian comic, Paul Chowdhry, talking on stage about how the public's fear of Asian men meant he was finally able to get a seat on the Tube, and sometimes had the entire network to himself. Comedy can respond to events with a speed that theatre cannot match. And even apolitical absurdity is an appropriate response to mass panic. We laugh in the face of death.
Perhaps there is too much comedy. And this piece is biased anyway: I have chosen the best examples to shore up the case for the defence. The best way for those of us who work in comedy to respond to criticism is simply to be better, to raise our game to meet the challenge of the times. If we don't, then we will die like dogs, and the shame of it will outlive us.