The quality at this year’s fringe festival was high, but there were too few shocks. Now that comedy is part of the mainstream, has it lost its cutting edge?
The charismatic comedy rock group Dead Cat Bounce: Ireland’s answer to Spinal Tap
I didn’t laugh as much as I expected to at the Edinburgh festival this year. I’m a huge fan of live comedy and many of the acts were both extremely funny and technically near-perfect, so what was missing?
This year Edinburgh celebrates the 30th birthday of its prestigious comedy awards—once known as the Perrier, now funded by Foster’s—and, by extension, 2010 is widely being billed as the 30th anniversary of “alternative comedy” itself. In that time what was alternative has, of course, become a profitable, mainstream form of entertainment. In the first year of the Edinburgh comedy awards, 40 shows were eligible. Now, there are 410. Top comedians regularly sell out rock stadiums; universities offer degrees in comedy writing and performance, with specialist units on subjects like the Psychoanalysis of Comedy.
But as stand-up has become a more professional occupation, it’s almost inevitable that those moments of genuine surprise— the feeling that you might be witnessing something wholly unusual or new—have become rarer. For any art form this is troubling. For comedy, which relies heavily on being able to shock, startle and innovate, this is a serious challenge.
The dilemma was alluded to in an excellent documentary (www.tunnelfilms.co.uk) screened at this year’s Fringe in a sweaty room above a curry house. It looks back at the legendary Tunnel Club in southeast London, run by a mad genius, the late Malcolm Hardee, in the 1980s. The venue was a magnet for experimental acts; the performances may have been uneven but, crucially, Hardee fostered an environment where you “genuinely didn’t know what would happen next,” to paraphrase one punter.
Among many of the original pioneers of alternative comedy, says Nica Burns, director of the Edinburgh comedy awards, there was a desire to make a statement about society, and to change people’s attitudes towards what was funny. One of the things this involved, Burns told me, was developing a style of humour that was non-sexist, non-racist and non-homophobic. In the early 1980s, such principles were “quite revolutionary.” They attracted a younger audience and forced comics to be more inventive, and “from there followed a whole new breed of edgier comedians.”
But how does one do “edgy” comedy today? Although political correctness has become a ripe target for comedians, there is also broad social consensus on sexism, racism and homophobia—namely, that they are bad. Postmodern humour has been done to death (“An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walked into a bar. They all had a really nice time”). And political satire, many people believe, never recovered from the loss of Margaret Thatcher. Comedians, in other words, have left few stones unturned in the past three decades. Where do they go from here?
Of course, comedy doesn’t have to be entirely new to be funny, or important. As I wrote earlier this year (Prospect, March 2010), one of the most vital jobs of a comedian is to expose and challenge our hypocrisies. The impeccable Reginald D Hunter, a sharp African-American stand-up from Atlanta, Georgia, has faced shrill accusations of sexism throughout his career, but his act could more fairly be characterised as “equal opportunities”—and he made some telling observation in his Edinburgh show. Why, he asks, can you find thousands of articles assassinating Tiger Woods’s character, yet virtually none criticising the women who slept with him, knowing he was married? It’s even suggested that those women made canny use of a business opportunity; why, then, was it “wrong” for the less than perfect Woods to profit from sponsorship?
Other acts were less edifying: Gemma Goggin’s “Get Laid or Die Trying” might have been groundbreaking 20 years ago; Jim Jefferies’s opener about how only “fucking ugly women” know the price of a drink was a tired cliche for just the opposite reason.
Innovations in form and presentation are still being tried out. But many feel more like gimmickry than genuine experimentation. This year the Gilded Balloon hosted “Comedy in the Dark”—which did exactly what its title suggests, featuring different acts every night. It proved something one could easily guess: live comedians are funnier when you can actually see them.
Concurrently, the Foster’s comedy awards themselves have come under attack for “selling out.” In July, Stewart Lee (perhaps one of the best live comedians working today) attacked the organisers’ decision to include an extra award for a “Comedy God,” decided by a public vote. The move, he said in a vituperative open letter circulated to key industry figures, would “discredit comedy in Edinburgh.” He signed off, in characteristically blunt fashion: “Corporate Whores. Morons. Illiterates.”
“Stewart Lee doesn’t like popular culture,” Nica Burns told me when I asked her about it; his views, she says, are “elitist.”
My own laughter shortfall this year was not, I think, down to elitism: The Hangover, a Hollywood blockbuster that grossed $467m last year and which relied on defiantly puerile humour, is one of my favourite films. Its success may well rest on the fact that two of the leads—Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis—are well-established comedians who cut their teeth on the American live circuit, as well as in shows like Saturday Night Live. Some of the most memorable scenes in the film are improvised: it is, in essence, a slick, tightly-edited distillation of comic art. In comparison to this, the job of a comedian facing a live audience, without the benefit of a huge budget, multiple takes and a sophisticated edit suite, becomes inestimably harder.
So in defence of live comedy: I did laugh in Edinburgh—at many different things. I laughed at the audacity of Canadian duo Hotnuts & Popcorn for basing an eight-minute act on how crap they were (it’s been done before, but it was funny). In spite of his lacklustre early gag, I laughed at Australian comic Jim Jefferies’s tale about taking his severely disabled friend to a hooker: it was both moving and expertly delivered. The charismatic faux-rock group, Dead Cat Bounce, were funnier than Spinal Tap. An elegant meditation on solo pursuits by another Australian, Celia Pacquola, delicately crafted to feel like a light, loosely-structured conversation, was almost pitch-perfect. Meanwhile Sarah Millican—widely tipped to make the shortlist for this year’s award, if not win it—has developed an inimitable brand of “safe” but smart potty humour, delivered with appealing warmth. Notable by its absence, however, was anything wholly new. And perhaps the sharpest comic tool of all is the element of surprise.