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?by Mary Fitzgerald / August 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
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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,…