Cheap Laughs – Comedy Clubs at the Fringe

The Edinburgh Fringe’s comedy output is exciting, vibrant – and enormous. looks back over his Fringe experience and offers some sage advice on how to make the most of the many laughs on offer

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You can see all sorts at the Fringe. In this, the Edinburgh festival’s 70th year, there is a vast array of talent on display, from compelling theatre and relaxing jazz to contemporary dance and some rather questionable street performers. Yet, despite the seemingly endless slew of fascinating shows in all areas of the arts, stand-up comedy still seems to be the Fringe’s biggest feature. Making up the thickest wad of pages in the brightly-coloured festival program, comedy seems to be one of the defining aspects of the world’s largest international arts festival.

As this imposing, impressive and beautiful city plays host to both big and small names in the comedy world, it can be quite a challenge deciding how best to spend your time and money. One option is just to go for the comedians you know, the ones you’ve seen on Live at the Apollo or Mock the Week, the ones you know will make you laugh and just accept a heftier price tag. Alternatively, you take a walk down the Lawnmarket in Edinburgh’s Old Town accepting every leaflet that’s thrust at you. This may lead to a variable and shoddily-planned experience, frantically running between venues so as not to miss any of the shows you promised the nice man in the street you’d go to. The leaflet approach can also end in the streets of Scotland’s capital resembling a giant waste paper bin, so perhaps other options are needed.

Possibly the best way to navigate the Fringe comedy scene is to take in a couple of “comedy cabaret” shows whilst you’re there. Most comedians at the festival, famous or not, have their own show. It is these shows upon which they are judged and make their mark with the numerous festival awards. However, many of them also do a night or three at one of the many comedy clubs travelling to the city. Seeing a show with several comedians doing a roughly 20-minute set is a brilliant way to test the waters and discover new comedians. You could be bored to tears or trying your best to laugh at dire material, but at least it doesn’t last that long. Alternatively, at least one of the acts is probably up your street and there you have it, a new name for your list of funny people to see, Edinburgh or elsewhere. The other beauty is that these shows are often wonderfully good value, offering cheap jokes in the best sense, as The 99 Comedy Club and the Big Value Comedy Show can attest.

London-based The 99 Comedy Club host gigs every night of the week in Covent Garden and Leicester Square, rotating a large amount of comedians, with some shows including better-known performers. They have brought a host of acts to the Fringe, laying on a different line-up every night with the likes of Ivo Graham offering “I’ve seen him on TV” appeal. As well as a range of acts, 99 are also dedicated to the “free Fringe”, offering their one-hour show for whatever you can afford in the form of a voluntary donation. The shows are held at the well-hidden Maggie’s Chamber in The Three Sisters (or Free Sisters as it becomes known during the fest) on Cowgate. It is a tremendous venue – dark, atmospheric and claustrophobic in the best sense, making a good scene for an entertaining evening. It is one of those venues you’d come back to out of festival season in the hope it would be as good a night as it looks.

Their first show of the festival included Kwame Asante, Juliet Meyers, Stephen Carlin and Nigel Ng. Asante was a warm and charming first act. His jokes on growing up as a black man in London hit the mark, with a riff on being suspected of car theft whilst waiting at a bus stop being a highlight of the evening. He subverts his race-based humour when discussing his volunteering in Ghana, where he was mistaken for one of the locals being helped. It is a winning move that brings more laughs. There is perhaps a lack of confidence in Asante’s delivery, using a roster of strong jokes rather than sparking off the crowd with wit and charisma.

He is followed by three more strong but unremarkable performers, but there are still laughs aplenty. Juliet Meyers mines a mixture of feminism and her new dog for material, with her comments about how people view her as a feminist being both insightful and funny. The jokes about rescue dog Homer form the basis for her solo show, in which the dog himself is actually present, bringing with him a large amount of goodwill from the crowd in another free show. Her jokes start to dry up in the one-hour show but as part of a larger line-up she works very well.

Stephen Carlin, one of a surprisingly small amount of Scots, mines an alcoholic past for laughs. Anecdotal humour of the most hedonistic kind gives him a raucous air that fits well with the venue and later time-slot. The jokes are nothing particularly new but he’s a charismatic performer who delivers the laughs.

Perhaps the biggest laughs come from the more variable Nigel Ng. Like Asante, he comments on his ethnicity, but rather than mocking the way he is treated in Britain, he turns the satire on himself. Playing up Asian stereotypes proves to be an often very funny move. As the last act on he moves into the most adult territory with an extended bit about vibrators – again, told well and getting big laughs.

Then there is The Big Value Comedy Show, which runs 2 shows a night throughout the Fringe. Slightly more expensive than 99 but still living up to its name at just £6 a ticket,  this is a fantastic, 2-hour night of entertainment. Priding themselves on discovering future stars (such as previous guest Sarah Millican), the show is run by the Just the Tonic comedy club, who hold events in several cities around England as well as at the Fringe. They’re the people behind the wonderful and not too gimmicky Comedy in the Dark show, which should bode well for any of their other events. They hold these shows at The Community Project on Cowgate, a lovely cafe and performance space that again offers the chance to see a little bit of this magnificent city you may not have seen before.

On one of their earliest dates they play host to compère and comic Matt Stellingworth plus the upcoming talents Jake Lambert and Simon Lomas, as well as nominal headliner Zoltan Kaszas. New Zealander Stellingworth has an energy and pleasance to his demeanour that makes him perfect for the hosting role. Whilst not the most memorable performer on the night, he plays well off of the PA announcer forgetting his name without making the schoolboy error of overdoing it. He also copes well when the picked-upon front row (including myself, managing something along the lines of “ermmm I’m a student….I like Virginia Woolf…”) doesn’t provide him with too much material, but gets big laughs from the audience members who give him a bit more to work with.

Zoltan Kaszas is built up by Stellingworth as the night’s star attraction, something which leads to his act being something of an anti-climax. Far from poor, his jokes about being an American abroad and travelling in general get laughs and his overall demeanour is warm and charming. However, he lacks the individuality or originality to make his performance as memorable as the night as a whole.

Perhaps criticism of Kaszas is unfair, as he came straight after the night’s two standouts in the young Lambert and Lomas. First up, Jake Lambert made an impression with his range of material from SatNavs to kids to dating. It must be said that the situations he derives his jokes from are not the most original or organic, nor are his transitions the smoothest, but the jokes are certainly funny. Like many comedians, he touches upon the supposed most powerful man in the world, but does not dwell on telling us how awful the Donald really is; this is something of a blessing as material aimed at the POTUS, no matter how warranted, is so achingly predictable I almost feel like groaning when he’s brought up.

Whilst Lambert’s transitions could maybe do with some work, a man who seemingly needs no transition at all is lanky, awkward Simon Lomas. His set is essentially a series of largely unconnected one liners he’s written down in a book somewhere; at one point he perhaps knowingly mocks this by literally reading the jokes from a book. Sophisticated satire this is not, but Lomas is nevertheless wonderfully hilarious. For probably over half of his act he doesn’t even look at the audience, the microphone placed so he has to crane his neck upwards, helping add to his awkward misfit persona. The way he delivers his jokes and pauses for what seems like forever between them gets a live audience in fits of laughter. They say laughter is contagious, so when one person breaks Lomas’ cultivated silence with a giggle everyone is off. It is an approach that could lead to cringes, but Lomas pulls it off to become the highlight of the night with his deadpan delivery. Even his interaction with the audience, something his style would seemingly avoid, is uproarious when he finally brings it in at the end of his act.

There you have it, two comedy clubs, two delightful venues and eight talented comedians. With such a vast quantity of comedians at the Fringe, these shows give a taste of several acts, who may well have cherry-picked their finest stuff just for your wonderfully cheap show.

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