Fringe convention used to demand that comedy was an evening business – and that the biggest and best acts played in that 7.30-10pm hotspot, when most people, presumably, want to be watching their comedy.
Half past four is cooler than 7.30. Discuss
That doesn't hold true so much anymore – but timeslot and status are still intricately entwined. It can be revealing to parse the schedules for what they say about an act's status, or their priorities.
There's a new(ish) trend, for example, for the artier acts to appear in the morning or afternoon – significantly, the parts of the day more associated with theatre. Stewart Lee could presumably have any slot he wants, but he chooses 4.25pm – which keeps out the tanked-up fraternity, and advertises his alternative credentials. His wife, Bridget Christie, performs at the ill-favoured standup hour of 11.10am – which is as eccentric as her act. Christie and Lee have children, which may be another factor in their scheduling. The afternoon gig is often favoured by old troopers, as if to demonstrate that they've outgrown the evening rat-race. Tony Law's and Arthur Smith's shows this year are done and dusted by afternoon tea.
That leaves late afternoon (4-7pm) for newcomers, sketch troupes, nu-vaudevillians and unknown imports. The post-7pm slots are for acts who are either a) big, more mainstream names, or b) comics who have just that status in their sights. A 7.30-10pm doesn't say quirky; it doesn't say indie. It says Ardal O'Hanlon, Adam Hills and Lee Nelson, or their inheritors: Seann Walsh, Daniel Sloss and Josh Widdicombe.
Then there's post-10pm, which tells the world you're either a bit dark (Ian Cognito, David Trent), or your show positively welcomes a well-lubricated audience (Set List, Rich Hall's Hoedown, Shit-Faced Shakespeare, many more). Exceptions are of course legion, but these are the rules, I think. However, they're constantly evolving.
Rankin takes to the stage
I saw Mark Thomas's show the other night, during which he talks about "book-heckling". It's one of his "100 minor acts of dissent": removing books he doesn't like from shop shelves, then returning them with cautionary messages inserted into their pages. Books by Dan Brown and Jeremy Clarkson are fair game, of course, but the natives grew restless when Thomas targeted Ian Rankin's Rebus books. One native in particular: Rankin himself, making disapproving gestures from the second row. I think the joke was for his benefit, but I only now realise that the novelist isn't just a Thomas fan but a rival. As per this Edinburgh Evening News article, it turns out Rankin has recently turned his hand to standup. The resulting gig will be broadcast on Radio 4 this weekend.
Who needs Peter Snow?
Another of Thomas's routines describes an activist adventure he undertook with fellow standup Gráinne Maguire. Maguire is a politics nerd as well as a standup: she was the Independent's diarist at last year's Labour party conference. Her show this year is about her love of general election night. The audience is divided into parties and constituencies, rosettes are distributed and results announced as the hour progresses.
Given all that, it's disappointing that the show isn't remotely political. Maguire strains the electioneering metaphor beyond breaking point to justify material about her competitiveness as a child, her unluckiness in love, the jobs she's flunked ("Seat lost!") and so on. When she is talking politics, it's trivial stuff: there's a section on what it'd be like to date the three main party leaders. And the jokes are weak: Scotland should use cuddly toys as its new currency; Ireland should adopt the Frog Chorus as its new national anthem.
This is all silly and arbitrary, which is frustrating, because there's one set-piece that shows what Maguire is capable of. Her routine about the Tory claim that national debt is analogous to household budgeting is fantastic, exposing that deception with a rival analogy in which conscientious parents are forever bailing out their gambling, coke-addled son. It's smart, ridiculous and animated by righteous indignation, and the rest of Maguire's show looks flippant by comparison.
Another uninspiring Rom Com
Romesh Ranganathan's Rom Com was named best show at this year's Leicester comedy festival, and I had high hopes when I went along to this debut Edinburgh hour. But I was disappointed. Ranganathan is a confident performer, but – situated awkwardly between a caricature of a misanthrope and the real thing – not yet a very appealing one. The show is an account of the comic's unromantic life, as a man from Crawley with small kids whom he must potty-train and take to soft play.
Fine in principle, but too many jokes don't fly. One riff about football fandom goes no further than telling us he "got an erection" when Arsenal beat Chelsea. Another claims atheism is analogous to faith because "you [still] have to have faith in the source of the information", which is blinkered in the extreme. The other problem is Ranganathan's cynicism, which is presumably meant to be comical but felt, to me, just a bit grim. He calls his son a "little shithead", then calls it "heartbreaking" to find the kid crying, but only because "it means he's a pussy". There are better moments than those, of course, but the overall effect isn't exactly uplifting.
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