Dissecting the Fringe: Edinburgh Diary
Fringe comedy suffers from two major problems.i The first is obvious: people trying to be funny, who aren't. You know the drill: charmless standups shouting abuse at the audience for not laughing, improvisers desperately shoehorning their rehearsed lines into unfortunate situations, 'wacky' sketch troupes performing with little clothing and no dignity. We've all encountered this sort of problem; some of you/us may even, at one point, have been that problem.
The second problem isn't as obvious, but if anything is even more pervasive: funny people in shows which aren't funny. Performing comedy is a demanding business. It's not enough that the performer is funny with their friends, or even to strangers; being funny on stage, for up to an hour at a time, is a very different task. For a start, they're expected to be funny; that's the point of their being on stage (and what an audacious thing it is, to claim to be able to make a roomful of people – or some subset of a roomful, at any rate – laugh at your jokes or general hilariousness.) The dynamic is very different to real-life humour; even the funniest person you've ever met is unlikely to mount a one-way barrage of humour for fifty minutes (and if they do, chances are they will come across as funny in a different way.)
This second problem is particularly obvious in sketch shows and character comedy, because here it's easier to pull apart the material from the delivery. A number of shows I've seen in the past couple of days have featured often accomplished performers offering sharp characterisations and holding the audience's attention, but not being funny. Kieran Hodgson, of up-and-coming sketch outfit Kieran and Joe(or The Joes, depending on what year it is), presents a stream of precisely drawn caricatures, with careful attention to detail in the facial expressions and hand movements. But I found only a handful of these creations actually amusing. Likewise, Ruth Bratt and Lucy Trodd's sketch show Well Done You runs through a range of mostly broad but convincing accents and stereotypes, but these were placed in sketches which went nowhere (and not intentionally, either).
In each case, I got the impression that the characterisation itself was being made to carry too much of the comic weight; we were being given comic characters rather than comic scenarios, i.e., sketches. I don't mean that the characters must always be placed in well-defined contexts with clear plots and climaxes that make sense (though I find that doesn't hurt). It's the broader point that a funny show requires funny writing, whether it be dramatic writing as in orthodox beginning-middle-and-punchline sketches, or a comic juxtaposition of ideas. Nor need 'funny writing' involve witty dialogue; it can be instructions for someone to do something which, in a particular context, is funny. Sam Simmons spends about a third of About the Weather dancing to loud and stupid music, but in the context of his show it (mostly) works. Does he need to do it with sweaty conviction and an appealing lack of grace? Does it help that he looks like a PE teacher with a disturbing past? Yes, and yes (and yes, he does). But his show isn't just a funny person being funny; it's a funny person doing a funny show, where a lot of work has been put into bringing the audience onboard, so that what might in another context be desperate begging for laughs is infectious silliness. Funny show = funny person + funny writing. Not the most useful equation, but not one you should ignore completely.