Dissecting the Fringe: Edinburgh Diary
Since at least Monty Python, a criterion on which sketch shows have been assessed has been their formal inventiveness. Four years ago The Pin, a freshly-minted ex-Footlights troupe, offered a baroque twist on what was once a formal novelty, the idea of developing an overall narrative through a series of sketches. In their case, the sketches not only formed a narrative, but were presented in reverse order in such a way as to reveal how each situation was set up by previous events. It was undeniably clever, but it wasn’t clear if the chronological trickery added much by way of humour.
This year’s model, Ten Seconds with the Pin, marries formal invention with a running theme of explaining the mechanics of sketch comedy to the audience, and crucially, both elements have been precision-tooled for comic effect. For the sheer number of ingenious premises and formal ideas this show, and in particular the first half, is as good as anything I have seen. To convey this properly one would need to outline the mechanics of several of the sketches. One example will have to suffice: the three versions of a sketch featuring a character called Jason recounting how his date has gone. The sketch calls nominally for three parts, two of which the duo (Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen) play in turn in each version; each time they elicit new humour from the variation, and the humour is on each occasion of a different kind (from revealing that one of the characters is superfluous to the scene, to showing what Jason’s friend is really like). Metacomedy plus new ways of presenting sketches plus laughter generated by each of these: this sketch, and much else here besides, is a model of what cerebral and self-reflective comedy should be like.
Having raised the bar so high, it’s understandable that The Pin don’t always meet their own standards. The finale felt a little like their 2012 show: a clever twist on an existing idea (in this case, sketch shows featuring spoof ‘cast and crew commentaries’, a la DVDs) but one which generates admiration rather than mirth. In not delivering on its premise, this sketch throws into sharp relief how impressively Ashenden and Owen have succeeded, for the most part, in extracting the maximum reward from thinking hard about their chosen form.