In recent years, they’ve populated the shortlists of Edinburgh’s major comedy awards. Now they’re back in town with all-new shows to unleash on the world. The 2011 comedy award champ, Adam Riches, returns with what he’s calling – accurately enough, I’d guess – Inane Chicanery. The 2015 best newcomer, Sofie Hagen, and 2016 best show nominee Al Porter – both excellent comics – return with new sets. Then there’s one of the country’s smartest, most inquisitive – and funniest – acts, Sara Pascoe, back at the fringe after a year off, with a new show, LadsLadsLads, about life after a breakup. (Her ex, John Robins, addresses the same subject elsewhere in town …)
It’s only polite to see a few homegrown acts when you visit a festival. And after their comedy awards double whammy last year, Scottish comedians are on the up. You can see Richard Gadd’s 2016 triumph again this year, now in a theatre setting; last year’s best newcomer, Scott Gibson, returns with a show about fathers, sons and masculinity. Fast-rising Fern Brady is back, as is the untouchable Jerry Sadowitz. Maybe the most intriguing member of the home team will be Craig Ferguson, who’s been so busy making late-night US talkshows, he hasn’t performed at the fringe since the early 1990s. Ferguson, who once traded under the name Bing Hitler, will be performing his chatshow at a new Gilded Balloon venue in the centre of town.
Changing the world
Comedians are not all here just to make you laugh. Some want to make the world a better place, and in Edinburgh they’ll include Mark Thomas, with A Show That Gambles on the Future (what can he be referring to?); Fin Taylor, who made a splash last year with a show about race and now turns his focus to leftwing tribalism; and Kiri Pritchard-McLean, returning with a show about her time mentoring vulnerable kids. Desiree Burch is worth looking out for: her new show addresses “sex, race and capitalism”. And I’m eager to catch up with Dane Baptiste, a perceptive social commentator, now discussing “the worldwide pursuit of wealth, power and pleasure” in his show GOD (Gold Oil Drugs).
The last two winners of the Barry award at the Melbourne comedy festival – Sam Simmons and Zoe Coombs Marr – have come straight to Edinburgh and either won (Simmons) or been nominated (Coombs Marr) for the UK’s top live comedy prize. Both return this year, the latter as part of the intriguing Wild Bore. Meanwhile, the 2017 Barry champ, Hannah Gadsby, arrives trailing plaudits for her show Nanette, a “fascinating and profound” show (wrote one critic), addressing her experiences of homophobia and the limits of humour. I’m also looking forward to seeing Barry nominee Anne Edmonds, with her character-comedy show No Offence, None Taken.
The fringe sometimes seems like a young comics’ game: its schedule is gruelling, and it’ll break you at the bank. And yet, there are several fine comedians of an older generation who are gigging in Edinburgh. I bow to no one in my love for Alexei Sayle, and will be beating a hasty path to his untitled new show. Sayle’s contemporaries at the fringe include Sue Perkins (whose fine show I caught on tour), Ruby Wax, and (making a belated Edinburgh debut) Jan Ravens, while the slightly younger Dominic Holland (father of Spider-Man Tom) and John Bishop also make fringe returns. Perhaps the biggest buzz will be around Dave Johns, who returns to standup since finding late-in-life cinema stardom in Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake. His show is called I, Fillum Star.
Comedy in twos and teams
Away from the solo acts, there are several twosomes and groups I’m looking forward to, even if sketch comedy seems to have descended from its high watermark of two or three years ago. Giants will be worth a look, and riding high, after 50% of them – Will (son of Ian) Hislop – won the 2017 Musical Comedy award. So, too, Goodbear, Goose and Gein’s Family Giftshop. (Is there a rule that they all have to start with G?) Among the intriguing duos, I’m keen to see 2014 best newcomer nominee Steen Raskopoulos’s improv two-hander The Bear Pack, and can’t wait for the improbably named, improbably limbed mime act Trygve Wakenshaw’s new show with his new son, Trygve vs a Baby.
Some comics fit neatly into none of these categories – or several. Among these independent spirits, oddball 2014 comedy award-winner John Kearns returns to the fringe with a show that will, I suspect, be cannibalised from the Christmas entertainment he staged at BAC last December. Comedy cottage industry Luisa Omielan, who seems finally to have secured the mainstream success for which she has long been qualified, brings a third show, Politics for Bitches, to the festival where the What Would Beyoncé Do? phenomenon began. And – most mouth-watering of all – cult Edinburgh favourite Joseph Morpurgo launches Hammerhead, another nugget of high-concept event-comedy, based on the Frankenstein myth.
Every fringe brings with it another wave of hot US comic talent, following in the footsteps of breakout fringe acts gone by – Demetri Martin, Bo Burnham, and last year, Michelle Wolf. This year’s influx include a tale of romance soured, Wisdomless, by Egyptian-American Maria Shehata; a short stint by The Daily Show man Hasan Minhaj (who also plays Soho theatre in London); Julio Torres, one of SNL’s new writers, whose “incongruously dreamy comedy” has been hailed by the New York Times; and Emmy award-winning Sara Schaefer, whose show “confronts her complicated relationship with Jesus, America, and death”.
Acts I regretted missing last year
I always leave the fringe ruing the three or four (or more) buzzy acts that I tantalisingly failed to see. Last year’s crop included Jon Pointing, whose spoof acting workshop returns this summer, prankster Mat Ewins and experimentalist Jordan Brookes. I’ll be looking out for all of them this year, as I will the musical sibling double act Flo & Joan, a sleeper hit at fringe 2016 who drew (whisper it!) Flight of the Conchords comparisons from my esteemed colleague Steve Bennett at Chortle.
Finally, there are the acts I’ve never seen – or heard of, in some cases. There’s a long list of new comics I hope to encounter, some of whom will go on to be my favourites – and yours, perhaps – in years to come. Who are they? How long have you got? Alice Marshall, winner of the Brighton fringe best comedy gong last month; Johnny White, brought to Edinburgh by Liam Williams’s new production company Fight in the Dog (the new Invisible Dot perhaps?); Joz Norris, who performs his show from inside a giant web; Lucy Pearman (one half of LetLuce) and Viggo Venn (of Zach and Viggo) with exciting solo debuts; Leicester Mercury comedian of the year Alasdair Beckett-King; Funny Women 2016 winner Harriet Braine … The roll call is long. The fringe looms. I can’t wait to get stuck in.