Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Richard Herring: Someone Likes Yoghurt

Fortunately for me, the Edinburgh Festival is on at the moment, which gives me plenty of things to write about over the next couple of weeks before we settle down to a more usual schedule.

The Americans amongst you may not be entirely familiar with how the Edinburgh Festival works. Once upon a time, it was purely a highbrow arts festival, featuring Very Serious Art performed for the benefit of the sort of people who like to think that they can appreciate that kind of thing. Then the Fringe came along and fucked everything up. The basic rule of the Fringe is that anyone can come along and play, just as long as they can find a venue.

In practice, what this means is that all sorts of ludicrously inappropriate buildings are hastily converted into dodgy makeshift theatres, where desperate performers ply their trade before tiny audiences. There was a time when it was all dominated by fringe theatre, but in recent years the stand-up comedians have moved in and turned it into, more or less, a UK comedy convention. Ricky Gervais, who doesn't do Edinburgh, pointed out a while back that the Festival now basically involves all the comedians who already play the London circuit coming up to Edinburgh and doing an hour-long show to the same people who come and watch them in London, in the hopes of getting commissioned to do a series by a commissioning editor who also works in London. He suggested, not unreasonably, that it might be cheaper and more convenient all round just to do stay in London and do the whole thing there.

You'd have thought a lot of people would agree with him, especially considering that the average Fringe show loses thousands. But there are two key reasons why the comedians keep coming. First, if you break through - and in particular if you win the coveted Perrier award (or the derided Perrier award, in the case of those who weren't nominated) - then you've got a pretty decent chance of getting a show on Channel 4. Johnny Vegas had a spectacularly successful run at Edinburgh a while back and has managed to get plenty of TV work off the back of it, despite his act being fundamentally untelevisable. (It's vaguely credible that a mentally ill potter might have blagged his way into doing a wonky Fringe show. It's not really credible that anyone would give him the money for a TV show, which is where Seven Stone of Idiot, or whatever it was called, fell at the first hurdle.)

Second, it's a convention, and that means that when they're not on stage, they tend to be very drunk. This goes on for a month, which stand-up comedians seem to find a very agreeable prospect.

A lot of purists hate the fact that comedy has taken over the Festival and pushed theatre to the side, a point which gets made rather hamfistedly halfway through Annie Griffin's recent film Festival, which I'll probably have more to say about over the next couple of weeks. The reality is that most people would rather see the comedians, because they're more entertaining, and because the quality control tends to be higher, especially at the major venues. A lot of the fringe theatre, especially outside the major venues, is terrifyingly obscure and of interest to virtually nobody. Even the Assembly Rooms, a major venue, is running a production of Faust performed entirely in Polish, with no subtitles, and with a programme containing a broken-English explanation of the plot which you can't read because the house lights are down. The critics love it, but realistically, how many people will want to watch Goethe in a foreign language - and not even the original one?

A lot of purists also hate the fact that ticket prices have gone through the roof, meaning that the traditional Edinburgh Festival month of seeing seven shows a day and staggering around the city in a drunken, dehydrated daze is now beyond the financial reach of most punters. They have a point, but even at these prices, most shows are still bleeding money. The population of the city may double during the Festival, but the number of shows competing for attention is astronomical. There are 333 venues in Edinburgh this year - that's not a misprint, three hundred and thirty three - and many of those have multiple stages. The average Fringe audience is tiny. But then, so is the average Fringe venue.

The purists particularly hate people like me, who make a beeline for shows offering the opportunity to see comedians we've heard of playing in small venues. But nobody listens to the purists.

Richard Herring has been doing the Festival for years, but for the last few years he's been doing one of those quasi-theatrical themed shows that stand-ups come up with when they're trying to fill an hour. This time he's back to straight stand-up comedy, abandoning any pretence of a linking theme in a show which takes five completely unrelated ideas and bludgeons them into the ground with deliberately excessive and pedantic zeal. Anyone can deconstruct "If" by Rudyard Kipling, for example, but the comedy lies in continuing to assault, misconstrue and bludgeon the poor poem for a good ten minutes after it's stopped twitching, homing in on every conceivable trivial criticism. The sheer lack of perspective is funny in its own right.

There's a film, The Aristocrats, getting its UK premiere at the Film Festival this year. It's a whole load of comedians talking about the famous "Aristocrats" joke, which is very popular with comedians despite the minor point of not actually being in any way funny. The reason comedians love it is because the punchline is totally unimportant - the point is how many jawdroppingly offensive images you can come up with along the way. Herring is probably a fan, with a good chunk of his show given over to intentionally offensive material that starts from an obviously (and even boringly) controversial beginning and escalates into ever more ludicrous contortions as Herring chases down all the logical consequences while remaining seemingly oblivious to what he's saying. He's not a big fan of the Catholic Church, to put it mildly.

This sort of thing works for Fringe audiences because, to be honest, it's usually a fairly safe bet that nobody in the audience is actually going to be offended - or if they are, they're going to be a heavily outnumbered minority. It's funny because it might hypothetically be offensive to somebody not in the room, rather than because it's actually intended to offend people who are. Besides, it's so over the top that you'd have to have a serious sense of humour failure to take it literally. On the whole, the sort of people who take their religion so seriously as to be actively offended by this kind of thing (as opposed to merely not it funny) don't bother with Fringe stand-up comedy. If they go to the Fringe at all, they're probably watching a nice am-dram production of Abigail's Party, with heavy period detail for added toothlessness. For the rest of us, this sort of material is offensive in a rather abstract way - it hits taboos, but it doesn't actually cause offence.

Tonight, in fact, Herring did have a party of middle-aged Daily Mail readers on the audience, who walked out in disgust at the start of the Catholicism segment. Apparently they weren't best pleased by his announcement that he was glad the Pope was dead. One of them actually seized the microphone to make his complaints clearer. (Herring politely assured them that, no, he wasn't drunk, he just had a different sense of humour from them.) This made us all feel much better about laughing at them in their absence. It's a shame they didn't stick around for Herring's explanation of exactly why he was glad, which starts with the relatively friendly observation that he's been released from disease and has gone to heaven, only to follow the train of thought until it takes him back into insanity again.

Herring claims to reckon that his audience splits between people who love it, people who hate it, and a middle ground who buy the Guardian and go "Well, I can see what you're doing with the structure of stand up..." If you've got any doubts about which category you're in, wait to see how you react to the punchline to the closing yoghurt segment. Any more than three seconds to get the point (or if you don't find it funny) and you're a Guardian reader.

The show's at Edinburgh until the end of August, and then touring. I loved it, and if you're in the third who are guaranteed to hate it, you probably know by now.