As we know, comedy is a growth industry and often the first port of call for anyone with creative leanings. You don’t need equipment, or a script, or even friends to have a stab at comedy. You just need five minutes of funny which nobody else has done.
There were more than 900 comedy shows at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013; 1020 last year – making comedy by far the biggest draw at the Festival. It is a massive industry, and this is its trade fair. Most of these comedians will have spent a fortune on production, promotion and support staff. Even the free shows will have put themselves in hock for a month with the cost of flyers, posters, the insanely expensive Fringe brochure and festival-time accommodation.
Each year comedians (and bear in mind that a lot of them are on the dole or supporting themselves with less nebulous employment) pay more than £3.5 million between them to come to the Edinburgh Fringe. The local council spends this money building unwanted tram stops and raiding saunas, and subsidising the biscuits at the Holyrood canteen.
There are a lot of comedians, so it’s little wonder that a whole profession has grown up around assessing, categorising and rating them each year. Even the most embittered comic would admit that reviewing is, by and large, to the public benefit. But who, exactly, is reviewing comedy today, and why should you trust their opinions?
To inspect a nuclear power station you need to have passed some pretty rigorous tests. To inspect Iran for weapons of mass destruction you have to be clever, resourceful and brave. Even an Ofstead inspector needs to prove that they are not rampaging violent perverts before we let them wander around schools assessing our children’s happiness. Of course, analysing comedy is not the same as any of these examples.
It is far, far more important. Comedy is the best thing in the world, and the United Kingdom (as it remains until the next referendum) is the best PLACE in the world because here the comedy flows as freely as our rain and is as essential to our sense of wellbeing. So if we care about our industry, we must care about those who appoint themselves as its quality controllers. And they have ALL, pretty much, appointed themselves.
Some reviewers are excellent. Some are workmanlike but fair. Some are appalling. There’s a star system, by which all publications apart from the Stage award between one and five stars for shows. The importance of stars over words, and – to a large extent – the neediness and vanity of comedians in lapping up these tokens regardless of who offers them, have smudged the boundaries between good reviewers and bad; trustworthy publications and rags. All reviews have apparent parity in the eyes of the public who just sees the photocopied stars pasted over the poster.
So suppose there’s something you want to see but someone’s given it two stars. You’re dissuaded. But should you be? If the review is in a national newspaper, you can probably accept that the journalist knows their onions. Year-round publications like The List and The Scotsman are invested in the local culture and so have an unquestionable right to comment on the Festival and Fringe. Chortle is committed to comedy (and only comedy) and reports it year-round.
Other publications, though, spring up mostly to profit from the advertising revenue the Fringe produces, and recruit their critics with rather less care. Yet tourists will doubt a five-star from Bruce Dessau in light of a one-star from a sports therapy undergraduate who has yet to experience penetration, let alone a groundbreaking piece of cultural satire.
Comedy today is challenging. It’s a cornucopia; an embarrassment of riches that has made the consuming public lazy, ungrateful, bloated, indolent, wasteful and disrespectful. The Edinburgh Fringe is like Bangkok or Angeles City, but with comedians instead of prostitutes and Fringegoers instead of sex tourists. They wander in with their tight wallets and their beady eyes and they check out the talent.
ALL the comedians are, of course, more beautiful and enchanting than anything they’ll find in their tawdry towns and horrid hamlets, but there’s so much CHOICE, so many flyerers saying the equivalent of HELLO HANDSOME MAN. Or woman.
It’s a stressful time. A bad review – especially an unfair or mean-spirited one – can make a comedian give up, sometimes for good reason and sometimes not. But this guide is for the comedian as well as the public. Before you pack your suitcase and head home, check on here to see whether the person that assessed your efforts passes muster doing their own chosen job. And even if they do, carry on anyway. We probably reviewed them on a good day.
All the best,