Are There Too Many Comedy Shows In Edinburgh?


Has Edinburgh got too big? It’s the cry that goes up every year, but maybe with good reason this year. 2015 will see 50,459 performances of 3,314 shows from 49 countries in 313 venues across Edinburgh. This is a 3.8% increase on last year's programme. Fancy seeing all those shows? You’ll need deep pockets and a time machine to fit them all in.

One thing that has come out of the Cowgatehead venue issue is the realisation of just how many performers want to appear in Edinburgh. With a month to go until the Fringe starts on August 7 there are still shows applying for spaces to play. As has been said on social media, if you are still applying for a place to perform in June how ready is your show going to be in August?

Performers who are really serious about Edinburgh started work on their set a long time ago. I remember Stuart Goldsmith doing a work-in-progress for this year’s Edinburgh last August in London.

Most major acts with management giving them a shove are already doing umpteen previews around London. You can see the likes of James Acaster, Katherine Ryan and other panel show regulars honing their acts for less than a fiver – often for free – on the club circuit at the moment.

So where does that leave the newcomers who also want to get their shows into shape. Off the top of my head I’ve not come across the kind of acts performing on the Free Fringe or Freestival doing warm-ups. So how to do they get their shows ready? Even with a few preview dates at the start of the Fringe, that period should be for minor tweaks, not for working out how not to trip over the microphone lead.

Many of these acts are not full-time comedians either. I’ve had press releases from people doing all sorts of ‘real’ jobs who are taking shows to the Fringe. Good luck to them. John Kearns had a day job as a Westminster guide when he performed on the Free Fringe and won Best Newcomer in 2013, so fairy tales can come true.

But Edinburgh is a harsh mistress. While putting on shows can definitely be fun the chances of getting that break can be miniscule. I often wonder if I've missed a genius performing somewhere on the edge of the city to three drunks and a dog. It was not always like this. When the Cambridge Footlights featuring the likes of Fry, Laurie and Emma Thompson won the first Perrier Award in 1981 there were only about 40 comedy shows in the programme. You could virtually cover everything over a weekend and still have time to eat.

Compare that with today, when there are 807 free shows alone at the Fringe. Not all comedy, admittedly, and that number might change in the next few weeks, but it’s still a mind-boggling increase. There will be a lot of brilliant must-see sets. There will also be a lot of stinkers.

The thing about Edinburgh is that it is an open access arts festival. Anyone who can get a performing space can take part. Compare that, with, say Cat Laughs in Kilkenny, which is curated and performers are invited.

In a way performers in Edinburgh still have to meet certain standards. You can’t just flash your credit card and book a room at the Pleasance. If the programmers don’t like you you don't get on the list.

But with the numbers so high maybe there is a problem with quality control. Maybe not all shows are up to scratch. Perhaps this year really is the tipping point. So many shows, so little time. Maybe someone – The Fringe Society? – has to step in and put a limit on the number of shows on the Edinburgh Fringe.


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