Opinion: Edinburgh 2016 - The Year That Comedy Got Less Funny?

“It’s just not funny enough.” This was a comment that I kept hearing during the Edinburgh Fringe this year. Not necessarily about the newly-crowned lastminute.com Best Comedy Show winner Richard Gadd, but even he was aware that being listed in the comedy section prompted certain expectations. During his candid show he talked about mistakes he has made in his life - one of them, he quipped, was listing his triumphant Monkey See Monkey Do in the comedy section of the programme. 

2016 may well go down as the year that comedy got serious. As well as Gadd’s painfully frank account of his struggles with depression there was Chris Gethard’s late night solo show about his mental health and suicide bids. I thought Gethard’s show was very funny in a nerdy New York neurotic way and thought it might be a contender for a newcomer nod, but I seemed to be in a minority. People - not necessarily judges - kept mentioning that it was too serious for a comedy show.

And then there was Sarah Kendall’s latest, Shaken. Kendall has essayed a positively Bowie-esque reinvention of her stage style in recently years, moving from stand-up to storytelling. There are certainly still laughs there, but less than when she was a scintillating observational gagsmith a decade ago. With its dramatic, haunting ending Shaken was a tale that left you chilled rather than a chuckling.

There have been comedy shows in the past that have - intentionally - been low on laughs, but this year feels like a tipping point. The lines between comedy and straight theatre are becoming blurred as more comedians move into a storytelling style. I blame Daniel Kitson for this, of course. He may not have been the first to tell a long and winding story in a comedy show, but his influence is huge. Mark Thomas, of course, also straddles genres and, interestingly, in Edinburgh tends to end up reviewed by theatre critics these days.

And there are definitely some theatre shows that have plenty of comedy in them. Derevo could certainly give the likes of Dr Brown a run for their money in the clowning stakes, but sit firmly outside the comedy section of the brochure. And another show I saw, Letters To Windsor House by Sh!t Theatre, was a very funny piece about the London housing crisis, with more than an echo of Dave Gorman in its satirical documentary approach.

There is a theory that performers choose to go into the Fringe brochure’s comedy section these days because comedy shows sell the most tickets. Maybe in future more serio-comic theatre shows will see Richard Gadd’s deserved success and take a leaf out of his book. While he joked that he shouldn't have been in the comedy section, theatre shows might now want to be in there. Not only might they sell more tickets but they might win the most important prize at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Picture of this year's lastminute.com Edinburgh Comedy Award nominees by The Other Richard.





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