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August 07, 2008

In Defense of the Edinburgh Comedy Festival

The Edinburgh Comedy Festival is an idea that’s taken a lot of flack. Basically the big four Fringe venues (Pleasance, Underbelly, Assembly Rooms, Gilded Balloon) decided to get together and market all their shows under the banner of the Edinburgh Comedy Festival. Now this isn’t that new. For years the venues have been pairing up to help with promotion, producing joint programmes and so forth. Most of the consternation comes from the name: it implies that they’re the only comedy shows on the Fringe, ignoring the smaller venues.

It’s a valid complaint, but it’s hardly the first time someone has pulled something like this. Some years ago Avalon (a comedy management company) produced a “Fringe Highlights Guide” which was styled like the official Fringe program and had just their own acts in. Still nothing has been done on this scale before and the argument appears to be that it discriminates against the smaller acts that can’t afford to play the big venues, which is against the spirit of the Fringe (though the organisers have suggested other venues could join the “Comedy Festival” banner in future years).

I’m not so convinced it’s that clear-cut. For a start pick up the Fringe programme and thumb through it. 1000s of shows, but adverts for only around 10% of them. If you can afford an advert in the programme you get better advertising. If you can afford and convince one of the ‘Big 4’ you should play there you get better advertising. It’s most certainly a question of degrees rather than a fundamental issues.

The other issue that gets raised with this one is how comics lose thousands of pounds putting on a Fringe show. One interesting thing to note is that those on at the bigger venues are paying a lot more for those rooms, they’re taking a much bigger financial risk. Sure they get better positioning, more advertising and so forth but if they’re not good enough or don’t take advantage of it they’ll lose more money.
Now lets be honest, there’s a lot of shit on at the Fringe. There’s a lot of acts and productions that frankly shouldn’t be there. The open nature of the Fringe is that anyone can put on a show which is a good thing, but a lot of those shows are going to be rather poor. And the smaller and less auspicious the venue gets, the higher the proportion of really bad shows.

Now before you have a fit, I’m not denying there isn’t crap on at the Pleasance, nor am I denying there are some truly brilliant acts performing at the Free Fringe. The former is a case of acts with either more money than sense or over-inflated egos. The latter tend to be the opposite, or those acts that simply don’t have the money to risk. But at least when it comes to the bigger venues, the acts have put their money where their funny mouths are. They’re saying that they know they’re good enough to be playing there and put cold hard cash behind it. Meanwhile there are acts playing the Free Fringe that know they are far from having a sold hour of material, but are doing because it’s fun and not too costly.

So there does exist an argument that bringing these acts willing to risk their own livelihoods playing the big venues under one banner helps the consumer. And meanwhile it also hopefully sells more tickets overall so the acts don’t lose as much money.

The most interesting thing of all is that a number of the acts openly criticising the Edinburgh Comedy Festival are performing at The Stand. The Stand is a great place, but has the advantage of running comedy all-year round, so has a solid infrastructure already in place. It’s also a fairly small operation. All this means that those acts lucky enough to be picked by The Stand to play at their club don’t lose money. In fact, most of them turn a profit. Which is why it’s a little disconcerting to see them attack a system that’s designed to help out their fellow established circuit comics that are stuck performing at the Underbelly et al.

Sure, the whole thing could have been handled better, and under a different name I doubt half as many people would have been upset. But to automatically dismiss it as ‘a bad thing’ seems to be something of a swift judgement.

And of course, after the horrendous ticketing cock-up at the Fringe office, from a purely practical point of view it’s very useful to be able to buy and collect tickets for all four venues from one box-office!

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