The cost of Edinburgh’s laughter crisis

The build-up to this year’s fringe has been marked by a series of troubling news – a row over the removal of its official ticketing app and discounted ticket offices, making it harder for shows to turn a profit; ‘budget’ hotel chain prices of up to £526 for two nights; a petition signed by top comedians including Joe Lycett who blames organizers for failing to help with rising accommodation costs (1,200 rooms are available for performers at less than £280 a week , but there are over 3,000 shows).

“The bangs will always be the most masochistic thing we can do,” admits Haaland, whose life has been rocky lately anyway: moving to the family farm, starting therapy, rebuilding his stand-up career at from scratch, back home. “Honestly, I didn’t know if I should do it. And then, for some reason, I decided to tell my story about what it’s like to move to a farm in the middle of a pandemic living with my two crap-crazed Norwegian parents.

The Edinburgh fringe has long been established as the year-round focal point for live comedy, in Britain and beyond, with thousands of comedians hoping to make a splash, if not big bucks. But running a one-month errand is getting more and more expensive. Rent, venue fees, promotion, insurance, and access cost thousands of dollars upfront, and most performers expect to incur a loss even if the show does well.

Indeed, without a full Fringe since 2019, many worshipers wondered if that spell would finally be broken. And especially for acts from abroad, given the unnecessary bureaucracy.

Yet here we are. Fringe is back and comics have arrived from all over Europe with very different stories. Haaland suggests the life of a wandering performer is probably in his roots.

“I was born in Texas, landed in London, then stumbled back to Norway: no clear agenda or plan,” says the comedian, whose show is called Confused face resting. “I seem like a comedian because I literally live out of a suitcase.”


It’s surprising what idyllic settings the comics will ditch for the sidelines. Ignacio Lopez is lounging on the upper deck of a cruise liner as we speak, docked off the coast of Valencia. The Spanish/Welsh comic has recently found an enviable new role, performing on cruises. “I wasn’t going to do Edinburgh at all this year, I had two cruises, one vacation booked…”
Then an offer landed. Lopez currently sits in this almost famous and enticing area: a popular live-action comic with helpful TV/radio work and a unique story. His new show, El Comicotalks about immigration, and he has focused on Brexit in previous shows.

“I wouldn’t exist without the EU,” he says. “If my mother had not been able to leave [from Wales] and work in Spain, where she met my father… then I was born there. My family comes from different countries.

Lopez is in an illustrious Fringe venue this year, at Gilded Balloon, and admits the bet “could be a complete disaster. But there’s only one way to find out.

That said, critical acclaim can open up other opportunities for ambitious comics. It’s surprising where this type of material works. “Even the big holiday crowds,” Lopez reveals. “I say at the end, ‘If it wasn’t for the EU, you would have been watching an empty stage.'”

Marginal audiences – and critics in particular – expect a bit of guts with the gags. For Moni Zhang, the spirit of Edinburgh was an incentive to create her first show: Child of Wuhan was a success in Berlin.

“This is my real life story,” Zhang said on Zoom. “How I came from a sweatshop, I overcame huge disadvantages and my journey of finding love. On the show, I deal with my childhood trauma, my own depression and my dysfunctional family. And in the end, how I finally got to see the silver lining.

The discovery of stand-up was part of it. She developed an additional show for this fringe: Anxiety versus depression: a comedy game show. “It’s the best concept I’ve ever had,” she says.

But a fortnight before Edinburgh, her Airbnb canceled (“I had a very emotional week”).

Accommodation is the major issue of the festival, especially for newcomers. Rents have risen dramatically in recent years, partly a side effect of new regulations aimed at preventing landlords from evicting their usual tenants. Leftover rooms can be ridiculously expensive – up to £5,000 is not uncommon for August – which also affects tourism and ticket sales.

Michelle Kalt, from Zurich, is making her debut this year and seems slightly disturbed: “I think I can say on behalf of anyone doing this for the first time that we have grossly underestimated the amount of administration this will entail. .” Which is saying a lot, considering she’s also a lawyer.

Organizing a simple stand-up show can be surprisingly complicated. Kalt’s admin included a last-minute scramble for required employer’s liability and insurance – ‘many insurance companies would turn me down because I’m not a UK resident’ – and a similar struggle to take people’s money.

A positive marginal change in recent years is the rise of pay TV. But with less cash around a card reader is now essential, and “I haven’t found anyone offering this to non-UK residents either”. She ended up with a device that reads QR codes, “no more hassle for punters but hopefully it will work”.

Kalt makes a show with a memorable title – God hates you – about a strangely peaceful breakup; clearly not an allegory of Brexit. She largely avoids politics because “it’s hard to know whether the hardware I’m trying here will also work in the UK”, but didn’t find Britain’s anti-European stance too off-putting. “I feel like there are parallels between Switzerland and the UK. We’ve never been a member of the EU, and we kind of want to have our cake and eat it too.

The aforementioned administrator also includes paying up to £400 to the Fringe Society, which will be listed in the physical Fringe Guide; then the company belatedly admitted that this year there would be no fringe enforcement, which previously drove bettors to nearby shows. This caused a huge backlash on social media: 1,700 comedians signed an open letter, lamenting big cuts and huge rents. Many artists have sworn not to return.

This application was particularly useful for small shows without a budget for poster campaigns or public relations: the simple fact of being found is difficult if your room is not in the busiest centers. Kalt opted for one of the most popular locations, The Caves. “You also want to have a good poster and a good flyer,” she says; “Why would you spend so much money and not promote?”

Then again, everyday life makes incidental expenses less bizarre. For comics that just do regular gigs in Britain, “the cost of travel and all, it’s just not viable,” says Lopez. “It’s one of the great things about Edinburgh…you can walk to work every day for a month.”

And you can talk about the bureaucracy that affects your other work. Stefania Licari is an Italian actress, clown and NHS doctor, whose first show, Medicalis a semi-fictional romantic farce, with real-life drama.

“I’m talking about a moment of panic just before Brexit,” says Licari. “I think back to the preparation I did for the British culture test – one of the requirements for citizenship – and I find it very funny that I took it so seriously.” To prepare, the already too busy doctor/comedian “asked 10,000 questions online and read three books three times each,” she says.

It became an entertaining section of the show, however. More serious is the moment when a patient insists “on being treated only by British doctors, refusing my treatment because I was not British. Unfortunately, this is a true story. Even more sadly, this is not the only example of racist or xenophobic behavior towards NHS staff that I have come across.

Community spirit is a unique fringe draw, however, and you find a remarkable mix of people.

The Comedy Estonia showcase features a rotating cast from a nation with a burgeoning stand-up tradition.

“In a way, we feel like cultural ambassadors,” says organizer and performer Karl-Alari Varma.

An intriguing theme this year is how the comedians reference the ongoing global conflict. “In Estonia, we are very fond of dark humor and heavy subjects are second nature to us,” says Varma. “Some of the comedians were born under Russian occupation and grew up in a time when all the political and societal wounds were still raw, and that kind of post-Soviet survival mentality carried over into their comedy.” But “even with heavy subject matter,” he says, “the main goal is to be funny.”

Haaland agrees. His show doesn’t have a big mission, but maybe big joint laughs are enough this year. “There is always a need to connect,” she says. “And I think that’s what comedy does best.”

If Hawkins is a freelance writer and the editor of the British Comedy Guide

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