Fringe the Fecund

Yesterday was the last of the two-for-ones at the Edinburgh Fringe, which overcame any resistance I might have had towards venturing out in the worst weather this month. After dodging the sheets of water being sloshed off the Pleasance canopies by a guy with a broom, it was straight upstairs to see Laurence and Gus.

These two have a strong TV and radio resumé, and it showed: Men in Love was a well-written and performed show that pushed all the right buttons. Its sketches on the theme of love and male hopelessness ranged from two Knights Templar Templar Knights competing for the hand of a fair maiden, to a First World War private and an officer who’ve each had something the other one wants. A couple of sketches went on a little too long for my tastes, although I liked their premises (the stalker and his anorak mate, and the son of Zeus with a penchant for shrubbery), but in the hands of two consummate—if not consummated—professionals, the show never dragged.

But perhaps that’s why I never lost myself to them completely. As time goes on—this is my sixth consecutive year of Melbourne and Edinburgh comedy festivals—I find myself wanting more than the polished script, performed flawlessly. As I hinted last entry, I want the shambolic, the half-improvised, the off-the-cuff and the wing-and-a-prayer. It’s often in the risk of things going wrong, or the illusion of things going wrong, that I find the biggest laughs; it has to be a well-written joke indeed to match the comedy value of chance. Maybe this is the edge that stand-up has over sketch comedy; the best stand-ups can play with their slip-ups and unexpected heckles to produce something that even they’ve never heard before, when in sketches all that would mean is that the joke gets ruined. (In pre-recorded TV or radio shows, on the other hand, the strength of the script takes priority, and sketches come into their own. Even those half-hour gameshows on Radio 4 are edited down from performances twice as long to make up for the lost live-in-person spontaneity.)

I was ready, then, for the next show of the night, Carl-Einar Häckner’s Heart. There was the thrill of risk just in going to see a Swedish comedian—would his sense of humour translate? What exactly is the Swedish sense of humour?—and at the very least, it would make a change from all those clever young Englishmen.

I was, I’ll admit, a bit worried in the early part of the show, where Häckner played a concert violinist fumbling with instruments and mic-stands. The laughs were thin, and he was a bit too eager to prompt the audience for applause. But an amusing gag with an IKEA flat-pack started to win me over; and I was sold completely once he staple-gunned his eyes shut.

Not really, of course—although it sure sounded like it over the microphone. Nor was he really at risk of choking on that harmonica; that wasn’t a real dead panda; the Great Houndini wasn’t actually suffocating in that box; and all those dying birds shrieking over the sound system were fake. But call me Swedish, I loved it. Like other comic magicians, there was only just enough proper magic in his act to pass muster, but the real focus was on things going wrong, actually, supposedly, and threateningly. At one stage half the audience were wondering if they were about to get sprayed with mashed banana. If that’s not as funny as a clever spot of word-play, I don’t know what is.

The last show of the night was one I’d been looking forward to all year. Kiwi folk-parody duo Flight of the Conchords were a hot ticket last Fringe, but by the time I knew about them they were sold out; the songs they did at the Best of the Fest were enough to know that I’d missed out on something great. Fortunately, there was more where that came from.

The Conchords do a nice line in low-key banter: an extended bit about imaginary children was particularly good, as was another about their stage personas just happening to be the same as their real ones. But the songs are where they really shine, and tonight’s ranged from the good to the brilliant: the opening number about forgetting an old face; “Business Time”, about that special once-a-week night of lerv; and “Boom the Boom”, where they flexed their rap muscles, proving once and for all that life as a musical parodist is as dangerous as being a gangsta. After a huge round of applause from a packed Reid Hall they came back with some “old stuff”, which was new to me so I was happy to hear it. Hell, I’d have been happy even if it wasn’t; after dragging my heels, I really am going to have to buy their album. All hail the Hiphopapotamus and the Rhymeoceros.

10 August 2004