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The Fringe Is Coming to Town

castleI love this time of year in Edinburgh. The weather, of course, remains its usual disgraceful self: high winds with on-and-off rain the past few days. The gap between the David Hume Tower and the business school still funnels the wind into gusts that can lift small-framed people off their feet. In May this year we had hailstorms. But you don’t come to Edinburgh for equable weather. When I moved here from California, I vowed never to waste my time grumbling about the cold and the dark.

No, what I love about the coming of July and the approach of August is the gradually building excitement as the city prepares for the largest cluster of arts festivals in the world. The huge book festival in Charlotte Square comes in late August, but other events are much earlier: the Jazz & Blues Festival is already here, and half the center of town is barricaded off for it. But the core of the festival season, more significant even than the high-culture Edinburgh International Festival itself, is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (odd though it may sound to have a fringe as a core). The Fringe is absolutely enormous, dwarfing everything else put together. Quite apart from the music, experimental theater, burlesque, improv, dance, children’s shows, circus acts, and other genres, every standup comedian in the country (and quite a few from America and elsewhere) will show up in Edinburgh during August to try out the new shows that they will tour with in the fall or perform on radio or TV. This year the Fringe will host 50,000 performances.

How many will I be at? Well, proportionally, of course, virtually none of them. But getting tickets (they sell out at a head-spinning rate, and the queues are long) isn’t everything. I just enjoy the swirling crowds everywhere. The whole city is like one huge street party. Performers and their friends and supporters wander amongst the crowds handing out fliers and sometimes coupons for free tickets that evening if the house might have empty seats. Under the window of my office, the BBC sets up a big tent campus with performance space and ticket booths and coffee stalls and big screens and restaurants and bars and fast-food stands and seating areas. The area is thronged with people from morning till midnight. Some colleagues grumble, but not me. I love it.

Right at the end of the whole extravaganza (it’ll be on August 31 this year) there is a concert at which a live orchestra plays in the open air below a thousand-year-old castle over which a spectacular computer-timed firework show has been synchronized to the music. Everyone drinks wine under the stars, and weeps at 10 p.m. because it’s all over.

But before that, late in August when most of the comedians have obtained most of the laughs they’re going to get, the newspapers run stories about the funniest jokes the comedians told, and an official committee decides on the funniest of all.

As a linguist, I love jokes and standup comedy because of the wordplay.

Last year Tim Vine said: “I did a gig in a fertility clinic. I got a standing ovulation.” Deeply silly, yes, but it made me laugh.

Almost as silly as a joke by Bec Hill: “I used to think an ocean of soda existed, but it was just a Fanta sea” (junior-high level, that one, I admit it).

On a more adult note: Holly Walsh said, “I lost my virginity very late. When it finally happened, I wasn’t so much deflowered as deadheaded.” (Pushes the analogy between virginal innocence and horticulture just that little bit further till it falls off the edge, doesn’t it?)

“The other day, I went to KFC,” said Nick Helm; “I didn’t know Kentucky had a football club!”

I actually laughed out loud when I read one of Sara Pascoe’s lines: “You can’t lose a homing pigeon. If your homing pigeon doesn’t come back, then what you’ve lost is a pigeon.”

Call me lowbrow, but I’m going to get tickets to a few comedy shows this August (I have no idea how I’ll choose which ones), and I’m going to laugh until the very integrity of my underwear is at risk. The Fringe is coming to town, and setting up shop right in the university’s central district, and I’m going to enjoy it. In September I will let you know about the linguistically cleverest jokes that were brought here this year. They’ll be silly, of course, and if you’re snooty you’ll look down your nose at them and turn to more serious fare. But hey, it’s summertime, and even if you don’t fancy a giggle, I certainly do.

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