How the Edinburgh Fringe transformed TV comedy

As the Edinburgh Fringe begins again, we examine how the festival spawned shows like Taskmaster, Fleabag, and The League Of Gentlemen...

Comedy is a big deal at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The Fringe was established primarily as an arts festival but throughout the 1980s, the rise of the alternative comedy scene and the diversification of festival venues created a growing platform for funny stuff. Now, the festival’s world-renowned status as a forum for new creative ideas has made stars out of countless comedians and hit sitcoms out of shows ranging from The League Of Gentlemen to Fleabag.

Over the next 25 days, this year’s Fringe will see a staggering 59,000 performances take place in Fringe venues across the city, of which 39% will be comedy shows. Never mind the 1980s, that’s a marked increase compared to just 10 years ago, when comedy shows became the largest category of entertainment for the very first time.

The Edinburgh Comedy Awards are part of the reason why comedy has gained a higher profile at the Fringe, with hundreds of stand-up comedians, sketch groups, improv troupes, and other parties being eligible across the three main categories – Best Comedy Show, Best Newcomer, and the Panel Prize.

Many of the recipients of these awards, which was formerly sponsored by companies like Perrier and Fosters, have gone onto big things in TV. For instance, back in 1981, the very first winners of the main Best Comedy Show prize were the Cambridge Footlights cast that included Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, and Tony Slattery.

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While winning an award isn’t the only way to get “discovered” at the Fringe, it’s one way in which the festival serves as a springboard for new comedy talent. The UK TV channel Dave is sponsoring the awards for the first time this year, as part of their growing commitment to finding and commissioning original comedy, so you can probably expect this year’s winners will be on the fast track to a commission in the not-too-distant future.

Not every act that performs at the festival will be up for an award and not every award nominee is guaranteed small-screen success. Nevertheless, the Fringe has been a proving ground for some of the funniest stars and comedy shows of the last 50 years or so.

Warming up

An early watershed for comedy at the festival was Beyond The Fringe, a hugely influential satirical revue that started in 1960 and counted Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore, and Peter Cook among its cast. The show is seen as a direct forerunner to shows like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, many of whose cast members were inspired by the irreverent take on the British establishment.

The open-access nature of the festival enabled various student companies to mount productions at the festival throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Rowan Atkinson (who first played Mr Bean in a mid-80s sketch revue) and several of the Pythons are among the comedy superstars who first came to prominence in this forum.

With the introduction of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards (long known as the Perrier Awards, after their original sponsor) came a more visible way of tipping comedians for small-screen stardom. As well as the aforementioned Footlights, comedians such as Frank Skinner, Steve Coogan, Al Murray, and Harry Hill won awards at the Fringe throughout the 1990s and all went onto TV vehicles thereafter.

In terms of format, the brilliant Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is just one sitcom that was spawned from the Fringe. Matthew Holness, Richard Ayoade and Alice Lowe wrote and starred in two Fringe shows in 2000 and 2001, the second of which, titled Netherhead, won the Perrier. Channel 4 subsequently commissioned the 2004 mockumentary series about a patently dreadful supernatural hospital drama penned by the One Man Fear Factory himself, thus creating an infinitely shareable gem for comedy geeks of all stripes.

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More recently, Fleabag was Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s one-woman Fringe play before it became an Emmy-nominated comedy commission on BBC Three. We know “it’s Miranda for toffs” is a handy go-to for people who haven’t actually watched Fleabag but feel they need to have an opinion about it, but it’s far from the kind of mainstream show that usually makes the leap and deserves admiration alone for telling a complete story over 12 episodes rather than dragging on forever.

Elsewhere, it’s no surprise that Dave is now more invested in the festival, given how the channel’s most popular original programme started as a Fringe show. Alex Horne devised Taskmaster in 2010, pitting a gaggle of comedians against each other in one-off shows over two successive years before developing the format for television.

Broadcast in 2015, the first series adds Greg Davies as the Taskmaster and also includes a line-up of contestants made up entirely of Edinburgh Comedy Award-winners and nominees, ranging from Skinner to up-and-comers like Roisin Conaty, Tim Key, Romesh Ranganathan, and Josh Widdicombe.

With a ninth series coming to Dave this autumn, the subsequent line-ups have largely played like a rogues’ gallery of winners and nominees too. Taskmaster may well be the best showcase for performers on TV, in part because it was originally designed to show off comedians’ other talents but also because of how well its lively atmosphere has been preserved in the transition to the screen.

From stage to stereo

In terms of the BBC’s comedy commissions, radio is a notable launchpad for TV comedy and a fair few popular shows took to the airwaves in between their Edinburgh runs and small-screen adaptations. The League Of Gentlemen’s Fringe debut came in 1995, and the same year as they won their Edinburgh Comedy Award, they also produced their Radio 4 series On The Town.

Written by Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, and Reece Shearsmith, (and starring three of them) the radio series is more of a sitcom, revolving around the character Benjamin Denton staying with his aunt and uncle in the town of Spent (the once and future Royston Vasey) while awaiting a job interview. When the show came to BBC Two in 1999, this became one of several running storylines in a format more akin to a sketch show.

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But of all the stage-to-radio-to-TV transitions, Flight Of The Conchords might be the most well-travelled format. After performing on local TV in New Zealand, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement arrived in Scotland for a 2003 live run at the newly minted but anciently constructed Fringe venue, The Caves. They then recorded a BBC radio series in England and then popped over to America for two seasons of an HBO TV show. (Phew!)

A similarly popular, more homegrown Fringe export came when Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding got together and “decided to be the new Goodies”. Along with Rich Fulcher, they took to the Fringe with shows – titled The Mighty Boosh, Arctic Boosh, and Autoboosh – from 1998 to 2000.

With the Best Newcomer award and a further nomination under their belts, Barratt, Fielding, and Fulcher wrote The Boosh for BBC London Live and Radio 4 in 2001. Directed by Paddington’s Paul King, the subsequent TV pilot spawned three series on BBC Three between 2004 and 2007. Funnily enough, the Boosh came full circle by going back to the stage for two new live shows off the back of the TV series’ popularity.

While BBC Three becoming an online-only channel in 2016 was seen to be a great loss for broadcast comedy, there is still a wide variety of new sketches and other comedy bits and bobs streaming on iPlayer, often from comedians who’ve come up through the Fringe and then radio.

Currently, you can also check out Lazy Susan, starring writer-performers Celeste Dring and Freya Parker, as part of iPlayer’s Comedy Shorts strand. You may also have heard them on the Radio 4 podcast spoof The East Coast Listening Post, but their 13-minute sketch show is very much in the style of the duo’s award-nominated hour-long shows and is well worth a look.

Stand-up guys and gals

Of course, radio was also the birthplace of the comedy panel show as we know it. Many UK TV hits have their parallel on the radio (for instance, Have I Got News For You and The News Quiz) and in both mediums, the format has a huge turnover of performers.

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At the Fringe, live panel shows thrive, in a city that’s jam-packed with comedians who are up for a guest spot when they’re not doing their own show. By the time comics appear on the televised version of the same thing, they’re usually already on the way to being famous, but there’s a significantly more competitive edge on display.

In most cases, the game/quiz/debate itself doesn’t matter, but there’s a noticeable scale of gamesmanship on comedy panel shows, ranging from Taskmaster, a very loose panel show where the competitive spirit is all in good fun, to Mock The Week, a topical lion’s den where comics are prone to interrupting (not to mention physically barging past) one another in a bid to make their jokes stand out in a ruthless edit.

That’s not to say that competition is good in one show and toxic in another, just that it’s reflective of how stand-ups’ TV gigs are largely doing things other than stand-up, and above the rotating tier of panel show regulars, there are only so many true headliners on the go.

While stand-ups make up the largest portion of the comedy acts at the Fringe, the surfeit of 20-something, usually attractive white male comedians with non-regional accents – all doing inoffensive, accessible bits that will plug into panel shows and chat shows with minimal resistance – feels much more disproportionate.

But if that’s what’s popular, then you end up with a lot of young comics doing a similar sort of shtick. Even outside of panel shows, there should theoretically be a load of travel show gigs for comedians, but they often seem to go to the same personalities. And their dads.

During her excellent interview for Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre podcast, comedian London Hughes told of how she was developing a travel show with Whoopi Goldberg that every TV channel turned down. As Hughes argues, Goldberg is a universally beloved comedian who’s more famous than anyone else currently commissioned in this genre.

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But while some steps have been taken to redress the apparent demographic imbalance, (namely the gender balance of BBC panel shows and ITV2 writers’ rooms) the ultimate problem for all stand-ups who come to TV from the Fringe is that there aren’t enough opportunities for stand-ups to do stand-up comedy on screen.

One potential stand-up vehicle that was borne out the Fringe is the hugely popular Joke Thieves, which pits stand-ups (and sometimes sketch groups) against each other as they perform their trademark gags and then switch material with each other, either remixing or lampooning their opponents. It’s been transplanted to festivals around the world, but nothing came of the pilot episode that BBC Two produced in 2014, perhaps reminding us that not every Fringe show translates as well as Taskmaster.

Outside of Netflix, mainstream channels don’t tend to commission stand-up specials, more often broadcasting specials that have been recorded for a DVD release, usually by one of about eight or nine big names. Although it moved from BBC One to BBC Two a couple of years ago, Live At The Apollo still provides acts with a chance to get their stand-up material on screen, but it doesn’t run all year round and one out of the three acts is a more well-known MC.

All else aside, most working comics thrive on a tight 20 minutes of material on the circuit, but a Fringe engagement usually demands a full hour, imbued with a rock-solid theme, to attract agents and reviewers. If that pays off, and they get a shot on TV, they then have to scale things back to easily digestible one-liners and soundbites about Boris Johnson’s hair or Snapchat. It must be discombobulating and it might go some way to explain the growing throng of mainstream comics in hard rotation on certain shows.

How TV comedy transformed the Fringe

Still, if there’s anything that can prepare comedians for the perceived competitive arena of TV comedy, it’s a festival where the comedy boom has never really stopped. Back when the Edinburgh Comedy Awards began, there were just 30 eligible comedy shows. In 2019, the figure is more than 750.

It’s understandable. Going into creative industries is an idea that’s more widely encouraged now than it was in the 1980s and 1990s and the internet has made it easier for budding comedians to get involved and make plans to meet or stay with their peers. Plus, an awful lot of your comedy heroes will have gone Fringe-wards before they got famous, so why not.

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But if you’re not earning a living off comedy, doing almost a month of shows is a costly proposition, even if you can get the time off your day job. The vast majority of these acts will be on the Free Fringe end of things, with donation buckets and Pay What You Can schemes providing the only reimbursement.

Accommodation for the month is expensive enough, so these acts won’t be paying exorbitant sums for marketing, outside of buying a listing in the official Fringe programme and printing flyers. That means a lot of time when they’re not performing or watching other shows will be spent handing out those flyers up and down the streets of Edinburgh.

So, when certain comedians who came out of the Fringe and became famous on TV return with a big marketing budget and charge more than £30 a head for a “work-in-progress” show, they’ve rightly come in for some flak from comedians on the circuit. But with so many acts, they’re far from the only contender for the oxygen of publicity.

Back when the Fringe began, Edinburgh-based newspaper the Scotsman would typically be able to send someone to review the majority of shows, but with the sheer volume of comedy shows alone, that’s no longer possible. Some outlets make a concerted effort to cover all corners of the comedy programme, but this usually means sending lots of newly recruited, inexperienced reviewers to pass judgements which are often harsher than the comics in question deserve.

Comics usually don’t have too much trouble getting the public in, but to break out, there’s an element of it being about who you know. Waller-Bridge has always acknowledged that the success of Fleabag was not some organic overnight thing, but then a true word-of-mouth hit on the Fringe is a vanishingly rare thing nowadays.

But the real problem with the established or “posh” acts overtaking others at the Fringe is that they already spend the other 11 months of the year based in London, where they can likely arrange meetings with agents and commissioners anyway.

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Meanwhile, long-running popular shows can be unfairly overlooked. Earlier this year, E4 commissioned a pilot for The Colonel Banjoko Show, a spoof chat show about an erstwhile African dictator who becomes a TV star while hiding in London. Several comedians immediately took to Twitter to call out the similarities with President Obonjo, played by character comedian Benjamin Bello, who has entertained Fringe audiences and fellow comics alike for more than a decade.

The producers behind the show have claimed that it’s just a coincidence, but the wave of support for Obonjo on social media shows this act has been popular on the circuit for a while. Whether it’s plagiarism or just parallel thinking, (and you can’t blame fans for thinking it’s the former) the potential for apparently beloved shows to be overlooked must be dispiriting.

Being “discovered” at the Fringe is now a meticulous process of publicity and audience-building that’s taken care of by agents, scouts, or individuals who are doubling as both. It’s already impossible for an individual scout to see every show, but it’s just possible that they know what they’re searching for and they’re looking only for that.

But if you’ve been to the Fringe yourself, as a performer or an audience member, you already know this. Psychologically, throwing yourself into a 25-day-long run for the entertainment of others can’t just be a means to an end, especially on the Free Fringe. We daresay that the avant-garde act, Young Man Dressed As A Gorilla Dressed As An Old Man Sits Rocking In A Rocking Chair For 56 Minutes And Then Leaves, now in its 11th year, isn’t designed for a Sky Arts commission.

As much as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is touted as a great trade fair for new UK comedy, the trade aspect of it isn’t the main draw. It might appear to be a costly and exhausting endeavour, but it’s clearly an ambitious and creatively fulfilling one too.

The lure of comedy stardom will always stoke ambition, but the spirit of the Fringe is happily untamed by narrower mainstream tastes. In this TV landscape, it’ll be interesting to see if Dave’s new stewardship of the prestigious Comedy Awards will see them shepherd more acts onto our screens. The next Fleabag or Taskmaster can’t be too far away…

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The 2019 Edinburgh Festival Fringe runs from Friday 2nd August until Monday 26th August. For more information, visit