It's been a weird old post-Fringe in Edinburgh.
Comedy naturally dries up for a few weeks of September while the city resets. We had the world's most famous corpse close the centre of town for a couple of days and a few underperforming gigs used that as an excuse to cancel before there was any official need to. So, my first planned nights out watching live shows were denied at the last minute. Plus, an oft postponed touring show of The Book of Mormon is in town and I'm pretty sure that has soaked up a lot of committed comedy fans who might have otherwise chanced their arm on a circuit gig.
I filled my week of mourning revisiting Harry Enfield's Television Programme - a nostalgia blast of sketch comedy from the early Nineties. Mr Cholmondley-Warner, Tim Nice-But-Dim and pretty much any skit featuring Kathy Burke or Paul Whitehouse have all held up incredibly well. There is a certain patience to this form of sketch irreverence that got lost with The Fast Show and Little Britain. It feels a little more paced and confident; it has the goods.
So, by no fault of my own, I ended up on a three-week sabbatical from live shows. I was itching to get back and Friday night at the legendary The Stand was just the ticket.
MC Gus Lymburn brought the energy. He stoked the room with a pretty standard "And where are you from?" back and forth. I doubt many of his responses were on-the-spot improvisations. He had enough impactful ammunition pre-prepared and honed to maximum devastation for most of the most obvious eventualities. I mean... what were the chances that an American or two wouldn't be in the room and unable to resist shouting about their nationality? His full blast response to their presence though was... certainly... theatrical.
He leant into the more vocal elements of the crowded basement, garnering plenty of noise, though you could say those of us who craved a more sophisticated style of stand-up were left unattended to until the headliner was brought on. It was a Friday night on the Scottish circuit, you can't criticise any pro for making capital out of the drunkest and most unguarded "personalities" in the room.
Then Carey Marx, one of the finest headliners in the UK, ambled on with his bleak little flights of fantasy. It was a definite gear change, one that took the more spoonfed sections of The Stand a few minutes to catch up with. The rest of us though were in instant heaven from his first mock apology about his shabby appearance and voice.
This is a finely calibrated, zero regrets set. Marx creates evocative images with the minimum number of words. Stories slalom between reveals and toppers which are genuinely unpredictable and gleefully disingenuous. Every half sentence is a twist. Even his connecting non-sequiturs are completely insincere - and soon enough all of us are in on that running joke.
Marx is a class act. While he didn't pander to the loudest minorities in the room, he connected with the rest of us with sharp writing and his wryly laconic persona. His material covers everything from the redundancy of The Burj Khalifa to inappropriate inflight entertainment. And his face while recounting these jagged whims is a mixture of quizzical despondency and impish superiority. You can tell he had a lot more planned material in the tank when the show needed to wrap up and I could have easily devoured another 30 minutes of stand-up at this elite standard.
Zach Zucker's Stamptown event on a wet Tuesday night at Monkey Barrel offered a very contrary experience. This was my first time at a Stamptown show and it started without warning. A character named "DylanBrand" invaded the stage unannounced, dressed like a Party Rocker who has skinned Tinky Winky for his garb, miming to an entire soft rap track called Going Solo with full gusto. This is a very different but successful way of pumping early life and focus into a room. Then came the repetitions. Repetitions that escalated vividly. Just a perfect pre-show warm-up. I was in. A convert.
Zach Zucker, our deliciously indulgent host, is a bundle of ticks, clowning tricks and catchphrases. Everything in his arsenal is deployed perfectly, in nervy / confident barrage. A symphony of glitter and sweat, meta and mania. He looks and sounds like an extra from a late 90s teen movie who has been mashed-up with Max Headroom. While Tom, his sound guy, throws sonic curveballs of eagle screeches, gunshots and blaring cues, ZZ just goes with the flow and finds the laugh.
Zucker showed huge affection to both his acts and audience. I saw him chatting sweetly with the front row in the interval. Unmiked and just mingling. Relaxed as fuck. No wonder this night has a Big C cult like atmosphere throughout. The bill had been curated with equal totalitarian fondness.
Amelia Bayler scored early as a quirky opener. She embodied the corrupting influence of a secondary school music teacher gone mutant and then serenaded us with her Helen Love-inspired ditties about Wimpy and Tupperware. Fun.
New-ish comedian Tadiwa Mahlunge proved a more imprecise but ultimately alluring voice. At his best, this is comedy writing that wounds. The more biographical his sources, the better. His high achieving Zimbabwean mother approaches comfort by quoting The Art of War. His tales of otherness in predominately white Britain pulls no punches for the predominantly white crowd in this Edinburgh basement.
Edinburgh feels a few years behind other cities when it comes to supporting acts of colour outside of open mics and August. As admirable as the Scottish scene is at nurturing new voices, they mainly feel like they swell from a very narrow monoculture. Tadiwa's set wasn't revolutionary, but it was a tantalising collection of glimpses at possible longer bits, many on subjects not really given all that much mic time north of the border.
The problem with boiling your voice down to a 10-minute highlight reel is it can feel too unsubstantial. I preferred the authoritative arrogance of his more challenging routines. I question whether anyone needed an "And then I robbed her" topper to a serviceable anecdote, as that felt like something we should have all left behind in the late 90s. Tadiwa was the comedian on the night with the most room for growth and his suave potential could be infinite once he shakes off the clunkier stuff in the short showcase I witnessed.
Now, I have been an ardent fan of Josie Long since her first Fringe show Kindness & Exuberance back in 2006. And considering a good 33% of the acts on before her at Stamptown were self-declared Gen Z bisexuals glistening on stage with their unbuttoned tops open (which was as aesthetically fantastic as it sounds) she proved a pleasing alternative in her 'cool mum' baggy sweatshirt and practical dungarees. I certainly felt a few notches closer to my own middle aged comfort zone in her presence.
She babbles quite deceptively onstage, always switching up that enthusiasm into marked points. Yet maybe trying out a lengthy fresh bit, one that kept her glued to her phone screen after 2 hours of audience draining high octane weirdness, was always going to be an unfair test of an unbedded idea. Perhaps the impossibility of the cruel task she set herself was as much part of the joke? There is clearly found comedy in the 22 pages instruction manual a corporate Lapland experience sent to her weeks before her kids' arrival. But it is telling that the belly laughs came from her racing through the later sections she couldn't cover in a sparse 10 minutes.
What I find fascinating about Josie is her current rarefied position. Part of the comedy establishment but obviously separate from the mainstream. Going by tonight's gold, she clearly lives in a world of dinner parties with nepotistic entrepreneurs and primitive survivalist kindergartens that are so middle class they sound somewhat diametrically opposed to her origins, politics and philosophies. She is our insider, our mole who has somehow worked her way up into the guts of the gatekeepers through the sheer force of her talent, education and uniqueness. And in a long form show, that irony and radical pre-occupation shines through. At a club night, even one as off-the-wall as Stamptown, I'm not sure the nuance takes shape. I think we all really loved her vibe, knew she had the right stuff... but we and she needed a bit more room to breathe and let the laughs come.
What I did personally note about the significance of Josie in particular closing a night like Stamptown in 2022 was it felt a little like everything coming full circle. She used to curate a little outlier boutique night near Crystal Palace that I used to go to on a Sunday evening, way way back in the day. There, acts like Pappy's Fun Club, Caroline Clifford and Christina Martin used to have a safe space to try out ideas away from the more laddish environs of a Jongleurs club branded "alternative comedy".
Watching the line-up Zach Zucker has put together for his own night felt often of a piece to what occurred all those years before. The intelligent voice of Tadiwa Mahlunge and the lo-fi charms of Amelia Bayler would have felt equally cosseted if they time travelled back 16 years and found themselves booked for one of Josie's nights in South London. Homes for the quirky, twee and sublime are far more prevalent now... Support them with your diminished quids.