As the fifth Edinburgh Comedy Festival – the slightly confusing festival-within-the-Fringe that brings together the comedy programmes of the big four Fringe venues – gets underway this week, stand-up favourite Stewart Lee has hit out at the continuation of the Edinburgh strand, arguing it confuses audiences, drives ticket-sales away from those comedians outside the ECF programme, and drives up the costs for those who choose to perform under the banner.
In a polemic for The Guardian, Lee, who had shunned the more mainstream venue operations at the Festival long before the ECF came into being, writes: “The establishment of the assumed Edinburgh Comedy festival in isolation from the Fringe festival saw many tacit threads of standardised practise – a mutually observed ticket release date for example – fall away, and the Fringe entered the deregulated free-market phase of late capitalism. Shows performed in the burgeoning Free Fringe cost nothing to see, and little to stage. The fiercely independent Stand underwrites all its shows, so performers lose nothing. But many performers in the simulated Edinburgh Comedy festival’s venues will agree to shed upwards of £10,000 this summer [to perform]”.
He adds: “Sadly, the perception exists among agents, Fringe-goers, and even performers, that Edinburgh Fringe festival shows outside the Edinburgh Comedy Festival venues are invisible. And monopolising visibility costs money. The agents who nudge their acts towards the big four Edinburgh Comedy Festival venues are most likely to be charging their clients huge fees for advertising and networking, because their eyes are set on the prize of TV deals for their own production companies to develop their own acts, and they feel a presence in the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, as distinct from the Edinburgh Fringe festival, will best achieve this”.
Lee also criticises the mainstream media for focusing too much of their attention on the Edinburgh Comedy Festival when covering the Fringe, and further exasperating the problem. He concludes: “Fringe goers shouldn’t penalise performers for appearing at Edinburgh Comedy Festival venues by boycotting them outright. Instead, we must all increase our off-piste grazing. If journalists ditch their paid-for press releases and discover talent in the Edinburgh Fringe outside the Edinburgh Comedy Festival there will soon be no incentive for acts to accept its overheads, and the hidden costs of the promoters who collude with it, and the Fringe will flourish again”.
The venue of choice for Lee in recent years, The Stand, has, of course, expanded its own Fringe presence this year, by taking over the revamped Assembly Rooms on George Street, and parking a Spiegeltent outside. It’s a move that could be seen as an attempt to more overtly take on the Old Town-based Edinburgh Comedy Festival (while conveniently annoying one of the partners in ECF, Assembly, who feel there will now be new confusion at the Festival as a new team of people run a venue with ‘Assembly’ in its name).