The Edinburgh Festival comedy shows incorporating High Art

This article is from 2011

Comedy and High Art

New Art Club

Hannah Gadsby, The Horne Section, New Art Club and Vikki Stone

Sean Lock once likened media coverage of comedians to that of strippers, none too respectful of something that involved divesting so much. Despite comedy’s current boom, scrutiny still tends to focus on comics’ television careers or transgressions, rather than the process of creating art. And as it grows, comedy is becoming more diverse and amorphous, especially at the Fringe, where ambitious acts are marrying it to other forms. They’re creating shows that, as New Art Club’s Tom Roden ventures, aspire to be ‘beautiful and challenging’ as well as funny. Meanwhile, they’re puncturing some of comedy’s own snobbery.

Alex Horne’s joyous, jazz-backed comedy of The Horne Section started as an opportunity to mess about with childhood friends, but the show’s popularity has exceeded all expectations. Transferring to Melbourne and London’s West End, broadcasting on Radio 4, appearing at ‘proper’ jazz festivals like Cheltenham and attracting the likes of Harry Hill and The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon for guest spots, The Horne Section’s success reflects comedy’s versatility at the expense of jazz’s supposed impenetrability.

Both comedy and jazz are comfortable with improvisation. And Horne notes that while ‘comedy has become quite ridiculous with stadium gigs, traditionally both art forms played to dark, smoky rooms of 30 people. And there are still gigs like that for aficionados, while the amount of column inches they command in the Sunday supplements remains ludicrously small’.

Having failed to learn the harmonica, he remains awed by his bandmates’ musicianship – ‘I have to conduct a bit and find it really hard; it looks so easy, like you’re just waving in time’ – but believes they’re innovating by harking back to a less venerated form of entertainment. ‘Comedy, anything that’s funny, is such a wide-ranging term and we’re drifting towards this variety, music hall tradition. We’ve had plate spinners and hula hoop girls on stage. And people coming on to sing, pretty straight and really well; audiences love that. I think comedy can always have room for no laughter if it’s daring enough.’

One act that’s appeared with The Horne Section is New Art Club, Pete Shenton and Tom Roden’s hybrid, experimental comedy-dance duo. Their aim, Roden explains, is to be ‘unique but also extraordinarily mainstream, like Monty Python or Reeves and Mortimer’. Consequently, they’ve removed all mention of ‘dance’ from their publicity. ‘I think it would put off people like me,’ he acknowledges. ‘My brother would never come to see a dance show in a million years, even if someone said: “It’s really funny and similar to a comedy show”. We’re trying to entice lazy twats like him.’

Still, their laughter quotient benefits from the discipline and intuition of 14 years of dancing together. Quiet Act of Destruction, a ‘rampage like a whirlwind’ through a petty, inter-village squabble, evoking the wider horror of all human conflict, is a looser affair than last year’s compilation, allowing them to improvise and interact more with the audience. ‘That close, double-act connection comes from years of throwing each other through some tricky physical situations,’ Roden explains. ‘We see the show rhythmically and choreographically, and you need that over 60 minutes but also within the punchlines of individual jokes.’

According to Royal Academy of Music graduate Vikki Stone, whose résumé encompasses a non-sex role in a gay porn film, conducting the Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s choir, performing backing vocals for Elton John, starring in Yakult ads and appearing in no fewer than four ABBA tribute bands, every gig, whether motivated by creative ambition or making rent, made her the comic she is today. Of her festival debut, backed by The Flashbacks, the former child prodigy flutist maintains that, ‘although my comedy is quite raucous and filthy, there’s a lot of musical skill behind it.’

Despairing of ‘musos’ that appreciatively nod at her arrangements for glockenspiel and ukulele but don’t listen to the words, what truly riles her is condescension from stand-ups. ‘The phrase that really bugs me is “six-string applause machine” when other comics refer to guitar acts,’ she fumes. ‘You can’t do anything about it. Either out of politeness or because they’re impressed, people clap at the end of a song. And because of X-Factor, I’ll get it when I hit a big note. Why not though? If the comedy’s there, the musical skills have legitimately earned the extra.’

Like Horne and Roden, Stone enjoys attracting crowds that would otherwise shun live comedy. So too does stand-up and qualified art curator Hannah Gadsby. She’s conducted humorous general gallery tours in her native Australia, but for the Fringe she’s straddling a fine line of reverence and mockery of representations of the Virgin Mary. Densely researched, Mary. Contrary is a ‘serious lecture that I tell in a more irreverent manner with jokes and a few personal stories thrown in. Because it’s slightly heavier subject matter than normal, the laughs are easier to extract.’

Her lectures draw those who ‘want to see a different kind of comedy, people who are genuinely into art but intimidated by gallery spaces and those who like feeling superior to other people’. And she hopes to encourage more critical art appraisal. ‘It’s important they take whatever they want from art and if they think something’s rubbish, that’s a perfectly valid response. A gallery or a big comedy venue doesn’t automatically convey merit; art should elicit emotion and whether that’s good, bad or indifferent, people need to trust their initial instincts. But laugh at mine!’

Vikki Stone & The Flashbacks: Big Neon Letters, Gilded Balloon Teviot, 622 6552, 6-28 Aug (not 15), 11pm, £9.50–£10.50 (£8.50–£9.50). Previews until 5 Aug, £6.
New Art Club: Quiet Act of Destruction, Assembly George Square, 623 3030, 6–28 Aug (not 9, 16), 6.20pm, £12–£14 (£11–£13). Previews until 5 Aug, £6.
Hannah Gadsby: Mary. Contrary. Gilded Balloon Teviot, 622 6552, 17-26 Aug (not 20–23), 2pm, £10–£12 (£8–£10).
The Horne Section, Assembly George Square, 623 3030, 5–27 Aug (not 7, 14, 21), 11pm, £12–£14 (£10–£12). Previews until 4 Aug, £6.

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