Examining the sketch show comedy at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe
Sketch-based comedy includes Thünderbards, Birthday Girls, Thrice and The Pin
This article is from 2013.
Comedy critic Julian Hall reconsiders his sketch show scepticism and gets excited about the latest breed of comedy acts. But will we have a new League of Gentlemen in our midst this August?
Sketch is impossible to avoid at the Fringe: believe me, I have tried. They wouldn’t let me subtitle this piece ‘And who really cares?’, but perhaps that’s just as well given that both sketch, and my feelings for it as a critic, have undergone something of a renaissance in the last few years.
Not before time. If you look at the sketch form as represented by the Edinburgh Comedy Awards (in its various Perrier, Fosters and if.comedy guises), then the genre has been found truly wanting. Its last success came in 1997 with The League of Gentlemen, though nominees since then have included the Mighty Boosh, Epitaph, Dutch Elm Conservatoire, We Are Klang, Pappy’s and Idiots of Ants. But that is still just six contenders in 16 years.
Character comedy has been represented more successfully as far as winners are concerned (Garth Marenghi, Laura Solon, Adam Riches, Jackson’s Way), but although quality sketch has also been conspicuous by its absence on television, this ‘downturn’ has not manifested itself in terms of the number of eager double acts, triple acts and so on.
As a measure of the sketch resurgence, this year has seen two dedicated contests run concurrently: Sketchfest, a format imported from the US and then rolled out in London during May, and the Best New Sketch Act 2013 run by Sketch Club and the Gilded Balloon. As a judge for Sketchfest, I saw for myself a clutch of really impressive young acts including Rory and Tim, Thünderbards, So On & So Forth, Allnutt and Simpson and The Pin.
Some of these acts will be among those hoping to break the sketch mould in Edinburgh this year. Here is our guide to four of the form’s rising stars:
An impressive performance at London’s Sketchfest added to the praise heaped on this cerebral and quick-witted duo, consisting of stand-up Glenn Moore and actor and improviser Matthew Stevens. Residencies in London fringe venues have prepped them for their Edinburgh debut which is based around two storytellers recreating tales collected in a leather-bound book, ‘trying to avoid their personal tensions splitting them up along the way’.
Citing the Penny Dreadfuls and the Pajama Men as influences, Thünderbards think that there is something in the air for sketch comedy. ‘We would cautiously say that the sketch scene is in a good place right now. Sketch has been shunted from the mainstream to some extent in recent years by the all-conquering monolith of arena-filling stand-ups, but with a whole raft of promising new(ish) sketch groups at the Fringe this year, we see it as being a good time for sketch to push itself back into the ascendency.’
Formed from the still-warm roots of Lady Garden, Birthday Girls are Beattie Edmondson, Rose Johnson and Camille Ucan. The trio bring us 2053, directed by Tom Parry from plaudit-festooned all-boy sketch group Pappy’s, a peek into a future where comedy has been banned (‘the horror’) and where the fearless feminine trio set about forming a resistance through sketch.
In terms of sketch’s assault on the actual comedy world, they believe that the troops are being mobilised: ‘It’s a great time for sketch with brilliant acts like Anna and Katy, Cardinal Burns and Pappy’s having a prominent presence on TV. What’s brilliant about the live sketch scene at the moment is that there is so much variety within the form. You can see dark, surreal groups, you can see topical, satirical groups, and you can see groups doing traditional, situation-based sketches.’
Sketch ascendancy may come down to realignment, with Lady Garden downsizing (as once did Pappy’s) while sibling outfit Toby (sisters Sarah and Lizzie Daykin) and character comedian Nathan Dean Williams have joined forces to form Thrice. Describing it as an ‘absurdist suburban nightmare of a sketch show’, the trio promise ‘casual cruelty, misanthropy, oblivion, perversion, yearning, loneliness, corned beef, Christmas, desperation, desolation and dancing (always dancing − it balances out the desolate parts)’.
Despite the anticipation of this collaboration, Nathan Dean Williams (once memorably described as ‘a filthy, twisted Alan Bennett for the jilted generation’) is sanguine about the temperature of the scene: ‘I think it’s much the same as it ever was. New nights start up, old ones die a death; new acts appear, old ones give up, or morph into other ones. Or kill each other.’
Winners of Sketchfest, The Pin (Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen), are back in Edinburgh and, as The Guardian noted, the dexterous duo are ‘heavily tipped for future stardom’. Often guesting at the uber-cool Invisible Dot nights (the movers and shakers behind shows by Tim Key, Claudia O’Doherty and Tom Basden), the pair’s latest Fringe show promises to wrap their sharp intellect around PowerPoint presentations, lectures, sketches and other set-pieces. ‘In our show, we try and balance the sketches with bits where we just talk to the audience, so it feels maybe more like a sketch/stand-up hybrid. For that reason we’ve been keen watchers of Lee and Herring and the Mighty Boosh and other double acts.’
The Pin bear out the idea that sketch has yet to score a big hit, but that moment is certain to arrive: ‘It feels like there are a lot of great sketch acts out there on the circuit, but perhaps there hasn’t been a big TV success for a bit, one that really infiltrates the public consciousness and has everyone referencing it or doing little bits from it. Maybe more than any other kind of TV, it seems that sketch shows have the capacity to exert that influence and sustain it for years. Entire generations seem to be defined by “silly walks” or “fork handles” or whatever. So it seems inevitable that at some point there’ll be another show that does the same thing.’
Thünderbards, Gilded Balloon Teviot, 622 6552, 3–26 Aug, 1.30pm, £7–£8 (£6–£7). Previews 31 Jul–2 Aug, £5.
Birthday Girls, Pleasance Courtyard, 556 6550, 3–26 Aug (not 13), 6pm, £8.50–£9.50 (£7–£8). Previews 31 Jul–2 Aug, £6.
Thrice, Underbelly, Cowgate, 0844 545 8252, 3–25 Aug (not 13), 7.50pm, £9.50–£10.50 (£8.50–£9.50). Previews 1 & 2 Aug, £6.
The Pin, Pleasance Courtyard, 556 6550, 3–26 Aug (not 12, 19), 6.15pm, £9–£11 (£8–£10). Previews 31 Jul–2 Aug, £6.