A beginner’s guide to the Edinburgh Comedy Festival

Written by: David Lillywhite

With most of the country caught up in the maelstrom of the Olympics, you’ll have undoubtedly missed most of Britain’s comics decamping north to the Edinburgh Fringe to combine, by and large, a love of performing with a financial death wish. 

I’ve been going to the Fringe for the best part of a decade and it would be remiss if I didn’t try and impart a few tips.

Adam Riches Foster's Comedy Award winner

Adam Riches – last year’s Edinburgh Comedy Award winner

One thing this guide assumes is that you’ve got just a few days on the Fringe and you want to see comedy. It goes without saying that if you’ve got a week to yourself then a day of complete and utter rest is essential. I’ve done three week-long sojourns now and a full-pelt schedule of between five and seven shows a day is physiologically impossible without turning into a stone-faced madman unable to laugh at even the crudest joke.

So, without further ado:

Know your geography

You cannot bend the rules of time and space, so don’t even try.  The Stand to the Cowgate Underbelly is impossible in five minutes. You’ll end up piling in a few minutes late, ripe for a heckle, or worse, interrupting your selected comedian doing his warm-up run to the stage (oh, the folly of youth).

Pack heavy (pack light)

It’s extremely annoying having to carry your water-proof coat around all day but Edinburgh’s weather varies wildly. On more than one occasion I have found myself standing on Princes Street at 11pm in the pouring rain, all hope lost and wondering why on earth I opted for beige shorts that morning. Let me reiterate. Beige shorts. Pouring rain. Though note that most of the Fringe venues are not air-conditioned. Accept you are going to spend a lot of your time in a sweat pit. Heat exhaustion beckons.

Lunch is for wimps

Your diet is about to go downhill very fast. Grab a decent (and by decent, I mean anything) meal when you can because the next time you refuel, it’s almost certainly going to be with whatever is left at the snack shop. If you’re positioned outside the Gilded Balloon, do not wait for hunger to strike. Grab a waffle or a burger. They’re pretty damn nice and while your gut may not forgive you, your hunger certainly will.

 Six shows a day is not impossible on a budget

Yes, really. The Fringe is not all about seeing that guy off Mock The Stand-Up News For The Week. Take a punt on a cheaper ticket. In previous years this was easier said than done with escalating ticket prices making each good show feel like a dodged bullet. But while the demise of the Five Pound Fringe is truly lamentable (John Robins and Andrew O’Neill for a fiver each? I miss those days), the PBH and Free Festival programmes offer some great alternatives to telly superstars charging £15 for 45 minutes (you know who you are).

Some caution with those showcases

A great opportunity to see some comedians you might not ordinarily have the time to see and a terrific way to wind down late at night. Just be careful you’re not seeing someone on the bill you’ve got a ticket for later on in your stay. Sure they’re going to play the hits but they may well work in some of their new material – by which I mean, the material you’ve paid to see tomorrow and I’ve been stung a few times by a headlining comedian doing a 15 minute highlight reel of his current show.

Don’t be afraid to leave (if you can)

Aside from the obvious indicator of an audience populated by people wearing flat caps and plastic thick-rimmed glasses (if the act is only up to hawk a TV series, you will soon know), if the show isn’t working, don’t feel obligated to stay. Yes, even if you paid for a ticket. The Fringe is a wonderful thing, you will find something else to do and as hard as it may be to believe, there is a lot of fun to be had commiserating about how truly awful what you just saw was. Eight years on, my friends and I still reminisce about the showcase we were dragged to see on the outer regions of Edinburgh at 1am, headlined by a particularly ‘right wing’ comic who went down brilliantly with the blue-rinse crowd that had come to see him. Audience-locked, we endured nearly two hours of this.

There is an app for that

The advent of the iPhone has given rise to the official Festival app which allows you to book from the comfort of your phone before picking up your tickets at any one of many collection points. It’s not quite as charming as frantically trying to find a box office to book up a hot ticket before it sells ou, but it sure is convenient. The app allows you to search by time which is very useful when looking to plug a gap. There’s even an Android version if you’re still living in a cave.

Don’t book everything in advance

You’ll kick yourself later when you’ve no flexibility for that show you like the sound of. Pick a few things to get yourself started and then enjoy a leisurely hour between entertainments flicking through the many guides and review rags littering the halls. Pay attention to the chalk boards and venue listings – you’ll often find popular shows adding an extra late night show.

And last but by no means least…

Avoid virtually everything marked ‘work-in-progress’

A tip of the hat to Jon Briley of Best Medicine who reminded me of this important edict. Brilliant! That comedian you like is promising an hour of work-in-progress humour as a way of prepping for their tour/TV show/run on a panel show? No. Just because they advertise the fact doesn’t excuse the same. With ticket prices hovering around £10 – £15 for an hour of comedy, why shouldn’t you use what limited time you have to see something that’s had some real effort put into it?


Putting our money where our mouth is:

Sad Faces – Remember It Differently (1pm, Cowgate Underbelly)

Quirky, clever sketch comedy with bags of enthusiasm and not a hint of the am-dram theatrics that afflict other young troupes like an incurable disease.

Diane Spencer – Exquisite Bad Taste (3.45pm, Gilded Balloon – The Balcony)

If her previous show, All Pervading Madness, is anything to go by, this promises to be a very funny, occasionally very filthy hour of wry comedy.

Pete Firman – Hoodwinker (9.10pm – Pleasance Courtyard)

Magic on the Fringe tends to be hit or miss but often offers a refreshing change to common-or-garden variety stand-up. Firman mixes great patter with a neat line in impressive illusions.

Andrew Lawrence (8.50pm, Pleasance Courtyard)

Frantic, wide-eyed stand-up with a dark streak a mile wide. Don’t let the fact he’s started appearing on the television put you off.

Bec Hill – Is More Afraid of You Than You Are of Her (2.45pm – Gilded Balloon)

Her debut was a welcome antidote to all the misanthropy that everyone on the Fringe thought was necessary two years ago, so here’s hoping for more bottled cheer and winning comedy.


Fingers tightly crossed:

A moment of madness and we’ve paid £17.50 for an hour of Jim Jefferies. He had better be good.

Author: David Lillywhite

One of the founding writers for The Void, David has written as a critic and a columnist for a variety of publications all of which you have never heard of. Rescued from a life spent being generally terrified by the schlock-art of bottom-shelf VHS horror movies by editor savant Mike Shaw, David’s interests will come as no surprise to anyone who has observed the length of his sideburns: cinema, comedy, comics, ambient electronic music and new shiny tech. He keeps meaning to write a book. His favourite films are The Exorcist and Pleasantville and his preferred director is David Lynch.

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