Clockwise from main,
a fringe street-performer; trying to pull in the punters; circus acrobats; Liam Williams; Human Zoo Theatre
I used to come to the Edinburgh fringe as a teenager. My pals and I would get on the train from Fife, come and see Frank Skinner - an illicit thrill for adolescent boys - and laugh like drains. Skinner later won the then-Perrier award - and he's still here, performing his new show Man in a Suit at the age of 57. You can chart your life, and the careers of Britain's comedians, in Edinburgh fringes. The big comedy story in 1999 was whether Al Murray should be debarred from the Perrier, because he'd been nominated in each of the three preceding years. He didn't get barred; he won the gong. And this year, he's back, celebrating "20 years at the lager top".
Comedy has changed dramatically in the meantime. In Skinner and Murray's heyday, standup was yet to take over the world. Rookie comics didn't yet get oligarch-rich touring the nation's stadiums. An all-party parliamentary group was formed last month on the UK comedy industry "to support and promote a business worth millions to the economy". That would have seemed, well, laughable back then. You can see those changes happening, in lurid Technicolor, at the fringe - and you can see the kickback against them. For the comedy industry, Edinburgh is more of a trade fair than ever - but it's also a whirligig of creativity among comedians whose only O2-related ambition is to change their phone network at the earliest opportunity.
It's the reaction against commercialisation that's most striking when you take stock of this year's fringe. Two years ago, Stewart Lee dropped a stinkbomb into the opening week with a Guardian article calling the fringe "the Chipping Norton of the arts". Back then, the so-called Big Four comedy venues had created a cartel, branding themselves the exclusive "Edinburgh comedy festival", and ratcheting up charges on participating comics. This year, that initiative has been quietly shelved - mainly because the fringe totally resisted the effort to tame and control it.
Meanwhile, the Free Fringe has been a game-changing success. A few years ago, ticket prices were starting to make the usual let's-see-17-shows-a-day Edinburgh festival model unsustainable. Likewise the amount of money (measured in thousands of pounds) that comedians lost annually to perform there. That problem hasn't gone away, but several free festivals (who seem to hate one another; "free" and "easy" don't always go together) have given artists and audiences options that didn't used to exist. Comedians no longer get their tiny cut of ticket sales; they shake a bucket instead. But neither must they pay to perform. The comic Carey Marx wrote last week about his debut on the Free Fringe after years of the monetised alternative. His article practically bounced off the page. "I'm free," he trilled. "Free of stress, Edinburgh debt and artistic neediness. I'm just free!"
The Free Fringe also encourages experiment - and Edinburgh comedy feels like more of a free-for-all than in even the recent past. A shape-shifting generation of comics has arrived who don't self-define as standups or sketch comics, solo acts, double acts or improvisers. Those barriers are wobbling; today's young comics are jacks of all trades, deploying different skills alongside different personnel in multiple shows daily. The most distinctive young talent in British standup, Liam Williams, is also in the sketch troupe Sheeps. The former Comedy award nominee Pippa Evans is simultaneously appearing in a solo standup show, a character act (as country singer Loretta Maine), an improv show (she's in the hit format Showstoppers!) - oh, and she also founded an atheist church that now has 30 branches worldwide. Take that, Michael McIntyre!
That tendency may be partly careerist. But the main impulse is creative - the Edinburgh fringe finds comedy at its most spontaneous, imaginative and collaborative. Some well-established comics come here to noodle, under the radar of "the industry": Lee and Daniel Kitson are performing all month, but the press are barred, and tickets sell out instantly. The comic Mark Watson celebrates his 10th-anniversary fringe this year, and he's the granddaddy of a species of "event comedy" that's uniquely Edinburgh. He used to perform 24-hour comedy shows (at one of them, he proposed to his now wife); now he's hosting the Comedywealth Games, in which comics compete in madeup sports events - like the Admin Pentathlon and the Fruit-throwing Challenge. Elsewhere in town, The Circus - presented by hip comedy producers du jour the Invisible Dot - casts comics as crap circus acts, including 2013 Comedy award nominee James Acaster as a grumpy clown. (I didn't say it was original.)
It's not all fun and games, though: the fringe is still a marketplace, and you can practically see the dollar signs in some comics' eyes. The hours between 7.30pm and 10pm are largely given over - at the Big Four venues at least - to young men with baggy hair and spiky jeans (or is the other way round?), making their pitch to be the new McIntyre or Russell Howard. They're not trying to do anything new with comedy; they're trying to do a familiar type of comedy well. Edinburgh garlands some with success: Russell Kane and Chris Ramsey (Hebburn) passed through in recent years. After success in the Comedy award, they usually don't come back in a hurry, or at least not for a full run - until, like Skinner, they're at the twilight side of their moment in the sun. This year's crop include Carl Donnelly, Standup for the Week regular Romesh Ranganathan, and the boozy lad laureate Seann Walsh.
But there's been a big change: notwithstanding this year's cameo by cro-magnon throwback Jim Davidson, a man at a mic is no longer the default icon for Edinburgh comedy. If 2013 was the year of feminism in comedy, 2014 is the first post-sexist fringe: that tedious women-in-comedy conversation feels like yesterday's news. The men still dominate statistically, but the number of female comics has increased 62% on last year. And the change outstrips the stats: my longlist of shows to see is split almost 50/50 gender-wise, and - hand on socialist heart - there's no Guardianista affirmative action at work. By any measure, an equal number of the best comics in town are women: Josie Long, Sara Pascoe and the remarkable Bridget Christie, who has just topped her award-winning A Bic for Her with a new feminist show that's every bit as hilarious. Across the board - from Luisa Omielan's female-empowerment rally Am I Right, Ladies? to Cariad Lloyd's portfolio of shows to the creepy sibling double-act Toby - the funniest and most innovative shows are being made in equal numbers by women.
But what are they, and their male counterparts, talking about? Well, the honest answer is: nothing in particular. You won't find - beyond the obligatory gag about Nigel Farage's foreign-sounding surname - much engagement with current affairs. The most reliable political comics are taking a year off: Josie Long's new show is about her love life; Mark Thomas is making theatre not comedy. The breach is being sketchily filled, by acts including Chris Coltrane, Matt Forde, and Joe Wells, whose Night of the Living Tories offers up a battery of good jokes about our bad government - the best of which skewers the "but life's not fair" argument against protests at social injustice.
Scottish independence is mentioned frequently in passing, but few comics give it sustained attention. The best is probably Dubliner Andrew Maxwell, who argues that we should be looking "at human beings, not flags". That's not much help if you can't decide whether to vote yes or no (Maxwell thinks the verdict should be - pace the Scottish legal system - "not proven"). But it's a smart set that challenges nationalist myth-making - including the supposed extinction of the Scottish Tory. It certainly put the wind up one Nat in the audience, who walked up to the stage and threw a pint of beer all over Maxwell.
Beyond the fringe, the biggest comedy story last week was Joan Rivers' remark that Palestinians in Gaza "deserve to be dead". In Edinburgh, comedians have little to say on the subject. I went to see Falafel, Houmous and Baba Ganoush, a weak triple-bill of standups affiliated to Egyptian company Al Hezb El Comedy. I hoped for some insight into life in Egypt; I got comedians who boasted about refusing to address politics. I saw Joe Bor's show A Room with a Jew. He said: "I've probably chosen the worst time to make a show with Jew in the title." But beyond that - silence.
What you do get, though, particularly from the younger - and male - comics, is a sense of frustration at their generation's lot. You see it in Nish Kumar's show about the contingency of his own opinions in a world where all opinion already exists, and gets abused, online. It's in Alex Edelman's show - albeit not very persuasively - about being an archetypal "millennial". Most thrillingly, you find it in 26-year-old Liam Williams' show Capitalism, a soul-searching, self-satirising attempt to square the social-justice impulse with an overpowering sense of political and personal impotence. It's a lucid, lurid hit of Generation Y angst, and signals the arrival of a talent who may be entertaining Edinburgh for years to come.
From top, James Acaster; Falafel, Houmous and Baba Ganoush; Pippa Evans