In 2019, the Edinburgh Fringe could only fairly and accurately be described as an onslaught. A cacophonous and exhaustive financial burden on everyone involved, bar some very wealthy venue owners and promoters, I remember thinking, as a longtime Edinburgh resident and proud recipient of three consecutive festival burnouts, that we potentially needed a break from the largest arts festival in the world. I’d like to formally apologize, therefore, for inadvertently causing the COVID-19 pandemic.
After being cancelled in 2020, the festival of comedy, theater, music, spoken word, and pretty much everything in between was back in a highly reduced capacity the following year, which featured online shows, smaller names, and modestly budgeted productions. (The fact that I’ve heard industry folk joke that the 2021 edition was a bit pathetic and embarrassing reveals everything about where loyalties are in a festival—not with the homegrown, grassroots art.)
All of the above has been forgotten for the 2022 festival, where artists from around the world are leaping back into the full Fringe fray, eager to move past the last few years and return to their lifeblood. But the pandemic lingers heavily over the Fringe, not just in health anxieties over attending, but in the formation of the shows on offer. Thankfully, we seem to have gotten most of the COVID new writing/student theatre out of the way (“Love in the Time of Corona’’ was a particular low point), but smaller comedians don’t just want to talk about the pandemic—they’re eager to share the new anxieties and difficult introspection it gave them. They’ve found, in returning to performance, that it’s harder to adopt a typical comedic persona, and they don’t want to waste their opportunity for connection.
I saw four acts in the opening days of the Fringe that fit this trend. I wasn’t seeking them out; I knew a couple from comedy podcast appearances, found another from scrolling for cheap tickets, and found the last by being flyered by the performer himself. None of them were packed out (maybe all about half full), but the audiences were warm, and every comic filled the room and elicited a lot of laughter. They also brought with them ruminations on love, purpose, family, and loneliness in a way that never seemed preachy or manipulative.
There’s a lot of discourse floating about on stand-up sets that feel more like therapy, and the Fringe is known for acts that do hard right turns into forced poignancy in the last 10 minutes—a trend that speaks to an unclarity of how personal reflections within 60 minute comedy shows can work. These four acts have nailed that balance, giving unique and honest perspectives on something that’s affected everyone in starkly isolating ways.
Tom Walker, arguably the most well-known of the bunch, is a commanding presence onstage. An incredibly tall, broad man, staring out with wide eyes and immediately covered in sweat, his booming, offbeat delivery and Gaulier-trained clownery are immensely likeable. After taking an incredibly tight mime set from the festival circuit to Amazon Prime, his show Javelin has a much looser feel-especially in the omnishambolic preview performance I saw, the second of his month-long run. “FUCK!” he exclaimed after a sound cue reminded him of a skit he forgot to perform. “Okay, this next bit is called the claustrophobic mime.” But Walker is an audience goodwill generator, and there’s rarely a moment his chaotic silliness, planned or otherwise, doesn’t make you laugh. He also contextualizes his show with his recent recovery from COVID, to which he credits a certain brain-fogginess.
Javelin is structured around a comical story of Walker’s thwarted javelin career, told with earnest poise. As the show progresses, the tale is interrupted not just with mime skits and physical comedy, but with reflections into Walker’s real-life, obsessive brain. A quote from his mother marks the show’s midpoint—“We do not have the tools to deal with the chaos we create by living,”—and it colors the rest of Walker’s set. The javelin story isn’t just there to amuse us; it reveals Walker’s anxieties of not having achievements or talents that define him, despite how eager his brain is to obsess over them. Javelin marks Walker’s urgent desire to reach out after disorientating experiences, ones that helped form the show and now affect its performance.
Danielle Walker (no relation, but also Australian) was a first-time watch for me, but it’s hard to imagine a show more relaxed and more vulnerable than this. Not seeing her family for two years caused a wave of anxiety about losing the ones she loves most, thus she created Nostalgia to get a firmer grip on how cherished her relatives are. Or, she has a hysterically odd family, and decided it was time to share them with the world. Both motives are true, neither more than the other. Nostalgia is an open-ended show that doesn’t demand definition. The laughs mainly come from readings, recordings, and recountings; Walker knows her subjects so well, you can’t imagine a better storyteller of her family’s escapades. She mimics their regional Queensland voices with expert delivery, and even when we’re watching videos or listening to voicemails, she stands to the side mouthing along—it all feels so reflexive and affectionate.
The show’s lack of a tight structure isn’t important. Walker has undergone a period of intense, worrying reflection on the people she’s devoted to, and you get the sense focusing on anything else would be dishonest. Nostalgia invites us to meet Walker on her level, to learn about what makes her laugh, and when the show concludes with a reading from a journal entry about visiting her distinctive grandfather, we watch a performer openly weep at the things that move her. It feels like everything those pivots to poignancy in former Fringe shows weren’t: honest, open, loving. Being part of Walker’s world for an hour feels like the show we’ve secretly all wanted these past two years.
Family is on Emmy Blotnick’s mind, as the New York late-night writer returns to Edinburgh to educate us on Jennifer Lopez’s thirty branded perfumes, but familial wounds, prejudices, and felonies soon redirect her show’s narrative. The excessively titled The 30 Fragrances of Jennifer Lopez: A Show About Death, Betrayal and Financial Ruin captures the hard right turn her story takes, as we get an insight into an especially neurotic response to life-altering situations. Definitely the most nervous of the bunch, Blotnick’s show revolves around a state of confusion as she’s pushed to make stances on the various ways her family has hurt her.
As Blotnick returns to the surprisingly fertile comedic ground that is J. Lo’s perfumery (one fragrance’s dedication will catch everyone by surprise), it’s clear that these bottles of scent represent some sort of order, a linear progression through an increasingly challenging world. Like Tom Walker, the narrative that underpins the show crumbles in the face of emotional intrusions that grow weed-like over every facet of Blotnick’s pandemic life. Beneath the disarming, amiable comic voice, there’s a lot of raw, genuine questioning about the topic of family secrets. How are you supposed to act? Do you know? Are we all doing it wrong?
Sam Morrison, also hailing from New York, is diabetic, asthmatic, and grieving as well. But above all, he’s a born performer. Oozing charisma and with a completely sure-handed stage persona, he’s physically dynamic, changing the mood of the show with the slightest change to his posture. There’s a grace and energy to him; in the dingy room Sugar Daddy is held, he effortlessly fills the space without forfeiting the powerful intimacy that defines his show.
Sugar Daddy feels the most polished of these four shows, as Morrison can wring comedy out of the tiniest details of his relationship and observations on grief. During the show, we could hear the noise of another show happening in the building, but the raucous laughter only ever sounded like a less interesting experience was happening elsewhere. Sugar Daddy becomes a portrait of identity, a rhythmic, graceful, and funny exploitation of the inextricable strands that make up the Sam Morrison talking to us now. When Morrison offered a powerful reflection on grief, and I started to cry, I remembered I was only sitting there because I had a tiny, fun interaction with him as he promoted his show on the street outside, and I realized how special was the room I was sitting in.
“Yeah, but are they funny?” It’s a common retort whenever a comedian’s show has an emotional or personal slant to it, and it never fails to be reductive. It’s as if a comic standing in front of you is performing a service that you are owed, and you will always root against something more vulnerable. (Walking out of Nostalgia, I heard someone complain that there wasn’t much to heckle in the show.) Judging a show based on what you wanted out of it means the medium will rarely surprise or challenge you, and at a festival as diverse in human experience, we should reward those who undermine the conventional.
These shows are emblematic of a shift in Fringe comedy; the pandemic has triggered for each of them an experience of a type that comics struggled to tell without pretensions or artifice before. As an audience, you have to respond to comics based on what they want to offer us, especially if they risk judgement for doing so. All four acts are, without a doubt, funny. But they also ask their audiences to be open to more.
Tom Walker is performing at Assembly George Square at 9:05 pm through August 29. Danielle Walker is performing at Assembly George Square Studios at 3:35 pm through August 28. Emmy Blotnick is performing at the Assembly George Square Studios at 6:40 pm through August 29. Sam Morrison is performing at Gilded Balloon Teviot at 6:20 pm through August 29. All tickets can be purchased at edfringe.com.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.