The Norwegian town of Kragerø is famous for its restful ambience – even the relentlessly troubled Edvard Munch found peace there. So it’s an apt place for Pernille Haaland to contemplate her life choices as a well-travelled comedian passing through on her way to Oslo, the airport, and the Edinburgh festival fringe for a month of shows, stress, expense and exhaustion.
“I mean, I should just not get on the plane,” says Haaland, with a slightly manic glee, as she contemplates what might lie ahead.
The run-up to this year’s fringe has been marked by a string of troubling news stories – a row over the scrapping of its official ticketing app and cut-price ticket booths, making it harder for shows to turn a profit; “budget” chain hotel prices of up to £526 for two nights; a petition signed by leading comedians including Joe Lycett that criticises organisers for failing to help with rising accommodation costs (1,200 rooms are available for performers at under £280 per week, but there are over 3,000 shows).
“The fringe will always be the most masochistic thing we can do,” admits Haaland, whose life has been eventful of late anyway: moving to the family farm, starting therapy, rebuilding her stand-up career from scratch, back home. “I honestly didn’t know if I should do it. And then, for some reason, I decided to tell my story of what it’s like moving to a farm in the middle of a pandemic living with my two batshit-crazy Norwegian parents.”
The Edinburgh fringe is long-established as the focal point of the live comedy year, in Britain and further afield, with thousands of comedians hoping to make a splash, if usually not much cash. But doing a month-long run is increasingly expensive. Rent, venue fees, promotion, insurance and getting there costs thousands upfront, and most performers expect to make a loss, even if the show goes well.
Indeed, with no full Fringe since 2019, many stalwarts wondered if that spell would finally be broken. And particularly for acts from abroad, given all the pointless red tape.
Yet here we are. The fringe is back and comics have arrived from across Europe with wildly different stories. Haaland suggests that life as a wandering performer is probably in her roots.
“I was born in Texas, ended up in London, and then kind of stumbled my way to Norway again: no clear agenda or plan,” says the comic, whose show is called Resting Confused Face. “I seem to be a comedian because I literally live out of a suitcase.”
It is surprising what idyllic settings comics will give up for the fringe. Ignacio Lopez is lounging on the upper deck of a cruise liner when we speak, moored off the coast of Valencia. The Spanish/Welsh comic has found an enviable new role recently, performing on cruises. “I wasn’t going to do Edinburgh at all this year, I had two cruises, a holiday booked…”
Then an offer landed. Lopez is currently in that tantalising almost-famous zone: a popular live comic with some useful TV/radio work, and a unique story. His new show, El Cómico, is about immigration, and he’s gone big on Brexit in previous shows.
“I wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the EU,” he says. “If my mum hadn’t been able to go out [from Wales] and work in Spain, where she met my dad… then I was born over there. My family are all from different countries.”
Lopez is in an illustrious Fringe venue this year, at the Gilded Balloon, and admits the gamble “could be a complete disaster. But there’s only one way to find out.”
That said, critical acclaim can lead to other opportunities for ambitious comics. It’s surprising where that type of material works. “Even big Leave crowds,” Lopez reveals. “I say at the end: ‘if it wasn’t for the EU, you would have been staring at an empty stage.’”
Fringe audiences – and particularly reviewers – expect some grit with the gags. For Moni Zhang, the Edinburgh spirit has been a spur to create her debut show: Child from Wuhan has been a hit back home in Berlin.
“It’s my real life story,” says Zhang, over Zoom. “How I came from a sweatshop, overcame tremendous disadvantages, and my journey of looking for love. In the show I deal with my childhood trauma, with my own depression, and my dysfunctional family. And at the end how I finally was able to see the silver lining.”
Discovering stand-up was a big part of that. She has developed an extra show for this fringe: Anxiety vs Depression: A Comedy Game Show. “It’s the best concept I’ve ever had,” she says.
But a fortnight before Edinburgh, her Airbnb cancelled (“I had a very emotional week”).
Accommodation is the festival’s major issue, particularly for newcomers. Rents have risen dramatically in recent years, partly a side-effect of new regulations to stop landlords ousting their regular tenants. The remaining rooms can be laughably expensive – up to £5,000 is not uncommon for August – which also affects tourism, and ticket sales.
Michelle Kalt, from Zurich, is making her debut this year, and sounds slightly perturbed: “I think I can speak for everyone doing this for the first time that we vastly underestimated how much admin it will entail.” Which says a lot, given that she’s also a lawyer.
Staging a simple stand-up show can be surprisingly complicated. Kalt’s admin included a last-minute scramble for the required public liability and employer’s insurance – “lots of insurance companies would refuse me based on me not being a UK resident” – and a similar struggle to actually take people’s money.
One positive fringe change in recent years is the rise of pay-what-you-want shows. But with less cash around a card reader is now essential, and “I couldn’t find anyone offering that to non-UK residents either”. She wound up with a device that reads QR codes, “more hassle for the punters but I’m hoping it’ll work.”
Kalt is doing a memorably titled show – God Hates You – about a weirdly peaceful break-up; clearly not a Brexit allegory. She’s largely avoiding politics as “it’s hard to know if material I try here will work in the UK too,” but hasn’t found Britain’s anti-Europe stance too off-putting. “I feel like there are parallels between Switzerland and the UK. We have never been a member of the EU, and we kind of want to have our cake and eat it too.”
The aforementioned admin also includes paying up to £400 to the Fringe Society, to be listed in the physical Fringe Guide; then the society belatedly admitted that this year there would be no fringe app, which previously nudged punters towards nearby shows. That caused a huge social media backlash: 1,700 comedy people signed an open letter, bemoaning big cuts and huge rents. Many performers vowed not to return.
That app was particularly useful for smaller shows with no budget for poster campaigns or PR: just being found is tricky if your venue is not in the busier hubs. Kalt has stumped up for one of the more popular locations, The Caves. “You also want to have a good poster and a good flyer,” she says; “why would you spend so much money and then not do the promotion?”
Then again, everyday life is making fringe expenses seem less bizarre. For comics just doing normal gigs around Britain, “the cost of travel and stuff, it’s just not viable,” says Lopez. “That’s one of the positive things about Edinburgh… you can walk to work every day for a month.”
And you can vent about the red tape affecting your other job. Stefania Licari is an Italian actor, clown, and NHS doctor, whose debut show, Medico, is a semi-fictional romantic farce, with real-life dramas.
“I talk about a moment of panic just before Brexit took place,” says Licari. “I look back at the preparation I put into the British culture test – one of the requirements to gain citizenship – and I find it very funny that I took it so seriously.” To prepare, the already too-busy doctor/comedian “did 10,000 online questions and read three books three times each,” she says.
It became an entertaining section of the show, though. More serious is the moment where a patient insists “that she be treated only by British doctors, refusing my care as I was not British. Unfortunately, this is a true story. Even more unfortunately, this is not the only example of racist or xenophobic behaviour towards NHS staff that I have encountered.”
The communal spirit is a unique fringe draw though, and you do find a remarkable mix of people.
The Comedy Estonia showcase features a rotating cast from a nation with a burgeoning stand-up tradition.
“In some way we do feel like cultural ambassadors,” says organiser and performer Karl-Alari Varma.
One intriguing theme this year is how comedians reference the ongoing global strife. “In Estonia we like dark humour a lot and heavy subjects are second nature to us,” says Varma. “Some of the comedians were born while under Russian occupation, and grew up in a time where all the political and societal wounds were still raw, and that kind of post-Soviet survival mentality has carried over to their comedy.” But “even with heavy subjects,” he says, “the main goal is to be funny.”
Haaland agrees. Her show has no grand mission, but perhaps big communal laughs are enough this year. “There is still a need to connect,” she says. “And I think that’s what comedy does best.”
Si Hawkins is a freelance writer and the stand-up editor of the British Comedy Guide