Although it hurts, the cancellation of Edinburgh Fringe could be the shake-up comedy needs

Comedian Alexandra Haddow, who was due to perform at this year's comedy festival, on how live streamed gigs have left summer wide open

At the Edinburgh Fringe, every August, everything is reduced to a bubble in and around the city. Time has no meaning: you find yourself watching a roast battle in the back of a pub at 4am and you’ll wonder how you could physically drink that much and still have room for a macaroni cheese pie daily.

It’s a unique experience. For a whole month, the Scottish capital turns into one huge comedy gig that operates 24/7. The festival is made up of hundreds of small, sweaty, dark rooms, where we comedians try and cram in as many people as possible at once, and surfaces are probably only cleaned after everyone has left at the start of September. If you could create the ideal environment for a virus to spread – you’ve got it!

So it was disappointing, but inevitable – and right – when, even later than the Olympics, the Fringe 2020 was provisionally cancelled. Comedians would, for the first time, have to see what their own houses looked like throughout the month of August. Thousands of performers, venues, businesses will lose out. Sooner than that, we’ve had to find new ways to adapt and survive. It started with everyone I know going live on Instagram with an alarming frequency, and we’ve all posted sketches. Our job is to look at things differently, and now we’re doing it with comedy itself.


I have been performing stand up comedy for three years now. I was starting to earn around half my income from gigging, and around a month ago I was given a venue offer for my very first solo show at the Edinburgh Fringe. This is what I’d worked towards for years, and now it was finally happening. Then that classic barrier, a global pandemic, closed down the entire live comedy circuit in a matter of days. It duly wiped out a massive amount of income for a lot of people, and stopped us in our tracks.

Some comedians are busier than ever since lockdown – writing, filming and editing regular sketches, rebooting old podcasts and radio shows, resurrecting newsletters. People are at home, some doing nothing – some needing relief from doing nothing – and others needing a break from work. And key workers certainly need light relief. Laughter isn’t as important as saving lives or keeping the country running, but it helps.

Comedian Alexandra Haddow

One thing that has to be conceded about Fringe is that it favours those privileged enough to take a punt on potentially losing a lot of money peddling their art for a month. For now at least, the class war has been set to zero again: we’re on a level playing field to get your attention.

As someone from a working class background, I’ve never been able to do the whole run at the festival, because who can take that long off work? Or afford it regardless? Sometimes it’s difficult to accept that a percentage of success is having the time and financial freedom to dedicate yourself to it, which all of us don’t always have. Now we’ll be judged purely on what our brains can come up with.

Brands are realising that there’s a pool of funny people with nothing to do in the evenings. They’re asking comedians to host quizzes or, as I did, an Agony Aunt-style half-hour segment for a London beer company. These gigs have sprung up in place of live gigs. Apps such as The World’s Online Festival (or WOLF for short) are ramping up content in the wake of isolation to keep us connected.


This week I did my first gig on Zoom (for Dulwich Hamlet Comedy Club). I usually host on the first Sunday of every month, and we decided April would be no different. After a lot of hard work, dedication and tech rehearsals, we pulled off a gig with an audience of around 200-400 people watching, with laughter from some of the unmuted ones (no different to a lot of my gigs, to be honest). It’s strange, but it’s starting to work.

In a profession where you either make sense of the absurd or point out the absurdities in everyday life, we’re in overdrive.

The very nature of comedy means it’s live, reactive and the one place where you can switch your phone off. Now we need you to have it on. Perhaps an uplifting thought is that sketch comedy might have a comeback. I yearn for the days when Smack The Pony, The Fast Show, Big Train and Spoons told jokes we all still reference today. We’re being forced into new ways of delivering punchlines and observations that we never thought we’d have to (while our hecklers are furiously typing away).

What happens after all this is over is anyone’s guess. Small, popular London clubs such as The Bill Murray are the lifeblood of the circuit; it was born of a group of comedians setting up a kickstarter to turn it into the hub of comedy it is today. I hope they come back stronger. I hope that after this, the clubs are rammed and sweaty and turning people away at the door. I hope people are hungry for live entertainment and flock to venues like this all over our towns and cities.

I hope we ask people to pay whatever they can for a while, and that that helps everyone get back on their feet. But in the meantime, watch this screen – it’s a whole new game now, and everyone is in with a shot.

Alexandra Haddow hosts the virtual Dulwich Hamlet Comedy Club on the first Sunday of every month, and is one of the presenters of Soho Radio’s The School for Dumb Women

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