A pressing rendezvous in the south of France probably means that Simon Cowell didn’t have time to go north of the border this year. I doubt he has been to the Edinburgh Festival in his life. But if he wanted reassurance of his pivotal role in British life, a visit to the Fringe would be a positive balm to his ego. The man himself and the shows he has created are on many comics’ lips. There was even a spoof called Britain’s Got F— all Talent and one, more lamely, called We’ve Got Tickets.
In impressionist Luke Kempner’s The Only Way is Downton, he imagines the cast of the august series tuning in to The X Factor, where they hear Rylan declaring: “I don’t want to have no fame and no career. I want to come third.” The line wins a delighted guffaw of recognition from an audience only too well-versed in the sad fate of X Factor winners. As JLS and One Direction prove, it is almost always better to come third.
Yet for all the jokes it generates, The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent represent a way of spotting potential that is profoundly antithetical to the old-school training of the Fringe whereby you pays your money, takes your knocks and are ultimately – if you’re lucky – spotted by some passing television executive who gives you your shot at wider fame.
The model for this kind of talent development is Bridget Christie, who has just won the Edinburgh Comedy Award for her sharp, impassioned, feminist show A Bic For Her. One joke concerns the way that God – in revenge for finding Eve funnier than Adam – has arranged for female comedians to be omitted from television panel shows ever since. Not any more. Christie’s win will propel her to the forefront. She is, however, 42 – quite late to be discovered.
Kempner, who is 26, has had a more meteoric rise, yet his trajectory is an interesting mixture of old and new models. He went to drama school, and got parts in musicals, but his dream was to be an impressionist. So he began to put his impressions on his own channel on YouTube and one – Downstairs at Downton, a canny mix of sharp fun and impersonation – came to the attention of Stephen Fry.
He tweeted it to his six million followers. “That tweet changed my career,” Kempner says. James Seabright, the producer, approached him and asked if he wanted to develop his ideas into an hour-long show that played to a packed room and favourable reviews at the Pleasance for three weeks.
Yet because the room is small, he only reached audiences of a couple of thousand – more or less the same number who subscribe to his YouTube channel, and considerably less than the 75,000 who have watched his original skit. Why did he feel the need to step offline?
“The great thing about online is that anyone can put anything up,” he says. “The bad thing is that there’s so much rubbish that it dilutes the good stuff.
“At Edinburgh, all the television commissioners come to see you. Plus you learn your craft in this type of room. You learn what makes people laugh.”
Though he watches all the television talent shows, the idea of appearing on one is anathema. He’s seen what happens to the winners.
You can’t imagine the Pajama Men – alias Shenoah Allen and Mark Chavez – contemplating the television route either: the duo’s surreal blend of theatre, farce and comedy would baffle Cowell, though they might do a very funny send-up of the genre. Since 2004, over the course of eight visits to Edinburgh, they have gained recognition and a position as popular regulars on the worldwide comedy circuit.
“Edinburgh made people look at us in a more serious way,” says Allen. It brought them agents and London bookings. But three television pilots have failed to take off.
Now they are taking a break from live performance to try something different: making their own comedy series for the web. “We’re just going to do it. It will be really funny and really good,” Allen says firmly. “No one thought we could do what we do on stage and we did. Now we are going to do a different thing online.”
In years of going to Edinburgh I have only twice been overwhelmed by the talent I saw in front of me. Once was when I saw Jack Whitehall performing in a shed and knew a standup of the future had arrived. The other was watching the Pajama Men impersonate 100 characters in an hour. He’s made it big. But their form of talent is harder to categorise, so it has been more difficult for them to conquer the wider world of comedy.
Which all goes to show, whether it is Edinburgh, online or The X Factor, sometimes the best ones don’t just come third. They slip through the net altogether.