10 Comedians Who Got Their Start At the Edinburgh Festival Fringe | Playbill

Playbill Goes Fringe 10 Comedians Who Got Their Start At the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

The Fringe may be known for its theatre, but from Robin Williams to John Cleese, its comedy chops are equally impressive!

Robin Williams

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe may be world renowned for its theatrical offerings, but did you know that comedy is the fastest-growing part of the festival?

While comedy had been a substantial part of the Fringe since the mid-20th century, the genre exploded in 2008 when the number of comedy acts presented by the Fringe came to surpass the number of theatrical productions, with 660 comedy entries (compared to 599 theatre shows). And every year, the number of comedians looking to try out their latest hour-long set has increased. If you want to see a comedian who's about to break big, the Fringe is a place to find them.

A number of celebrated comics and wits have passed through the Fringe circuit in the early days of their career. Here are 10 luminaries that played the Fringe on their way to stardom.

Stephen Fry

1. Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry is one of the most celebrated wits of the late 20th century, and Fringe was there to shine a spotlight on him from the start! Fry was a member of the Cambridge Footlights troupe, where he (alongside his future famous peers Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson) won the inaugural Perrier Comedy Award in 1981. Not too shabby!

Rowan Atkinson magicinfoto / Shutterstock

2. Rowan Atkinson

Best known in the States for his role as Mr. Bean, Rowan Atkinson got his start on the Fringe with Oxford Theatre Group in 1973 (in a dramatic role no less!) When he returned in 1975, he shifted to comedy. Then in 1976, he hit it big, performing alongside Richard Curtis, where the pair were spotted by famed television producer John Lloyd. With Curtis writing Blackadder, and cowriting Mr. Bean, the Fringe set Atkinson on the path for stardom on the stage, radio, television, and the big screen.

Graham Norton

3. Graham Norton

He may be known as the eponymous host of his own talk show today. But in 1991, Graham Norton played a drag version of Mother Teresa at the Fringe! Ever one to push boundaries, the act received significant press attention after he was mistakenly thought to represent the real Mother Teresa by Scottish television’s religious affairs department. He returned in 1993 with The Karen Carpenter Bar and Grill, and quickly rose in esteem, becoming a fixture of late night television and Eurovision.

Craig Ferguson

4. Craig Ferguson

Known in America as a late-night television host, Craig Ferguson began at the Fringe in the mid '80s with a strident comedy persona named Bing Hitler. The character got the attention of an American agent, who whisked him across the ocean, setting him up with a recurring role on The Drew Carey Show and later as the host of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. In recent years, Ferguson has returned to the Fringe to excavate his roots. So for festival goers, you never know who will come home to reminisce!

Robin Williams

5. Robin Williams

Robin Williams came to the Fringe in 1971 as a member of a student theatre company that was staging a Wild West reimagining of The Taming of the Shrew. Williams, who played Traino, received glowing notices, and the play won Best Production. The cast was even asked to give a command performance for Princess Margaret! Two years later, Williams headed to Juilliard, and the rest (Disney, film, and Broadway fame) was history.

Mike Meyers

6. Mike Myers

A Canadian comic, Mike Myers began as a member of an improv double act in 1985 with the British comedian Neil Mullarkey. It didn't take long for Myers to catch the eye of audiences. In time, he became a master of character comedy, including a run on Saturday Night Live, and his beloved Austin Powers franchise. 

Miranda Hart

7. Miranda Hart

The English "Queen of Comedy" had a few stumbles on the Fringe before finding her footing. Miranda Hart first came to the Fringe in 1994 with the show Hurrell and Hart, which was cancelled most nights due to a lack of audience. She returned in 2000, 2001, 2003, and 2004. Then in 2005, she finally hit the bullseye with Miranda Hart’s House Party, which directly lead to her hit television show Miranda. It goes to show, Fringe practice makes perfect!

John Cleese

8. John Cleese

John Cleese is known to many as a co-founding member of the comedy group Monty Python. But prior to their founding in 1969, he was a member of the Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club. He co-wrote the script and starred in the 1963 Footlights Fringe Revue A Clump of Plinths. Later renamed Cambridge Circus, the revue transferred to the West End, and played in New Zealand and on Broadway in 1964. After the tour, Cleese stayed in America to perform on Broadway in Half a Sixpence in 1965 to 1966. His recorded voice was used for the part of God in Spamalot, which opened on Broadway in 2005.

Flight of the Conchord

9. Flight of the Conchords

New Zealand duo Jermaine Clement and Bret McKenzie kicked off their musical comedy career with a four-piece band named Moustache, who came to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2002 after thinning down to a two-some. That year, they met another New Zealand comic, Rhys Darby, who was in the midst of his own solo show. The rest is history, with the group going on to become one of the most successful musical comedy bands in the English-speaking world.

Noel Fielding

10. Noel Fielding

Fancy a bit of absurdism? Noel Fielding, a regular comedic fixture on British television screens, came to the Fringe in 1992 as a stand-up comedian—winning second place in the Daily Telegraph Open Mic Award. The appearance got him a manager, leading to the cult favorite comedy duo The Mighty Boosh, and Fielding's stints on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, The IT Crowd, Big Fat Quiz, and even as a host on The Great British Bake Off!

Ready to join in on the fun? Click here to learn about some of the comedians who will be performing at this year's Fringe. Meanwhile, Playbill is keeping an eye on all of the pre-festival news in the lead up to our boots-on-the-ground coverage of the summers festivities over at Playbill Goes Fringe. Whether you're coming to Bonnie Scotland or observing from afar, you don't want to miss the flurry of news surrounding the worlds largest arts festival.

If you're diving in to the experience yourself, don't forget to check out the Playbill FringeShip, our floating hotel for the 2024 Fringe, which will be docked in Edinburgh and will provide easy transportation to the Fringe (as well as exclusive on-ship entertainment). Let us take the logistics out of your once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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