The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world, with over 3,000 shows. This year, Playbill will be going to Edinburgh in August for the festival and we’re taking you with us. Follow along with us this spring and summer as we cover every single aspect of the Fringe, aka our real-life Brigadoon!
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).
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.
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!
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 be 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.
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 on 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.
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 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.
6. Mike Myers
A Canadian comic, Mike Myers began as a member of an improv double act in 1985 with the American 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.
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!
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.
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 twosome. 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.
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!