Edinburgh Fringe sees comedy stars become nobodies

Icelandic comedian Ari Eldjarn in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Aug 23, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND (NYTIMES) - When Ari Eldjarn, one of Iceland's most popular comedians, takes the stage in his native country, it is usually to sold-out crowds.

In spring, he played 15 dates in a 1,000-capacity auditorium in Reykjavik. The total audience for the run was equivalent to more than 10 per cent of that city's population.

Yet, at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the 40-year-old has found himself in less celebrated surroundings: the fourth room of the Monkey Barrel Comedy Club.

On a recent evening, there were about 50 people in that space for his daily show, Saga Class, with three rows of empty seats at the back. The air-conditioning whirred loudly and the thud of dance music occasionally intruded from another show upstairs.

Eldjarn introduced himself as an Icelandic comedian, getting one of his first laughs of the act. "I love being in Edinburgh," he added, "because there are actually other comedians here."

The Edinburgh Fringe has, for decades, been an event that stand-up comedians flock to, hoping to make it big.

Australian comedienne Hannah Gadsby won the festival's main comedy award in 2017 with Nanette, a show that went on to become a Netflix phenomenon the next year. Previous nominees for that prize include Eddie Izzard, Bo Burnham and James Acaster.

At this year's festival, which runs through Monday (Aug 29), more than 1,300 comedians are performing. Most are little known in Britain and some have to drum up their own audiences by handing out fliers on the street.

Yet, among them are a handful of comedians, like Eldjarn, who are actually big stars in their home countries. Also appearing at this year's festival is Stian Blipp, a Norwegian television star, and Vir Das, an Indian comedian who has 7.7 million Twitter followers and multiple Netflix specials to his name.

In Edinburgh, Das is playing to just more than 100 people a day if his show sells out.

After his recent show, Eldjarn discovered that audience members had left him just over £20 (S$33) in a tip bucket by the door. He then walked across the street to spend the money on burgers for himself and one of his daughters.

"This is definitely like starting over again," Eldjarn said. In Iceland, he can "just go confidently onstage, make stuff up and people will laugh", he added. But in Edinburgh, he said, "you really need a lot of good material".

Blipp was also nervous about performing in Edinburgh. "I feel like a little boy again," he said, "like I'm doing a second debut."

Yet, not all of the international stars at this year's festival were anxious.

Indian comedian Vir Das performs his show, Wanted, during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Edinburgh on Aug 23, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Das said being in Edinburgh was "very much a holiday, if I'm honest". He was usually on the road so much, it was a luxury to spend a month in Scotland working on his next special and soaking up experiences that might inform future comedy routines.

The 43-year-old is an old hand at the festival. He first performed in 2011, he said, in a venue "at the back of a pool hall at the back of a video game arcade". For most of that run, he had only three or four audience members a night, he recalled.

Another year, he built an audience with the help of a unique take on handing out fliers. He printed the show details on fake bank notes and dropped them around the city.

This year, Das was not using any gimmicks to promote his hour-long show, Wanted, which was mostly sold out. The show is in a 102-capacity basement venue - a far cry from his last tour dates in Mumbai, where he said he played 10 shows at the 1,109-seater Jamshed Bhabha Theatre over five days.

Wanted is focused on a furore Das caused in India last year, after he posted a monologue online called Two Indias, in which he examined the country's paradoxes and divisions. Das said the monologue, which had been performed at a show in Washington, was a way of showing his love for India and calling for social unity, but some accused him of defaming the nation.

Inside the Monkey Barrel Comedy Club where comedian Ari Eldjarn performed during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. PHOTO: NYTIMES

A spokesman for the governing Bharatiya Janata Party filed an official complaint - Das said in his show the police had decided not to take it forward and had dismissed other complaints - and a prominent Bollywood actress accused Das on social media of engaging in "soft terrorism", a comment widely picked up by Indian news media.

In his Edinburgh show, Das said: "I remember thinking, 'This is so insulting to actual terrorists.'"

At a recent show, Das walked into the sweaty basement to booming music, as if he were entering an arena. He drew immediate laughs by remarking on the racial mix of the crowd. "I see Indian people," he said. "I see people sleeping with Indian people. I see random locals who thought Vir Das was a German comedian and are now thinking, 'This isn't what we thought it'd be.'"

When the show ended, he posed for a group photo with audience members outside the venue - a requisite of the star comic the world over.

After a gig in India, Das said, he would typically jump in a car to his hotel like any other celebrity. But here, he simply walked off, carrying a backpack. Barely anyone gave him a second glance.

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