When Omid Djalili first performed at the Edinburgh festival fringe in 1993, it was to an audience of three, and they all requested refunds after it was misleadingly advertised as an hour-long show. “I thought the show was so funny that it would get big laughs. I’d calculated jokes plus laughs at 55 minutes – it was 33 minutes short.”
Thirty years later, Djalili is returning for what he said would be his final fringe, and to show his gratitude for the world’s largest cultural festival.
“You don’t do these things for money, you do it for the love of it. My career really started at the festival in ‘93, so it’s a nice way to bring it to an end. I’ve come up to say thank you.”
Djalili is one of the plethora of big-name, established comedians who the fringe’s chief executive, Shona McCarthy, thinks have returned as a “statement of support” to the festival, which returns on 5 August after it was cancelled in 2020 and ran as a stripped-back affair in 2021 because of the pandemic.
“One of the things I noticed even as shows started to register, and with our first on-sale release, is how many of the big names who would have seen themselves as having outgrown the fringe or not needing it are back in 2022,” she said, adding: “It’s like the lineup of Mock the Week.”
That support is much needed by the top venues, which have warned that ticket sales are down by about a third relative to pre-pandemic levels, with the cost of living crisis, the summer’s travel disruption and lingering Covid anxieties cited as reasons.
William Burdett-Coutts, the artistic director of the theatre operator and promoter Assembly, said he hoped sales would catch up this week as part of a post-pandemic trend for later bookings, to ensure his venue’s financial stability.
Established comedians such as Djalili, Rachel Parris and Marcus Brigstocke said their return was about challenging themselves and surrounding themselves with other creative people and their work.
“I’m not going up there and storming it, I’m still going up there and pushing. It’s the same fringe experience. It’s a feeling of trying hard, rewriting, shaping your show. I don’t think I’ll ever outgrow it. If you’ve done it for years, it feels like home,” Parris said, adding that despite her profile she was still nervous about selling out her four nights.
This ethos is shared by her husband, Brigstocke, an established comedian who is “doing it exactly how he did 20 years ago” – including performing in the same room, she said.
Parris said the atmosphere would be particularly special this year.
“What I noticed about coming back this year and touring was the real enthusiasm, a real feeling of: ‘We really missed this so much.’
“People are so glad to have live stuff back and they’re realising how important it is after two years of Zoom gigs. I hope the audiences feel really pumped, really excited about it in the way all the performers do.”
Djalili said performers also had more time to refine their sets over the pandemic. “The level of comedy will be the highest it’s ever been and will be matched by the excitement of the crowd,” he said.
While the fringe has historically been a launchpad for comedians’ careers, this year is unusual in that some established performers are bringing shows for the first time, having found alternative means of building their careers.
One of these is Sikisa Bostwick-Barnes, who made a name for herself on Zoom gigs – which she credits for giving her wider exposure – and slots on shows including Jonathan Ross’ Comedy Club on ITV during the pandemic.
“There’s an argument that the purpose of the fringe has changed, especially with social media platforms like TikTok – people have done really well on TikTok – whether they actually need the fringe to progress their career,” she said.
Instead, she is viewing her run at the Pleasance Courtyard – an unusually high-profile venue for a debut – as “comedy bootcamp”.
“Hopefully by the end I will have learned a lot about myself but also grown as a comedian and performer,” she said.
Bostwick-Barnes added that financial pressures were making it more difficult, with accommodation costs rising this year in part because of legislative changes on student tenancies that have resulted in fewer apartments being available.
She has worked two full-time jobs to afford her run, adding that even if her show sells out she will lose money. “It was the case of me working really really hard and not really having that much sleep in order to achieve a goal in the hope that it will pay off.”
Bostwick-Barnes’s debut standup show Life of the Party will be at the Pleasance Courtyard Below at 8.25pm for the month of August, For tickets go to www.edfringe.com