Rich Hall and his creation, Otis Lee Crenshaw

The Edinburgh Festival is barely into its stride but this year's star is already apparent - Rich Hall and his creation, Otis Lee Crenshaw

There was a point in his career when Tom Waits might have become one of the great American comedians. Nighthawks at the Diner , the live double album, released in 1975, is full of extravagantly tall stories, wild characters and witty one-liners; the music is wonderful and the words make you laugh. This successful fusion of comedy and music is extremely rare - you could add maybe Randy Newman and Leonard Cohen on certain records - but when it works, it makes for a sublime live experience. Otis Lee Crenshaw is exactly that.

An ex-con country singer, created three years ago by classy US stand-up Rich Hall, Otis is a skinny, grizzled, sexy, world-weary, screwed-up but ineffably cool Tennessee dude. He wears a Confederate flag bandana and a sinister triangular goatee. As a boy, his family was so poor that 'blues singers used to come to our house when they had writer's block'. His guitarist introduces him as 'the man who makes Johnny Cash look like a goddam intellectual'. Otis has been married seven times - all to women named Brenda. 'It's just a coincidence,' he insists. 'The psychiatrists can make anything they like of that, but as my mom, Brenda, used to say...'

Like Al Murray's Pub Landlord, whose throne as Edinburgh's favourite comic character Otis looks sure to take, he may be borderline psychotic, but he is, crucially, a lovable guy; Hall is made for this role, with his Mephistophelean handsomeness and that gravelly voice.

The show is relaxed and slow-burning - part of me wishes he could go on all night, like a real country bar singer - but it's also stuffed to bursting with brilliant one-liners and great songs, all played with real fire and skill by his guitarist and bassist sidekicks, the Black Liars (Damian Coldwell and Christian Riley).

Boldly, Otis doesn't play any of his old hits, such as 'He Almost Looks Like You' (a tender ballad about falling in love with his rapist cellmate), but concentrates exclusively on new material. The titles speak for themselves in most cases: 'Women Call It Stalking' (sample couplet: 'Tears fall down my face/ It might be love or it might be mace'); 'They Fought the Lawn (and the Lawn Won)', a song about all those great singers who died tragically in gardening accidents; 'Asses On Seats', about the grim realities of performing at the Edinburgh Festival; and 'Rodeo Man From the Shetland Islands' (sample couplet: 'Some folks say that they're too small/ I look like a monkey fucking a football').

But the most extraordinary song is 'Show Me on the Doll Where He Touched You' - a ballad about child abuse that is, however sick it sounds on paper, screamingly funny. In between songs, the patter is similar to Hall's 70 per cent improvised stand-up show - but filtered through Otis's deeper, darker psyche. He picks on a guy in the front row called Russ, who happens to run a bluegrass festival near Perth. 'OK, get your kneepads on, guys,' Otis instructs his cohorts, 'we've got some serious work to do.'

This is the first-night preview, so the show is understandably threadbare in places, but when you have this much charm and talent, no one cares. A word of warning, though: astonishingly for a first night, Otis Lee Crenshaw was sold out. Asses on seats, baby, and maybe the Perrier Award to come. Better buy your tickets now, folks.

Next to Otis, all other comics inevitably seem a little shrunken and one-dimensional. As Stewart Lee says at one point in his new show, Badly Mapped World , in the character of a returned astronaut, 'I've been to space. Going out to see the new Ben Elton film, Maybe Baby, can hold no thrills for me.'

The show is his usual patchily inspired mix of pseudo-profundity and postmodern knob gags. The knob gags get the laughs. Lee challenges his audience's value systems. That gets a laugh too. And so on. If you've never seen him before, it will probably seem really fresh and original. If you have, you'll realise this talented man has been treading water for several years now.

The more you see Lee's show, the more transparent the veil of mystery appears. Strip away his intensely stylised delivery - slow, sarcastic, agonisingly repetitious - and the actual jokes are mostly rather conventional: anti-American gags; pisstakes of people making obvious statements; observations on Australia; anti-German gags; pisstakes of Ben Elton and John Denver; observations on anal sex and his penis.

There are a few great lines - he has always secretly known that he was Scottish because he 'craved shortbread, offal and heroin' - and a dazzling little section in which he does the sea diary of an owl, trapped in a rowing boat with a pussycat and a jar of honey, to the accompaniment of moody ambient music, like a TV documentary on Scott of the Antarctic.

Twenty minutes of brilliance is, admittedly, more than you get in most stand-up shows, but you're still left with the slightly sour taste of someone whose abilities are only being half-used. If he's really so jaded by comedy - 'My job is going round the world, talking about scatalogical filth,' he says, 'which is a bit rubbish, in my opinion' - then maybe he should give it up and do something more fulfilling instead.

Or maybe he should go and see Dave Gorman, who may lack Lee's gifts, but whose Edinburgh shows have the feel of a lifelong, personal mission rather than a rushed piece of homework. Where Lee's show is mushy and digressive, Gorman's has the hyperintense focus of true obsession. It is, basically, about how he sought out and met 25 other Dave Gormans around the world, recording their locations on a map and calculating a ratio of 'miles per dave gorman (mpdg)' on a graph. To his immense credit, he makes this process seem exciting and suspenseful, as well as funny.

His quest, by the way, is ongoing. If your name is Dave Gorman, or if you know someone called Dave Gorman, or if you would - for a reward of £250 (or £300 if you're female) - like to change your name forever to Dave Gorman, then contact him at Or better still, go to the show and reveal yourself. Dave Gorman #1 will be thrilled.

Away from the established names, there are of course plenty of up-and-coming comics at the Fringe - though none, as yet, who seem likely to have the explosive impact of The Mighty Boosh or Johnny Vegas in recent years. Addy Borgh is a charming, observational rambler. The Cambridge Footlights show, Sensible Haircut , is a sweet, intelligent, well-acted and mildly amusing play, showing its student roots with a satire of, um, Countdown.

And The Comedy Zone, a showcase of new talent celebrating its tenth anniversary, is three-quarters not very good (the boyishly narcissistic Danny Bhoy; the remorselessly crude Karen Taylor; the grindingly mediocre Andy Zeltzman) and one-quarter great: the more off-beam, original Spencer Brown, who is like some weird amalgam of Frank Spencer, Sean Locke and Johnny Vaughan. A face to watch, certainly, but he's no Rich Hall.

All these acts are at the Pleasance (0131 556 6550 for tickets)

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Sam Taylor

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