They’re Comedy Stars at Home. At Edinburgh Fringe, They’re Nobodies.
EDINBURGH — When Ari Eldjarn, one of Iceland’s most popular comedians, takes the stage in his native country, it’s usually to sold-out crowds. In the spring, he played 15 dates in a 1,000-capacity auditorium in Reykjavik. The total audience for the run was equivalent to over 10 percent of the city’s population.
Yet at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Eldjarn, 40, 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 Eldjarn’s 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.
“Can you hear me all right?” Eldjarn asked as he came onstage. “I hear myself really well,” he said, pointing to the venue’s main speaker, which was just feet from his head. “But I have no idea if the people at the back hear anything.” Eldjarn then 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. Hannah Gadsby, an Australian comedian, 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 Fringe, which runs through 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 homes countries.
Also appearing at this year’s Fringe is Stian Blipp, a Norwegian TV 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 over 100 people a day, if his show sells out.
After his recent show, Eldjarn discovered that audience members had left him just over £20, or about $24, 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 could “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.”
To make his show — which includes jokes about turning 40 and disliking vaping — Eldjarn said he had taken one of his Icelandic sets, deleted anything that would not translate to a British audience, then tried to “salvage as much as possible” as he translated it into English. He was tweaking the routine daily in Edinburgh to try to get bigger laughs, he added.
Blipp, the Norwegian comic, said in a telephone interview that he 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 fringe were anxious. Das, the Indian comedian, said being in Edinburgh was “very much a holiday, if I’m honest.” He said he was usually on the road so much that 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.
Das, 43, 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 got only three or four audience members a night, he recalled. Another year, he said 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 hourlong show, “Wanted,” which was mostly sold out. (It is playing 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 Theater over five days.)
“Wanted” is focused on a furor 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. A spokesman for the governing Bharatiya Janata Party filed an official complaint (Das said in his show that 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 on Indian news media. In his Edinburgh show, Das said, “I remember thinking, ‘This is so insulting to actual terrorists.’”
Das said he used to adjust his material for Edinburgh audiences, but does not do that anymore. Many in the audience were British Indians, who came to his show to hear what India was like today, Das said, whereas Western audiences wanted to learn something new about Indian life. “Strangely, it’s become more important to tell an authentically Indian story for both the Indian and Western audiences,” Das said.
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,” he added. “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.’”
Then, he told a few preliminary jokes to give latecomers a chance to arrive before he started his routine. “It takes a while to get British crowds warm, and Indian crowds in,” he explained. (In India, a warm-up act does this before he comes on.)
When the show ended, Das posed for a group selfie 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.