From Andy Kaufman's washed-up lounge singer Tony Clifton dodging rotten vegetables, to Neil Hamburger berating his crowd, superficially bad, so-called “anti-comedy" can seem like a wretched branch of showbusiness.
Such a reductive term scarcely does justice to a supreme absurdist like Kaufman. But critics tend to like anti-comics because they highlight comedy tropes through spoof and subversion. Comics invariably loathe them for the same reason and the suspicion that they're somehow critics too, sneering wannabes who can't command an audience by simply being funny. So for a relative unknown hoping to make an impact at the Fringe, why pretend to be a crap act? How far can you intentionally mess up your performance and still emerge triumphant?
For Susan Harrison, appearing as the callow, 15-year-old spoken word artist Jennie Benton Smith recreates some of the thrill she experiences with her improv troupe Showstoppers. “Playing with that feeling of a character on stage that's failing, the audience is uncertain," she says. "You don't know exactly what's going to happen.”
In previews, she found crowds struggling to differentiate between Jennie's initial “faffing” and her own. So now Harrison comes out with a “punchier start” before “getting into the stuff where she's in trouble”. Nevertheless, she accepts that she might still get random Fringe-goers wandering in and becoming “confused”.
Likewise, Lolly Adefope swallows her pride whenever anyone congratulates her on her first gig, a backhanded compliment for her portrayal of the babbling, self-involved rookie comic from Preston, Gemma.
“If I'm doing a 10-minute spot, I might explain beforehand that it isn't really me,” she explains. “But other times, it's more fun when people only realise halfway through from some of the weirder things I say that it couldn't be real at all. It's cheating a bit to announce it's a character. I should probably always go for it 'straight' and hope they realise.”
Such misunderstandings are understandable. The South Londoner created the “comfort blanket” of Gemma as a way to overcome her stage fright. And now she feels as if her real accent is "just a facade".
“I was too scared to be myself on stage in case I wasn't funny,” she recalls. “I wrote lots of material that I looked back on and realised was terrible. I thought the best thing to do was just mask it in a terrible character and pretend I knew it was terrible all along.”
Zoe Coombs Marr, who appears as Dave in her native Australia, a blokeish “bogan” comic with a series of clunking, misogynistic and homophobic routines, relishes gigs where “audiences don't realise it's an act, where if they're quite drunk and far away, sometimes they don't actually realise that I'm a woman. I've had heckles like, 'This guy sucks!' which is just the best thing ever.”
Harrison gently sends up Jennie's “smothering” middle-class, Tunbridge Wells background in her poetry and raps, “'fuck you, Mum and Dad!' – but in a nice way”. But with Dave, Coombs Marr is mercilessly attacking the clichés and conventions of lazy club comedy.
Unreconstructed in the conventional sense, Dave is very much a construct of his environment. “Affable, bit of an idiot, going down the pub, just telling your jokes, that's a persona a lot of comics cultivate, but it's really made up,” Coombs Marr argues. “All those guys on stage, talking about how the clitoris is hard to find, how their girlfriends are annoying, it's this cultural shorthand. When you talk to them backstage, they're like, 'Yeah, I know it's dumb, I don't really think that way, but it gets a big laugh'. Audiences laughing at that just reaffirms the status quo. And it's the job of the comedian to challenge rather than placate that."
Adefope has Gemma and five other characters as participants in an open mic comedy night. Notwithstanding the inclusion of "X", an agitating, political stand-up manqué without a cause as such, they're all too insular to serve as a straightforward parody of new comedians. She chose the setting simply because "most of my characters are not very good at what they're trying to do”, and gave them full backstories because she was wary of being too in-jokey. “I want them to seem like real people, rather than a portrayal of what it's like to be a comedian."
Yet Adefope, who runs the Women Posing as Comedians comedy night as a riposte to an infamous, arguably sexist Facebook post by comedian Andrew Lawrence, still addresses issues surrounding the open mic scene, new act competitions and “the dynamic of the greenroom”. As her characters prepare to take the stage, you can hear conversations between those who've been on and those about to: “This weird atmosphere where everyone wants to seem quite sure of themselves but also very humble, very professional and also like they get on with everyone." As Gemma returns from the stage, we overhear her being told, with a horrible ring of authenticity, “I don't actually normally like female comedians but that was really good!”
Alongside the stagecraft that enables her to stretch six minutes of dreadful stand-up into a horribly compelling hour, Coombs Marr has been performing in clubs since she was 15, so rejects any accusations of anti-comedy snobbery, of being too “festival-y and not really a comic”.
Often on a club bill, she's found crossover between Dave's material and that of other acts. And they tell her “that was actually quite painful to watch because I recognised myself”.
She never saw it "as a hateful thing and a 'fuck you' to those guys because they're all my friends as well”. Still, as a lesbian, she ventures that some clubs “aren't particularly welcoming to a person like myself”, and finds it interesting that more experimental performers like Adrienne Truscott and Bryony Kimmings, from the worlds of burlesque and performance art respectively, are infiltrating and breaking down a traditionally straight male space, “coming into comedy from leftfield”.
As a drag act, Dave pushes at boundaries and offers catharsis, affording crowds licence to laugh at rape gags while still feeling right-on. At some level though, he's still Coombs Marr – “I'm making fun of my own behaviour, things I do in stand-up that make me feel like a total hack” – and he's us too, desperately scrambling to hide his vulnerabilities. “You hate him, then you feel sorry for him, then you identify with him,” she suggests. “It's about finding the humanity as well as the hilariousness."
The ultimate threat to crap acts is that they become too familiar and everyone's too ready to laugh at them. Harrison conceived Jennie in 2006, and through appearances on CBBC's DNN, she's been a comedian and rapper before Harrison settled on spoken-word artist. Her creator reckons this year might be Jennie's swansong because "it's a character I've done for so long in different guises”.
Adefope meanwhile is wrestling with the problem of where to take Gemma post-Edinburgh because "she can't still be doing her first gig. Maybe she'll become famous, maybe she'll try things other than comedy, or maybe she'll just stay an unsuccessful comedian”. And Coombs Marr is considering a radical new direction for Dave, pursuing the latest stand-up trend.
“I'd like to do another show where he's gone to [French master clown Philippe] Gaulier and is doing 'new clowning',” she says, with a laugh. “I think that would be quite funny. But I don't know if it's something that just tickles me."