The 76th edition of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival kicks off on 4 August. For the next 24 days, Scotland’s capital will be taken over by all kinds of performers—thespians, comedians, musicians… even jugglers! This year, a handful of Indian comedians including Urooj Ashfaq, Biswa Kalyan Rath and Vir Das will also be part of the festival.
Established in 1947, the festival serves as the Mecca for all performing arts and is surpassed only by the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup in terms of global ticketed events. Needless to say, it’s every performer’s dream to showcase their talents here, which is made a lot easier by the festival’s open-access policy. Any aspiring artist can have their show included at the festival provided they can find a venue, cupboard or cubicle to host their show. Naturally, across the festival’s seven decades, numerous legendary performers have found their calling in the streets of Edinburgh. Here’s a list of 10 groundbreaking comedians and actors who first made their mark at the Edinburgh Fringe!
Flight of the Conchords and Rhys Darby
New Zealand-based duo Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, better known as the musical group Flight of the Conchords, first started their career as a four-piece band known as Moustache. The Kiwis first performed at the 1998 Wellington Fringe Festival to a “mildly impressed” audience. After thinning down their band by letting go of their trumpet and double bass players, Clement and McKenzie went on to perform at the Calgary and Vancouver Fringe before charming the Edinburgh audience in 2002. That same year they secured a nomination for the Perrier Award—a coveted honour bestowed upon the best comedy acts at the Edinburgh Fringe.
As luck would have it, Rhys Darby, another comedian from New Zealand was performing at the festival that same year. Darby would go on to seal his cult comedy fate by securing his role as Clement and McKenzie’s fictional manager Murray on their eponymous show.
Long before he immortalised himself in the world of cinema and comedy with his flawless performances as Mrs. Doubtfire and the Genie in Aladdin, the late and great Robin Williams performed a show at the 1971 Fringe. The comedian attended the festival as a part of a student theatre group from California’s College of Marin. Williams caught everyone’s eye with his comedic chops as Tranio, in their Wild West version of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. The play, which won the Best Production Award that year, received great critical acclaim and the troupe put up a commanding performance for Princess Margaret as well. Two years later, Williams secured a full scholarship at the prestigious Juilliard School and the rest, as we all know, is history.
Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry
In 1980, 23-year-old Stephen Fry took his play Latin! Or Tobacco and Boys to the Edinburgh Film Festival. The actor-comedian copped the Scotsman Fringe First Award for his performance that year. But Fry’s biggest win that year was meeting fellow actors Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson who were touring with their own solo acts.
The three shot to fame the following year when their Cambridge Footlights show (a revue group whose alumni includes Monty Python founder John Cleese) won the inaugural Perrier Award for the Fringe’s best comedy show. “The Fringe means everything to me. I wouldn’t be standing here without it,” Fry said in an interview with The Scotsman. All three performers would go on to become legends in their own right, with Fry hosting crowd favourite quiz television show QI, Laurie becoming one of the highest-paid actors on TV during his stint as Dr. House, and Thompson becoming an Oscar-winning screenwriter.
The Edinburgh Fringe hasn’t just acted as a launchpad for up-and-coming performers over the years. It’s also a place for well-known artists from other countries to break through on to the international stage and catch the attention of the directors, producers and media personnel who take over the city during the festival. Trevor Noah is one such example.
Noah, who had already become a household name in South Africa as a comedian and TV presenter, made his Fringe debut in 2012 with standup show The Racist. He went on to win that year’s Malcolm Hardee Award (initiated at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2005) for Act Most Likely To Make a Million Quid. The comedian fulfilled that prophecy just three years later when he bagged his role as the host of The Daily Show.
Rowan Atkinson was a Fringe regular long before he took over the world with his silly antics as Mr. Bean. He performed with the Oxford Theatre Group in Edinburgh in 1973, returning to the city in 1975 with Dundee University Theatre Group, and once again in 1976 as part of the Oxford Revue. During that third stint, he met his partner-in-crime Richard Curtis, with whom he went on to co-write iconic TV shows Mr Bean and Blackadder. Over the next few decades, Atkinson cemented his reputation as a legendary comedic actor, starring as the titular character in Johnny English and lending his voice to Lion King’s much-loved Zazu.
The Queen of Comedy (a title bestowed upon her during the British Comedy Awards in 2011) Miranda Hart faltered for a few years before finding her ground in Scotland’s capital city. She made her debut at the Fringe Festival in 1994 with the show Hurrell and Hart, which was cancelled on most nights due to a lack of audience. But she wasn’t going to give up that easy. Hart returned every year through 2000 to 2005. That final year proved to be the magical one for Hart. She performed her show Miranda Hart’s House Party, which would serve as the blueprint for her hit TV show Miranda. She would go on to be nominated for five BAFTAs, and win eight awards including Best TV Comedy Actress at the British Comedy Awards in 2011. Hart’s illustrious career drives home the point that practice indeed makes perfect!