Fringe comedy cuts with Keith Smith

Stewart Lee. Picture: Neil Hanna

Stewart Lee. Picture: Neil Hanna

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YESTERDAY’S reviews highlighted the difficulty of getting musical comedy right, but there’s something that’s possibly even harder to pitch correctly: the comic persona.

Just who is this Phil Ellis, anyway?

Doing the entire act in character might seem an easy way to get laughs, but given it relies on the idea of a ‘bigger’ joke – often being unintentionally funny intentionally – it’s a complicated, and risky, tactic.

For the first 15 minutes, it’s difficult to tell if Phil Ellis (Underbelly Bristo Square, 5.25pm, until August 25, * *) is for real, or simply trying to mess with us.

Ostensibly about discovering, aged 30, that he was adopted, the show soon descends into farce. The problem is he’s too authentic; the non-jokes don’t work as intended, and create far too much audience discomfort. The continual back and forth with sound tech James, and a Partridge-esque encounter with a collapsible tent are genuinely amusing, but the character lacks a distinctive enough ‘voice’ for us to buy into. It’s shame because there’s a good concept lurking.

Take Mike Woziak’s mother-in law . . .

From the start, it’s clear that Mike Wozniak (The Stand II, 12.10pm, until August 25, * * *) is a comic persona, but that’s only part of the premise, as he’s continually diverted from the ‘real’ routine by his frustration at in-laws having moved in permanently.

It’s a neat send-up of the clichéd ‘take my mother-in-law...’ brand of comedy, that (just about) takes us full circle via police horses, bucket lists and amateur gymnastics. Like many acts at the Fringe, this would carry better with a larger crowd, although Wozniak is clever enough to play on that, making futile attempts to establish ‘common ground’ and engineering heckles and suggestions.

Stewart Lee is bringing home the bacon

Even the big names like to pretend to be someone else sometimes. By now, a week in, it’s hardly giving the game away that ‘cult eighties Canadian stand-up’ Baconface (Stand II, 1.20pm, until August 25, * * * *) is actually Stewart Lee wearing a wrestler’s mask covered with rashers of uncooked meat. This set-up allows Lee to play with our perceptions both of him and other stand-ups, twisting comic conventions into some weirdly ironic meta-gag.

It’s smart, enthralling and funny, even if you can’t quite shake the suspicion that ultimately, the joke might well be on us.