A Yorkshireman walks into a bar... but the joke has no punchline, because as the wraps came off perhaps the biggest comedy festival outside Edinburgh, the funniest feed line was, why are there so few Yorkshire comedians?
The man behind the Great Yorkshire Fringe owns Britain’s only comedy museum, but the festival has a German top-of-the bill. and although it hosts a contest to find a rising star, home-grown talent is thin on the ground.
“Frankie Howerd was born in York, wasn’t he?” said Martin Witts, director of the festival, which takes over much of that city for 17 days from July 21.
Howerd was born at York’s City Hospital but he was brought up in London. Richard Herring, one of the big names at the Yorkshire Fringe, hails from Pocklington but was raised in Somerset.
There are a few comedy greats from the broad acres - Ernie Wise, the Chuckle Brothers, Barry Cryer and Michael Palin - but the number pales into insignificance next to those from across the Pennines.
Henning Wehn, the popular German comic familiar from most of TV’s panel games and stand-up shows, is one of the headline acts in York - his third fringe there. The American singer Curtis Stigers is another marquee name in an event which encompases theatre, cabaret and music as well as comedy. The 1,500-seat Barbican will this year host some of the shows.
The festival was dreamed up by Mr Witts, who was born in York and who, unlike Howerd, never left, despite having an office in London. He and his wife, Lesley, had a boat on the river for ten years and now live in Fulford.
“I started at the York Theatre Royal as a carpenter,” he said. “I did a tour of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and then went on to Glyndebourne, but I fell off the roof there.”
He moved from set building to production and looked after shows for Les Dawson, Paul O’Grady and Russ Abbot, as well as programming acts at EMI’s old venues in Blackpool. Now his clients include Bill Bailey and Stewart Lee, and he owns London’s Leicester Square Theatre and the Museum of Comedy, housed in a Grade I listed building next to the British Museum.
“It’s like the Hard Rock Cafe of comedy.” he said of the museum. “We’ve got Tommy Cooper’s stage props, Spike Milligan’s old record player and 16,000 music hall sheets.”
But he remains a resident of York, and the chance to run a fringe festival there was impossible to resist. This third event is the biggest to date, with 350 performances of 200 shows - around 20 per cent more than last year. Local acts include the eccentric Moulin Ouse cabaret and burlesque show.
Unlike the Edinburgh Festival in August, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year and whose frings acts are usually booked for two or three weeks, most of the shows in York are one-night stands.
One of its signature events - and the one which might yet fill in the missing lines in the joke about the Yorkshireman - is the search to find the county’s New Comedian of the Year. Entry is not limited to locals but contestants must be amateurs who have been working for less than five years, and they must perform five minutes of original material.
As at Edinburgh, the Fringe is not restricted to private venues. Parliament Street doubles for the Scottish capital’s Royal Mile, with a cluster of entertainment venues styled as a ¼-mile “village green”, and a century-old “spiegeltent”, a Dutch portable building fashioned out of wood, canvas and mirrors.
York’s festival fringe will include musical tribute shows celebrating the tunes of Burt Bacharach, Abba, Queen and 1950s rock and roll.
Singer Curtis Stigers will be backed by Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra for a Sinatra tribute, and Scott’s band will also accompany vocalist Claire Martin to recreate the performances of Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and Billie Holiday.
A theatrical show, The Scarecrows’ Wedding, from the creators of the children’s favourite, The Gruffalo, comes to York straight from the West End.
Comedians and writers Andy Hamilton and Susan Calman are among the other performers appearing. A full listing is at www.greatyorkshirefringe.com