Gigs, gags and going for a gong

The comedy marathon at Edinburgh Fringe peaks tonight

The comedy marathon at Edinburgh Fringe peaks tonight. In between his own shows, Irish comic Kevin Gildeacatches a bunch of other acts, including that of the Irish nominee

MIDNIGHT OUTSIDE the Gilded Balloon Teviot and people are drinking around a cow. The cow is purple and upside down - like it has keeled over from too much drink. This inverted inflatable is a venue - a new one added to the Underbelly roster (it's called the Udderbelly). It lies in the square in front of the Gilded Balloon Teviot venue, itself bedecked and bejewelled in fairy lights, transformed from grey educational ramparts to glittering fairy castle, and the Pleasance Dome.

In 2001, I played the Gilded Balloon Teviot - the first year it moved from its burned down premises at the Cowgate. Back then, it was just a grey building in front of a grey square sound-tracked by the scrapping of low level skate boarders. Tonight it's buzzing surreally like an out-take from the movie Apocalypse Now.

The first show I see is Stewart Lee at the Stand Comedy Club. His show is called Scrambled egg and is subtitled: Old Material and new. In random order. (Notes towards a television project). The expected lack of flow given the show's title was evident the night I was there. It was a particularly disjointed night but when individual pieces are this good it almost doesn't matter. Lee's delivery is a quiet, minimalist hum, like comedy on a different sound wave - the ears gradually attune to the seeming sequence of repeated notes that suddenly reveal a relative cymbal crash of comedy.

His mechanism is reducto ad absurdum: taking the logic of an idea to beyond its nth degree - his journey often continues long after other comedians have stopped the car to let the laugh off, and he continues trundling along seemingly aimless roads that suddenly and unexpectedly turn in glittering comedy plazas. He is a brilliant comedian.

Unlike Lee, the onus on other comedians is to bring a "show" to Edinburgh, rather than an hour of stand-up. For it is a "show" that will win the awards.

I had never seen Andrew Lawrence before but had heard of his impressive reputation as a hilarious, helium-voiced, misanthropic Gollum. He spends 10 or so minutes introducing himself with a string of ranting self-abuse that gains hilarious momentum in its car-crash accumulation.

Two or three times at the beginning he mentions what his show is about and I'm thinking: "But we're at the show, aren't we?" It is like he is trying to call a show into being.

Near the end of his show, he tells us what his show was about - so we get a preview and a review just in case we were in any doubt that we'd been at a "show". In these sections of the show, his manner alternates between the character Frank Spencer from Some Mothers Do 'Ave Em and Ian Curtis (of Joy Division) waiting for his spastic conviction to kick in.

Corralled between the preview and the review, he is like a caged animal pacing behind the bars of expectation his wild talent has generated; he is the mad, angry, hilarious beast who doesn't give a shit about awards, ads on taxis or, as he says himself, "being on Mock The Week". Here he delivers his lines with the intensity of a twisted Shakespearean actor.

His show is called Don't Just Do Something, Sit There!. Its about ambition and the many forms of the modern scramble to the perceived "top". Much of the material in this section is brilliant. It is when he aligns his anger with a surreal leap that he really takes off - the audience follows the steps of his aggression and suddenly he's leapt and is standing on the other side of the ravine, and the audience erupts into laughter at the unexpectedness of it all.

"I could never have children because I don't believe in hitting children - and I wouldn't be able to help myself," he jokes, adding: "People come up after shows and say I could be a comedian if I had the material - well, I could be a crisp if I was made out of potatoes."

RHOD GILBERT SHARES with Lawrence a use of wonderfully funny simile and absurd description. Gilbert is another man who has a "show". He too does a preamble - connecting with the audience (important for a comedian - a relationship so they'll stay with you through the times they're not with you). His show, The Award Winning Mince Pie, is gettign rave reviews and he was nominated for an If.Comedy award this week.

It takes a caustic swipe at modern culture and is set in a service station, leading to rifts on the toilet cleaning times ("this toilet was last cleaned 20 minutes ago"), portraits of "the manager on duty" and the purpose of a torch that has the power of a million candles: "You can get a pack of six candles in the supermarket for £3.99 - buying this torch with a million candle power will save me £400,000!

Gilbert skilfully weaves his stories, to which jokes stick like spines from a prickly creature. My one reservation is that his delivery was a bit shouty throughout but his material is brilliant and his energy hugely impressive. He ended the night dripping in sweat - admitting at the finale that he was in fact sick. Bravo.

Phil Kay - like a vagabond, a vagrant - arrives annually in Edinburgh like a man who goes to live in the woods and comes back once a year to tell what he's learned. Phil has a reputation for being hit-and-miss, but when he hits, he's as good as there is. He begins his set with a fantastic improvised monologue - accompanying himself beautifully on guitar. He laughs about the idea of a festival and how it allows us a certain freedom of behaviour but he points out that the whole of life should be a festival - that we should "festivalise" our entire time on this earth. His show is based on the previous year of his life, revolving around a particular journey made by hitching. It is a testament to the organic nature of his comedy that the idea of being at a "show" recedes into the background. Kay is silly and profound, hilarious and beautiful; his is a chaotic life lived 110 per cent - like a wild child. He is a welcome injection of life affirmation.

Reginald D Hunter's show No Country for Grown Men received bad early reviews, but the night I was there he was back on song. Perhaps it lacked as much content as some of his previous shows but even when he says half what he usually says he's still saying twice what most other comedians say. His show is about the confusing loss of a role for men. It is a subject many have dealt with before but there is an originality in the material of somebody who is not afraid to truly engage with the world. In the delivery, there is a charisma and relaxed control that make it a pleasure to watch.

He's smooth in a classy way, not a showbiz way. Sometimes you walk out of certain films wanting to act out the moves - I walked out of Reginald D Hunter's show calling everyone "Man". "Yeah sure, Man - I am a Man!"

THE CHEER THAT greets David O'Doherty - also an If.comedy nominee - is the sound of how far he has moved up the Edinburgh ladder. If the standard joke structure is traditional jazz, then O'Doherty's comedy is free-form - improvised-like riffs played on an instrument composed of quirky description and odd observation, the whole held together in the remarkable form of the confidence and strength of O'Doherty himself, creating a self-contained world view.

Delights include how to attack people using various boardgames, the subtle magician-like hand gestures covering the face, and the requirement for relationship compatibility in his parents' day ("What - you like soup too!").

Referencing the school assembly nature of the room in The Stand 4, he says "well done, you've done the school proud" - and there's something apt about that because O'Doherty has created a low-fi school club comedy that has matured to vintage effect.

Americans Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler (another If.comedy nominated act) perform a gently bizarre double act. They are both hilarious performers - particularly Schaal, her face like a cartoon speech bubble ballooning out - luminous with obvious comedy talent; this is the sort of skill that could grace American film for the next decade. She and Kurt - gangly like a nordic Chevy Chase - perform excerpts from their new play and show clips of TV programmes they have appeared in. There is an hilarious undercurrent to their relationship that bursts to the surface in sudden outbursts, mainly from Kurt. A really good show with some fantastic funny, quirky moments that did not quite reach the substantial peak of its bizarre promise.

And so I walk home (from home) by the old Gilded Balloon in Cowgate. Part of the building that was burnt down hasn't yet been replaced but a couple of shiny new venues have grown up in and around it like coral sea-life on the hull of a sunken ship; the Edinburgh Fringe continues its endless expansion.

Back in my home (from home), I wash some underpants and socks in a basin in the sink. Because, as everybody knows, the show must go on.

• Kevin Gildea: Man of a Million Heads is at the Stand Two in Edinburgh until tomorrow