Defying the claim that you never get something for nothing, a number of pubs and similar venues host so-called "free" shows throughout the Festival period. It's more accurate to describe them as "pay what you want", because you're very much expected to throw a few quid into a bucket on the way out - and of course, the commercial logic for the hosting hostelry is that you'll take the money you've saved on tickets, and spend it at the bar instead. All the same, even a generous tip and indulgent approach to the booze will work out a lot cheaper than a trip to a paid-for show.
It feels reasonable to be suspicious of the quality of a free event, but in practice they stack up pretty well. The majority of free shows are traditional stand-up (a hit-and-miss medium at the best of times), and if you do find you've chosen a turkey, at least the disappointment won't be compounded by knowing you're down £15 as well. If all goes well though, you've every chance of finding a winner - as a growing number of positive reviews from respected publications confirm.
Finding free shows
Following a much-publicised and hugely acrimonious series of schisms, the majority of free shows are organized into two rival chains with confusingly similar names. One group, headed up by folk musician and comedian Peter Buckley Hill, operates under the title of PBH's Free Fringe; another goes under the banner of the Free Festival, and is organized by promoter Laughing Horse.
The controversy's done nothing to slow the growth of the free market - the number of shows has rocketed to hundreds over the last few years. It's worth knowing, however, that PBH's Free Fringe doesn't list all its shows in the official Fringe programme; it's up to the performers whether they want to pay extra for a listing. So to get a full view of what's on offer, you'll need to visit the relevant websites, or pick up individual programmes once you're in Edinburgh.
Alternatively, just make a day of it by parking yourself in your favourite free venue. Plenty of people stay for two or more shows, and the random gamble on what's coming next is all part of the fun.
What to expect at the venue
Because free shows don't have tickets, they're first-come-first-served, and the size of the audience can vary widely. If there's a show you're particularly keen to see, it's well worth turning up 30 minutes in advance; there's invariably a bar available to pass the time while you're waiting.