Michael Legge

With the Edinburgh Fringe on the horizon, Michael Legge hones his latest set, supported by Ruaidhrí Ward

And it's back to the Black Box in Belfast for more hilarious comic shenanigans. Comedy Belfast is out in droves tonight; a grinning support group lining the walls, fielding fumbled punch lines and prompting tip-of-the-tongue puns. For this is the first of a series of Edinburgh Fringe warm-up shows. 

It's a big year for Belfast comedy at the Fringe, as there will be an unparalleled exodus of the great, the good and downright rubbish from Northern Ireland's comedy community. And it is a community. Everybody with an inflated 20 minute set is getting on that ferry and hawking their wares around the Scottish capital.

Tonight we see the first fruits of two of these acts, tentative baby steps toward a completed, workable set, and I can't help but feel as if I've been sold a pup: this should be ramshackle, badly thought out and over long. Instead, both comics put together slick(ish) shows of consummate comedic styling.

First up is Ruaidhrí Ward, gliding onstage to abuse headliner Legge's family – 'We'll start proceedings if Michael's family will stop talking for five minutes, ruining the show!' – and eases into a PowerPoint presentation routine.

I'm not really keen on this 'look at the comedy I prepared earlier' approach. A comedy performance should be like taking a terrifying exam, and this smacks of being able to get a passing grade with course work. But Ward uses it brilliantly and topically, utilising Twitter conversations and status updates about the recent riots and exposing the idiocy of sectarian trolls.

In fact, his repainting of landmark murals with internet cat memes unites the room in laughter until, with sullen inevitability, the wi-fi crashes. If Ward is ruffled, it doesn't show.

He launches straight into a routine (horrible word in this case – it doesn't feel routine) about drink driving adverts, cradling a microphone stand as his dying son, subverting the pathos he wrings from the scene by reaching over for a cheeky pint mid-way through his woolly child's death throes.

If Ward makes intelligent use of his microphone, Michael Legge doesn't bother with one at all, flinging it away and bellowing at his audience. Within seconds of being on stage, his face is puce and the tendons are sticking out on the side of his neck like the spokes of a denuded umbrella. 'How does McIntyre do it?' he asks. The perma-grinning millionaire is still the bete noire of every jobbing stand-up.

'Why do people put so much emphasis on being happy?' It's a question for his audience, as Legge anticipates their reaction to his bellicose ranting. He needn't worry – we're all having a much better time than he is. Legge's stock in trade is loneliness, metropolitan isolation and a forensic examination of his own failings.

A recent trip to Bulgaria saw him conversing with only one other human being; a man slumped in the doorway of a shop who spoke no English but who, nevertheless, managed to mock British weights and measures. While attempting to get some writing done for the show, he was intimidated by the sexual prowess of a troilistic frog while drinking a lonely cocktail. 'A drink that didn't deserve to be the colour it was.'

When occasionally the laughs don't land or a piece of materiel unravels in his hands, Legge censures himself, quickly and determinedly. 'I do my own heckling,' he growls. Happily, this is a rare occurrence, and the laughter comes in gales. As Legge details a lengthy list of things he hates – 'Cups that try to be fun,' 'All parodies of "Keep Calm and Carry On"' – the audience laps it up.

When he adds BBC Three to the list, I let out an involuntary and extremely effeminate squawk of approval. He shoots me a look that is both pitying and withering. It is well deserved. Self doubt and self recrimination ripple through his act. 'I'm really sorry about everything,' is a standard quote. But it's hard to believe the ingenuousness of these flagellating barbs when everyone in the room is bent double with laughter.

Legge is a consummate craftsman, each of his often ragged stories (they are works in progress) can be turned around, vindicated, by some artfully chosen attitude, a peculiar intonation, an apt piece of phrasing. He tells us about being menaced by a gang of youths on rollerskates, threatened by one of them 'with a kick up the arse'. He replies, 'Unlikely... You'll have a tumble.'

There's something in that helpful addendum – the ridiculous situation he finds himself in, the querulous tone of his voice, his odd, troubled kindness – that makes that innocuous phrase the funniest thing that I have heard all night. It's dead on the page, I know. It's nothing on the page, but perhaps that is the best illustration of the alchemical magic of the comedian in flow, in flight.

Perhaps that line was never even written down, it just occurred to him. After all, the materiel tonight is raw and unpolished, but shows a comedian at the top of his game, and a fine Northern Irish ambassador to the Edinburgh Fringe.