The Edinburgh Comedy Award & Short Runs
I mentioned last week that some of my more scattered thoughts from this year’s Edinburgh Fringe might bleed out into subsequent newsletters, and I also mentioned that I had a lot of thoughts on the discussion of short runs that followed on from Sam Campbell’s Edinburgh Comedy Award win. So I thought I’d go into some of those thoughts this week!
Firstly, a quick bit of background for those who know nothing about this issue – the Edinburgh Comedy Award is the biggest award in live comedy, given to the best show at the Edinburgh Fringe as well as to the best newcomer, while the Panel Prize is given to the show, individual or organisation that best embodied the Spirit of the Fringe that year. In order to be eligible for the award, a show needs to be registered for at least ten performances so the entire judging panel can get around to seeing it. Traditionally, it’s always been given to shows that were on for the entire month of the Fringe, presumably because usually, the extra time helps the show to bed in and build up word-of-mouth so that it actually registers on the panel’s radar as something they have to see. This year, Sam Campbell won Best Show after doing the minimum of 10 performances, starting halfway through the month, while two other shows on the shortlist – Liz Kingsman’s One-Woman Show and Alfie Brown’s Sensitive Man – did the same. So far, so good. Huge props to Sam, Liz and Alfie for building up such brilliant shows with such brilliant word-of-mouth around them that they already ranked high on the panel’s radar before they even arrived.
What alarmed me about the social media discourse after Sam’s win was how many people were talking about how much this changed the Fringe, and how more comedians should do short runs from now on. To be honest, I found it all faintly depressing. There was nothing different about the Awards’ eligibility criteria this year, they were the same as they always are. It has always been possible for comedians to register as many or as few performances as they want at the Fringe, depending on what works for them logistically, creatively and emotionally. The explosion of chatter about short runs made something very clear that I had deep down suspected for a long time – most comedians do the Edinburgh Fringe because they want to win the Award, to the extent that being made to learn what its eligibility criteria actually are forces them to rethink their entire approach to how they do the Fringe.
To be clear, a lot of the talk around short runs was about how much better for comedians’ mental health it would be if the model shifted in that direction, as it would protect people from the usual burnout the Fringe induces, and any conversation that explores those issues and looks for solutions to them is a welcome one, and I don’t think that the overall issue of comedians rethinking what they want their relationship to the Fringe to be is a sensible conversation to be having. I just think it’s a real shame that an arbitrary award is the reason for that conversation, and to learn that that same award is the main reason everybody goes to the world’s largest arts festival in the first place. In 10 years of going to the Fringe, there has been one year where I had the tiniest inkling in the back of my head that if I was very lucky, maybe I could be in with a shot at the award – and that was this year. Every year up until this one, I went up there because it was a creative opportunity that mattered to me, and the award didn’t factor into my decision-making in the slightest. In 2019, I ended up long-listed for the award, in a move that totally blindsided me, so this year was the first time I had the vaguest thoughts of maybe being in with a shot at it. Within a week-and-a-half, though, although the Panel had been in a few times, they stopped coming and it became clear I wasn’t part of that conversation this year. I felt a little sad for a day or so as I let go of that particular idea, then I got right back to focusing on what mattered – creating a joyful experience for each audience every day. After ten years of actively avoiding any thoughts of being in with a shot at that award, and one year of half-considering it then quickly retraining my thoughts elsewhere when I realised it wasn’t to be, I’m surprised to learn how many people are willing to let their Fringe plans be dictated by the Award.
Does There Need To BE An Award?
So, the Award is an arbitrary external force with a toxic, obsessive hold over most comedians’ attitudes and approaches to the Fringe, so perhaps it’s a good thing that a conversation has sprung up about shifting the model towards short runs in order to change the award’s stranglehold on people. But I’m not so sure. The problem with everybody deciding they’re going to do short runs is that it makes things very difficult for venues, and starts to create a hierarchy in the chronological structure of the Fringe itself. In order to be eligible, a show’s ten performances have to be concentrated in the second half of the month, meaning if all these comedians wanted to do short runs and still be considered for it, then that leaves venues desperately trying to work out how to fill their spaces for the first half. Naturally, booking preference will be given to shows that want to do the entire month, because it just makes things easier logistically. Possibly a model could emerge where the first half of the month consists of loose, work-in-progress shows and the second half of finished, polished awards contenders, but then this passes on difficult decisions to audiences. Does that mean most of the visiting audience would want to come later in the month in order to see the “finished” shows, so those shows in the first half, or doing the full run, are left struggling more for audience as they’re playing to a more limited local crowd? Who can say, but my gut instinct is that everyone trying to do short runs instead of full-month runs just creates a huge number of logistical issues for venues, bookers, audiences and God knows who else. The only way a wholesale shift towards short runs would work is if the festival itself became smaller so that a lot of these logistical issues would be solved, which I suspect might end up happening over the next few years, and the overall goal of a smaller, more focused Fringe festival is no bad thing in my opinion.
Perhaps a more interesting question would be – why does there even need to be an Edinburgh Comedy Award? Does it actually do anything any more, other than negatively affect comedians’ mental health? A comedian I know was finding things tough and dispiriting halfway through this Fringe, so I tried to cheer them up by telling them to just focus on having a great time in front of each audience every day, and that everything else would follow on from that. They replied “Then I’ll win the award, will I?” This was of course partly tongue-in-cheek, but it serves to show how toxic the award’s influence is over the Fringe as a whole, and how much it gets in the way of comedians’ ability to actually enjoy it. It hugely magnifies the “I’ve got someone in” mentality, where comedians will designate performances that have award judges or scouts in as more “important” than others, and try to pack the room with friendly audiences in order to “make it a good one.” I think this kind of mentality is a betrayal of one of the founding principles of live comedy – that you will promise to do what you can to create joy in front of the people that come to see you, in the space you share with them for a bit of time, rather than acting like yesterday’s show, or tomorrow’s show, is in some way more significant than this one.
If there was no award, very little would change meaningfully at the Fringe, to be completely honest. There would still be between ten or twenty shows that became the “must-see” hits of the Fringe, because that’s how word-of-mouth functions. Those shows would probably still hoover up the lion’s share of the work the industry offers to Fringe successes, so the festival’s function as a pipeline for the creative industries to discover new talent would still be served, but it would start to put the focus back on active discovery – the people offering that work would just need to work a little bit harder. They’d need to sniff around and ask which those must-see shows were, instead of just having a list given to them. It would mean that any show not in that list of a dozen or so shows had no tangible, practical reason to feel like they had missed out or failed in any way, because the whole conversation about which were the “best” shows would become more ephemeral and subjective. Comedians would be happier, I think, less stressed, more able to commit wholly to the experience they were offering to their audience each day.
So if the award’s purpose is merely to designate which the “best” ten shows are, for ease of discovery, then that purpose is largely redundant as it’s a process that would happen with or without it. So what else could it be for? Could we think more about the idea of what it represents rather than what its function is? The trouble is, if you look at the history of the award, what it largely represents is the status quo, which again isn’t a particularly valuable service. Over the last twenty years, 16 of the 20 winners of Best Show have been white men. Just looking at a gallery of photos of the award-winners over the last two decades hammers home the point that this award is not being used to steer or champion meaningful change in comedy in any way. Maybe that’s not the point of it, and that’s fine. But for all the harm it does to comedians’ mental health, and to their approaches to how to engage with the Fringe in a meaningful way, I do wonder – do we really need an award to exist in order to just tell us that these shows, that everybody was already saying were the best ten anyway, are the best ten? Doesn’t it need to justify its existence a little more than that these days? I for one would be happy to see it go, and to find out what a Fringe felt like when comedians weren’t collectively obsessed with this one external measure of success entirely outside of their control. If people were forced to move their locus of evaluation inwards, to things they can influence, then I think a great deal more creativity and heart and kindness would return to the Fringe. I have no idea what it would take, but I’d be curious to hear what other people think about it! Do you think it’s still fit for purpose?
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – The third series of Ladhood just came out! I absolutely love Ladhood, I think it’s one of the best shows of recent years, and so far Series 3 is maintaining that quality. Brilliant stuff.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – I recorded my radio sitcom The Dream Factory this week! I’ll probably write about it this week. So many things the cast came up with made me howl, but I’ll probably hand the top spot to a bit where Roisin O’Mahony had to improvise some free-form giggling. Just astonishing stuff.
Book Of The Week – The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet. Not read a book like this in aaaaages. It’s a proper doorstop, and one of those grand, historical romps. It’s about a Dutch shipping clerk who falls in love with a midwife in 18th century Nagasaki and I’m really enjoying it so far.
Album Of The Week – History by Loudon Wainwright III. I find this guy absolutely fascinating. He seems to be one of the most shameless narcissists in musical history, particularly in the way he draws on his relationships with his family to write songs that chronicle his own poor treatment of them. I’m finding it really difficult to square the fact that they are objectively great, honest, insightful songs versus the fact that he’s clearly a bit of a prat and a really bad husband and dad. Ultimately, I come down on the side of thinking that making good art about your own shit behaviour doesn’t excuse it, but just possibly the self-awareness that lies behind the making of the bad art could pave the way towards some sort of redemption, if it’s matched by meaningful behaviour. I should listen to his more recent albums to see how much he’s changed!
Film Of The Week – Nope. I thought this was rubbish. Really self-satisfied rubbish. I’ve spoken to a few people who also hated it and a few people who think it’s a towering cinematic achievement. I don’t know why it didn’t work for me. I absolutely loved Get Out. I just thought this felt like Jordan Peele scribbled down a bunch of good ideas for themes or settings or images, then just filmed them all without bothering to come up with a meaningful or coherent story, or interesting characters, or anything like that. Biggest cinematic disappointment of the year, for me.
That’s all for this week! As ever, if any of you wanted to share this newsletter with a friend, or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it! Take care of yourselves until next time,
PS Here’s the first photo from the recording for The Dream Factory. More on that next week, probably!