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Joz Norris


The Guardian: My Life As An Awards Judge

 By Nosheen Iqbal in The Guardian Posted on Saturday, August 24th, 2019
  • The Guardian: My Life As An Awards Judge

I was asked to be a judge on this year’s Edinburgh Comedy Awards, the ones formerly known as the Perriers, the prizes that have helped to make the careers of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, Steve Coogan, The League of Gentlemen quartet and Bridget Christie.

It sounds a great deal – and an entirely boggling experience. How could it not be? You’re being made to laugh all day, every day, tramping through the city from show to show, rarely eating a meal requiring either cutlery or sitting down. No one likes you and you’re blamed for pushing the performers to the brink of collapse. Nothing new there, then.

There were 757 eligible comedy shows competing for the main and newcomer prize this year. Any standup big enough to have had their own TV series was discounted, as was anyone already selling out major venues. And that still left an awful lot of funny stuff. Numerous conspiracy theories abound: stories of cash stuffed in brown envelopes or late-night lobbying in bars. Which would, to be fair, be far more exciting than the reality.

A total of 16 scouts, invaluable comedy nerds, are sent to see everything. They submit their reviews and scores online, which affects the scheduling of what the panel then sees. Between the 10 judges (several from the TV industry, three public panel winners and a couple of journalists) that list gets whittled further: we saw an average of 70 shows each. Then come more reviews, more scores and panel meeting after panel meeting. It’s brutal stuff. The meetings are long, the coffee is weak and your stomach sinks every time something you love stops just short of making it to the next round of arguing.

And yet, watching this much comedy, be it political, absurdist, sketch or standup but expressly written within the past year, gives you an incredible measure of the country – the left-leaning middle class of it, anyway. As a cultural barometer, it’s a real ride.

So what did I learn from 61 hours of standup in 12 days? Here are my top five observations …

Jessica Fostekew in her show Hench.
Jessica Fostekew: spilt her guts in her show Hench on the horror show of labour.
Photograph: Idil Sukan


Millennial parenting, it seems, is occupied with the ugly truth – and there was plenty of it in Edinburgh. Jessica Fostekew spilt her guts on the horror show of labour and her violent toddler. Jen Brister was consumed with angst about raising twin boy brats “riddled with privilege”. Spencer Jones admitted that his three-year-old daughter, “a cross between Iggy Pop and Mowgli”, was the most alpha presence in his home, and Ivo Graham worried that he was exactly the same as before his daughter’s birth and so perhaps not up to the job. Josie Long performed a tender-hearted hour on being a new mum, but also revealed it had made her transfer all her anxiety on to the future of the planet. Even if the kids were all right, the parents weren’t remotely pretending to be: mums and dads had never made it clearer that they have no idea what they’re doing. This is a generation with its fingers permanently crossed.

Climate change

I lost count of the number of times Greta Thunberg was namechecked on stage this year. Both as a heroine and saviour, no other person came close to inspiring so much awe from the comics. Which would suggest that this material wasn’t very funny. But then Jordan Brookes, the eventual winner of the award, did an entirely brilliant show about “nothing” – because the end is nigh. Brister raged at Toby Young for, well, being Toby Young and mocking Thunberg, while Josie Long may as well have dedicated her show to the 16-year-old. Darren Harriott, a black standup from the Black Country, joked that even he was worried into action this year, despite the fact that the environment was supposed to be a white, middle-class concern. Black people, he shrugged, were simply trying to survive. At 23, Ed Night – for me, the most obvious omission from our nominated shortlist – delivered a show so bleakly funny on the lack of future prospects for his generation that you felt winded.

Ed Night.
Ed Night, happy to chat about his mental health. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Mental health

Talking about your mental health on stage has become as normal as breathing. What came first, the sad or the clown? Who knows, but chat about antidepressants, having OCD (Tom Rosenthal, Catherine Bohart, Ed Night), anxiety, suffering trauma or going to therapy abounded on the fringe. Nick Helm told us that taking sertraline meant he didn’t want to have sex any more. Jonny Pelham delivered a show about “being fucked as a kid” , but finding himself “surprisingly upbeat” now. Joz Norris performed his entire set in costume as Mr Fruit Salad because he couldn’t bear to connect with the audience. Consciously or not, I wondered if this was why the sketch geniuses of Goodbear, the Delightful Sausage, Demi Lardner and Tom Walker stood out so much. All them made plainly joyful, stupidly fun shows.


This was the year every other comedian stuck it to white, middle-class men who have been running the show, dictating tastes and keeping comedy power unevenly distributed. Sophie Duker, London Hughes, Sarah Keyworth, Rosie Jones, Zoë Coombs MarrJayde Adams, Brister, Suzi Ruffell … if there was a gag to be had at the expense of the pale and male, there were myriad ways to do it. Boris Johnson was the punchline to everything. Class has always been the faultline on which Britain has run, but comedians this year went to lengths to examine all the assembled parts and make audiences laugh at what it means to have privilege. In print, this can only read as earnest stuff. But if comedy is the best way to sneak in “the issues”, then checking one’s privilege was one of the most deftly done themes this year. Just ask Ivo Graham, the most likeable posh comedian on the circuit, who joked about his “Eton-themed advent calendar, where all the doors are opened for me by my dad’s contacts”.

Sophie Duker.
Sophie Duker: poked fun at privilege while delivering nuggets about her experience as a black woman.


Pondering on gender, sexuality, disability, masculinity and femininity is par for the comedy course, but this year’s fringe indicated how radically some performers have been thinking about the “big stuff” that defines them. Fostekew did a fantastic job dismantling how womanhood is defined in her show Hench. In an unassuming and entirely charming way, Keyworth talked about being a happy lesbian, wanting to act like “a big boy”. Michael Odewale, Harriott and Duker, Janine Harouni and Nigel Ng all delivered small nuggets of personal history that flipped ideas around blackness, being an Arab Catholic and a Malaysian immigrant.

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