John Kearns takes coveted Fringe comedy award

Comedy Award winner John Kearns was a tour guide last year.  Picture: Neil Hanna
Comedy Award winner John Kearns was a tour guide last year. Picture: Neil Hanna
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A FREE show has won the most coveted comedy award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for the first time.

John Kearns, a former House of Commons tour guide, landed the main prize at the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Awards for this show titled Shtick, less than a year after giving up his day job.

He claimed the title just 12 months after being named best newcomer at the same awards, which have provided a platform to some of the biggest names in comedy.

The English stand-up, who said he would have been un­able to perform in Edinburgh without the Free Fringe model, used his acceptance speech to issue a rally cry for change at the festival. The 27-year-old, who appeared at the Voodoo Rooms, had wowed critics with a show partly inspired by the transformation in his life since winning the best newcomer prize last year.

Kearns, who has been hailed as one of the finest exponents of “absurdist comedy” on the Fringe, builds his show around a string of wistful set pieces.

Critics have lavished praise on his “beautifully constructed pieces of wordplay, poetical witticisms and strange observations”, describing his performance as “simultaneously deep and daft”.

Kearns received his award from the 1991 award winner Frank Skinner, who returned to the live Fringe stage himself his year, and last year’s winner, Bridget Christie.

Kearns, who was clearly in shock as he took to the stage at the Dovecot Studios, said: “I just can’t believe this. I felt like I did everything last year, so this is just crazy.

“The awards have already changed my life. I quit my job in November and I’m now a comedian. I’m more than aware this hasn’t happened before and I don’t know what to do.

“I really wanted to come back after winning best newcomer as I wanted to prove to myself that it wasn’t a one-off and that I could do it again. I think that I did, I think that it’s a better show.”

The Free Fringe movement was set up by promoter and performer Peter Buckley Hill in 2006 and has grown to include more than 800 shows this year. Audiences do not pay to get into venues but are invited to make donations to acts before they leave.

However the concept is deeply divisive on the Fringe, with supporters claiming it allows acts to try out experimental and challenging work without taking on a significant financial risk, and critics who are fearful that less-well-known comics in ticketed venues are being overlooked in favour of free shows.

Kearns, who appeared at the Voodoo Rooms for the second year in a row, said there was an obvious need for venues to help “good comics who work so hard and just want to write the funniest show and hear people laugh”.

Kearns, who only performed his first hour-long show last year, added: “Venues need to help those people. The reason I went back to the Free Fringe is because they helped me when no-one would touch me and it’s worked out for me.

“The comics are the most important people at this festival and they need to be looked after. A lot of my friends have worked so hard and it is tough.”

Kearns told Scotland on Sunday he had worked for almost five years at the House of Commons and was unable to give up his job because he had not been offered any paid comedy work until his success at the Fringe last summer.

“I gigged solidly for five years, getting up at 7am to go to work and getting home at 1am after doing a gig. I was standing here a year ago wondering if I would be able to give up my tour guide job. It’s been an absolute rollercoaster.

“I was only able to come up here because of the Free Fringe and I felt it was important to stay local to the people who looked after me. It is so important because anyone can do it. Its whole ethos is what festivals are all about.”

Awards producer Nica Burns said: “It’s an extraordinary achievement – the first time a best newcomer has been named best comedy show winner in just one year.

“The show was utterly original, completely captivating and very, very funny.”

Meanwhile New York comic Alex Edelman won this year’s best newcomer title for his show at the Pleasance.

A children’s show, Phil Ellis’s Funz and Games, which was part of the Just the Tonic programme, won the special recognition panel prize.