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Seven acts compete for Edinburgh comedy prize

Seann Walsh is vying for the top prize with six other comedians. Picture: Complimentary

Seann Walsh is vying for the top prize with six other comedians. Picture: Complimentary

  • by BRIAN FERGUSON
 

The “return of the stand-up” has been hailed by organisers of the main comedy prize at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe - as they revealed the biggest shortlist for 20 years.

Six of the seven acts in the running are performing traditional shows this year in a line-up tackling everything from rock music and feminism, to school reunions and enjoying a lie-in.

But Nica Burns, director of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards, has admitted to disappointment that just one of them is a woman, Bridget Christie, tipped by many pundits as a favourite this year.

There have been just two previous female winners - Laura Solon was the last in 2005, while Jenny Eclair was the first in 1995.

Carl Donnelly, James Acaster, Max and Ivan, Mike Wozniak, Nick Helm and Seann Walsh make up the all-British line-up for the main award, which includes a £10,000 cash prize and will be handed over on Saturday by Steve Coogan and last year’s winner, Dr Brown.

Max and Ivan have the only sketch show on the shortlist, about a school reunion, although “rock-comic” Nick Helm’s was described by the judges as character comedy.

Ms Burns said the fact there were so many nominations this year reflected the strength in quality at the top end of the comedy scene on the Fringe. But just two venues have shared the seven nominations - the most since 1993, when Lee Evans fought off challenges from Phil Kay and Greg Proops to win the main award.

The Pleasance boasts five of the contenders - Donnelly, Acaster, Max and Ivan, Helm and Walsh - with the remaining two appearing at The Stand, the capital’s year-round comedy club, which was singled out for praise by Ms Burns.

A wider spread of venues has been recognised in the contenders for the “best newcomer award,” although just one is from a Free Fringe venue, the Voodoo Rooms, where John Kearns is performing. The other four candidates are Aisling Bea, whose show is at the Gilded Balloon, Liam Williams, who is at Just the Tonic’s venue at The Tron and two of Underbelly’s acts - Matt Okine and Romesh Ranganathan.

Ms Burns told The Scotsman: “We had a five-hour meeting to choose the final shortlist this year, which is the longest we’ve ever had. We’ve not actually had seven names on the shortlist since 1993. The only time we’ve had a longer panel meeting was in 1991, that golden year when Frank Skinner won and Jack Dee, Lily Savage and Eddie Izzard were nominated.

“It really was so close trying to get the final shortlist, it was like a photo-finish in a horse race. We usually choose five candidates and the shortlist really sets the standard for the year, but there is obviously going to be a taste difference among the panel.

“You have to remember we had more shows to see than ever before this year. In 1983 there were only about 40 eligible shows, while we had 581 this year. The quality is very good at the top end, but it’s hardly surprising with so many shows that it’s not so good at the bottom.

“People should really think about the leap between doing a club set of around 20 minutes and an hour-long show, which is really hard. Comedy is an art form, it takes a long time to get to your peak, and needs a lot of skill.

“We only have one woman on each list, which we think is about right when you think that about 25 per cent of the shows we see women in them. Of course we would like to see more and one day the shortlists may be dominated by women just to make up for years of male domination, but there are far more women doing stand-up than ever before. The debate over whether women are funny is dead.

“I think it’s unsurprising that the seven nominations have come from those two venues as they specialise in carefully-curated comedy programmes. The Stand have a long-term programme, comedians are very loyal to them and they have a great venue.”

But Stand Comedy Club founder Tommy Sheppard said: “We do not support comedy awards - we have not done so for a long time. We believe the festival would be much more fun without them. Bridget Christie and Mike Wozniak are excellent comedians, and they will remain so in spite of being nominated for the Edinburgh Comedy Award.

“Both are selling out and they have already been endorsed by the most important judges on the festival - the paying public.”

Ryan Taylor, head of comedy for the Pleasance said: “Once again there has been outstanding comedy at the Pleasance this year. We are incredibly proud to be presenting a programme full of respected acts as well as new talent which has been acknowledged by the judges.

“Over the years the awards have acted as the catalyst in the careers of many today’s most prestigious comedians and we are delighted that we have been able to host a number of them at the Pleasance.”

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