9 things to know about the lastminute.com Edinburgh Comedy Awards

As the lastminute.com Edinburgh Comedy Awards announces its shortlist, Claire Smith shares nine key things she has learned as one of last year's judges.

Bridget Christie, second right, receives her best comedy show award from Steve Coogan, left, in 2013, along with John Kearns, best newcomer, and panel prize winner Adrienne Truscott. Picture: Phil Wilkinson/TSPL
Bridget Christie, second right, receives her best comedy show award from Steve Coogan, left, in 2013, along with John Kearns, best newcomer, and panel prize winner Adrienne Truscott. Picture: Phil Wilkinson/TSPL

1: It’s not a fix. Every year there are conspiracy theories about what the Edinburgh Comedy Awards panel members are looking for. You need to be a thin white male wearing tight trousers. It’s all about clowning this year. They need to give the award to a woman. The big PR people and the big producers already have the whole thing sewn up. Everyone in the industry already knows who is going to win.

It’s not true. It is simply about looking for the best, funniest and most exciting show of the year. Nobody knows in advance what that is going to be. That is what is so great about it.

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2: It’s fun but exhausting. Last year I saw 116 shows, 11 of them twice. Just because you are on the comedy awards panel doesn’t mean you will only see the creme de la creme. But it does mean you will see all the outstanding comedy shows, some of them more than once.

It gives you a real appreciation of the quality and the range of comedy in Edinburgh. Watching shows twice is fascinating – sometimes you lose something because you know where the laughs are coming, other times they make you laugh more second time around. You learn a lot.

3: It is incredibly thorough. The lastminute.com Edinburgh Comedy Awards has a team of incredibly hard working scouts who see all the eligible shows. This year there are 12 scouts, all ex-members of the panel. To be eligible, a show has to be listed in the comedy or cabaret section of the Fringe programme, to be the performer’s own work and to be at least 50 minutes long.

This year there are 700 eligible shows – which will all be seen by at least one of the scouts. Based on their recommendations, panel members will then be sent to see as many promising shows as possible.

At the first panel meeting every single ­eligible show is considered, one by one, and a secret long list is drawn up. After as many panel members as possible have seen each show, the shortlist is decided and announced.

4: Comedy is subjective. This may seem blindingly obvious but it is surprising to discover just how differently people can respond to the same show. Reviewing can be a solitary pursuit, in which avoiding other people’s opinions is often a good idea.

So it is astonishing and interesting to realise you can absolutely love something and another person can think it is the most ­terrible thing they have ever seen. I loved being locked in a room with a load of comedy enthusiasts having a heated debate about what works and what doesn’t.

It made me learn much more about my own peculiar taste in comedy and to understand other ­people have different views which are also valid. It also turns out I’m much more opinionated than I realised.

5: It is a huge feat of organisation. Comedy awards producer Emma Brunjes is probably the only person in town who has memorised the entire comedy section of the Fringe Programme.

By the end of the festival she will have sent requests for more than 2,000 tickets. A lawyer sits in on every panel meeting to make sure things are above board and the shortlisted and winning ­artists meet the criteria for the main award and for the newcomer prize. Shows are excluded from the main award if the performer regularly sells out theatres of more than 500 seats or has their own television show on a major channel.

6: Being on the panel has a weird 
mystique. Amazingly, artists and even industry PRs leave you alone when you are on the panel. Tickets appear easily and magically, with no effort, doors open without question but you are immune to lobbying.

You are told to keep panel discussions secret. You can say whatever you like about any artist you have seen but you are warned never to share the opinion of anyone else. And the final results are the result of a secret vote. Last year the panel found out Richard Gadd and Scott Gibson had won at the same time as the rest of the world. It’s a magic moment.

7: Winning changes lives. There are exceptions. Daniel Kitson (2002) has forged a career path which avoids ­television and advertising and mime artist Doctor Brown (2012) is ploughing his own mysterious furrow.

But if you look at the list of past winners and nominees you’ll see a roll call of fame – Steve Coogan (1992), Dylan Moran (1996), Bridget Christie (2013). The Comedy Awards have made Edinburgh the comedians’ New Year – a place where comics from around the world come to present their best and most brilliant work to the world and where success can await for those who want it.

8: The awards are good for Edinburgh.

There are always people who say art should never become a competition and that awards and prizes are a symptom of a sick capitalist system that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. (Hi, Stewart Lee!) And there are also people who criticise the awards for accepting commercial sponsorship.

The amount contributed this year and last by lastminute.com is not public. But one of the things sponsorship makes possible is to offer travel costs and accommodation to the scouts and the panel. This enables national newspaper critics and television and radio scouts to stay in Edinburgh for the whole festival – which means comics across the board have more chance to be seen.

9: Don’t mess with Nica Burns. Nica has been at the head of the awards for 36 years. She doesn’t have any say in the judging but she sees a lot and you’ll often see her standing outside a portable building in the rain. I met her in just these circumstances last year when an opinion piece by a disgruntled comic had just appeared in a national newspaper, slating the awards and what they stand for. “Did you see it?” I asked her.

“Oh, it happens every year,” she said. “If they don’t like it I’ll just stop.”