Edinburgh Comedy Awards director hails ‘sea change’ as more women comics emerge

The director of the biggest comedy award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe says there has been a major diversity breakthrough as it emerged more than a third of eligible comics are women for the first time in its 40-year history.

Nica Burns is director of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards.
Nica Burns is director of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards.

Nica Burns said there had been a “sea change” over the past decade thanks to the rise of female comics and several breakthrough Edinburgh Comedy Awards wins.

She insisted the competition had moved on from when it faced regular criticism for producing male-dominated shortlists, particularly in 2002 and 2009 when the judging panel did not nominate any women at all.

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Three women won the main Edinburgh Comedy Award prize over the past decade – Bridget Christie, Hannah Gadsby and Rose Matafeo. Three female comics have also been named best newcomer in that period – Catherine Cohen, Natalie Palamides and Sofie Hagen.

The main Edinburgh Comedy Award, which dates back to 1982, was only won by two solo female performers – Jenny Eclair in 1995 and Laura Solon in 2005 – before Christie’s triumph in 2013.

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Ms Burns said: “This is definitely the biggest year for female comics at the Fringe.

"We have marginally more than a third of the overall number for the first time, whereas it was previously in the 20s.

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“It has taken a long time for things to change and a long time for women to get the confidence to do comedy. If you look back at the 1980s and 1990s, a lot of our shortlists were all-male.

“It’s no longer an issue with having women on stage. I think that’s a fundamentally 21st-century change which has carried on building.

“I think there has been a real sea-change since 2013 when Bridget Christie won the main prize and Adrienne Truscott won the panel prize.

"There was so much written about those two shows that I think it inspired other women to have a go.”

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Burns believes the slightly smaller size of the Fringe this year – with 3,478 shows being staged across 273 venues compared to 3,841 and 323 respectively in 2019 – may work to the advantage of comics, despite the increased accommodation costs which many performers have faced. The number of shows eligible for the comedy awards has dropped from around 750 to 620.

Ms Burns said: “We need to have a bumper year at the Fringe this year because everyone is still hurting emotionally and financially after the last two years.

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“The reason comics keep coming back to Edinburgh is because there is a greater generosity from audiences and an ability to take risks that's very hard to do elsewhere.

"We’re already seeing a real breadth in the types and styles of comedy this year, which is quite exciting. We’re getting high scores coming back from our scouts who have been doing it for years.

“Quite a few people are trying their hand at live comedy who have become quite big Instagram or TikTok stars. It’s going to be really interesting if they can come in straight away and do a full hour. It generally takes time to build up and learn how to structure an hour-long show. People often come to the Fringe a year early.”

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