Why the comedy awards matter
When I originally saw the news that the Edinburgh Comedy Awards was at risk of not running this year – my immediate reaction was this could be a positive. Like a natural forest fire which can clear dead organic material and increase soil fertility for the future, a year away from the awards could allow for more reflection on the future of the Fringe and how it adapts. And not just the fringe, but the comedy industry itself and how it 'discovers' talent. The fringe rebounded after a break due to Covid, so presumably the comedy industry could take this in its stride and come out better for it.
On twitter, many comics, including myself, expressed how the removal of awards could ease the stress and financial burden artists felt due to the awards, allowing for artists to simply create the work they want to make. It is true, the stress that artists feel regarding the awards has become increasingly unhealthy. As a comic and a director of comedy, I have seen first-hand the stress that comedians feel regarding the awards. The pressure to make a show relevant to whatever zeitgeist there is. They make the awards so important that you meet artists not excited by their new shows and instead stressed by the pressure to be nominated.
However, this is a stress that is created by the industry – NOT by the existence of the awards themselves. And the two need to be analysed independently from the other.
Let's focus on the comedy awards:
Whatever your opinions on awards, after being asked to talk about it on Newsnight last night, I had to assess what the pros and cons are – and this is why I think we need the Edinburgh Comedy Awards…
Incentives matter and so does competition. The Creative Sector is a crucial part of the UK economy and makes us stand out internationally. It is one of the main reasons that people visit the UK. Our art.
Economically speaking it is necessary that the comedy industry have awards, and not just small, localised awards, like Chortle for example, but BIG awards that are internationally recognised. Which is what the Edinburgh Comedy Award are. Awards that recognise what we do on an international scale are important. Especially in the UK where our comedy scene is so dynamic and an important part of our cultural identity.
It is important to have awards that show the importance of our art form, especially when other aspects of our creative sector don't. Comedy is critically underfunded in the UK; we do not get the same recognition as other live artforms – especially when you look at Arts Council Funding. When you have an award that focusses soley on your artform it is a good thing for everyone in the industry, not just those who get nominated. It tells people locally and internationally that this is a serious business. Theatre have them, the Film & Television industry do, Authors do, and Musicians have awards that celebrate their importance in our society and culture. So too should comedy. This is the only major internationally recognised award for live comedy, especially one that celebrates festival culture. That is something during a time where AI and online content dominates should be valued.
However, adapting and responding to the needs of the artists is vital.
Now let's focus on why artists don't mind getting rid of them...
In my opinion, the problems that shadow the awards are not actually to do with the awards themselves. There is no doubt, that Nica and those who have supported the awards care passionately and have their hearts in the right place, regardless of whether you agree with their judging. However, the awards should not be a way for people in the industry to kick back when it comes to discovering new talent. (And when I say new, I don’t just mean someone in their 20s , London based, with superb PR and beautiful photos, but someone who has perhaps gone for 10 years, lives north of London, is amazing but has not had their TV or Radio break. )
The issue is the ridiculous pressure that people who are NOT artists PUT on artists about the nomination - making artists feel that if they don’t get a nomination, their work is not validated and they have had a bad fringe. An act can receive decent reviews, decent crowds and become a better artist, but due to the lack of a nom can leave the festival feeling demoralized. This anxiety is often due to the pressure that management, PR and agents can put on artists about the awards.
I have seen this time and time again in the last few years with emerging artists being pushed to do 'debuts' before they are ready, spend money they don't have and feel like they have to put all their past traumas into their work in order to 'stand out'. All because they have been advised by someone who is NOT a performer.
In this regard, many TV Production houses, Advertisers, Commissioners, Casting directors, agents and reviewers etc need to show artists that the shortlist is not the only way they discover talent and show they are not reliant on the 'nomination' list. Sure, many are not lazy and do go and see as many shows as they can, but unfortunately many are still incredibly London focussed or indeed just wait post fringe to go through the ‘shortlist’. This can lead to artists feeling dispirited or feeling like a nomination is their only make or break opportunity. A Nom shouldn’t be the only incentive to attending the festival and it shouldn’t be the only way of judging who has had a successful festival. A nomination shouldn’t validate you as an artist.
I don’t want the Awards to disappear, and I don’t think it should be the Awards VERSUS the Artists either. Artists shouldn’t be made to feel bad that they like competition and they want to be recognised for their work. So as artists have become disillusioned with the current model of the Edinburgh fringe and its lack of sustainability financially, the Edinburgh Comedy Awards needs to show that it is listening to the artists.
As the Edinburgh Comedy Awards re-invents how it receives funding, perhaps this is also the time to re-invent how the awards reflects what is going on in the industry.
Simply – to have Best Show and Best Newcomer – is not an adequate or fair reflection of the industry. Especially as tik-tok, and multimedia have revolutionised the way people create work. If the awards are to stay, then, simply, you need more awards to show the diversity and vibrancy of the industry. From most creative Stand Up Show, Multimedia, Clown, Improv, Sketch, Musical Comedy etc. These are just some of the genres that we could assign and again show the artists that their style of work is being appreciated.
You aren’t going to get rid of competition, especially in Comedy which completely relies on competition, so you need to ensure that it ensures the artists feel listened to.
You can say that competitions are not fair – they are never going to be perfect, but we can at least make them better.