Born in 1981, The Edinburgh Comedy Awards, in their various guises, have enjoyed thirty glorious years of putting comedians, from The League of Gentlemen to Al Murray, on the cultural map. The awards have nurtured the art from its so-called “alternative comedy” status to the popular leisure pursuit it has become today, a time when comedian’s live work attracts attention as never before. It’s little wonder that the awards have earnt their own accolade – “the Oscars of comedy.”
The awards were born at a crucible moment for comedy, 1981, when The Comedy Store had spawned The Comic Strip and a scene was truly started in London, meanwhile, in the same year in Edinburgh, The Assembly Rooms opened to be in prime position to reflect this new movement at the Fringe Festival, soon to be joined by The Pleasance and The Gilded Balloon.
Between 1981 and 1984 the comedy awards were looked after by Lou Stein, founder of The Gate Theatre Notting Hill, London. In 1984 theatre impresario Nica Burns took over the awards, then sponsored by Perrier, making them bigger and bolder and instituting a list of nominees rather than just an outright winner.
Nica had, by this time, brought a number of theatre productions to the Edinburgh Fringe and had started to program both plays and late night comedy at the Finborough Arms theatre pub in London. Some of those who did open spot turns at the club included Jeremy Hardy, a future winner of The Perrier (as the award would be known for 25 years), Paul Merton and Rory Bremner and the Finborough became established as one of the new wave of comedy clubs.
In 1983 Nica became the artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse where she also put on comedy alongside cutting edge theatre. Thus she was in a prime position to take over the comedy awards and used the Donmar to house the ‘Pick of the Fringe’ season in the same way that she showcases the winners at her Nimax theatres.
When Nica took over the comedy awards there were a mere 40 shows eligible for them now there are over 350, such is the growth of the mirth industry. All shows are seen and everything from storytelling to stand up is in with a chance of crowning glory.
The awards and their reputation have grown along with the rising number of shows and a newcomer award was added in 1992, a panel prize award in 2006, and the prize itself has grown and now affords the winner a stint as part of the prestigious Just for Laughs comedy festival tour in Canada and the US.
The true testimony status of the awards is, of course, the calibre of the acts that have won them. The inaugural winners were Cambridge Footlights in 1981 whose line up included Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Emma Thompson, meanwhile other winners whose careers after have literally spoken for them include Sean Hughes, still the youngest ever winner at age 24, Frank Skinner, Steve Coogan, Dylan Moran, The League of Gentlemen, and Al Murray. Among the nominees are some equally stellar acts including The Mighty Boosh, Jimmy Carr, Omid Djalili, Peter Kay, Eddie Izzard, and Ross Noble.
Such a comprehensive roll of honour has caught the imagination of many a Fringe debutante and thousands flock to ‘festival city’ every year to aspire to the same giddy heights. Indeed, the mystique that surrounds the awards is well known to anyone who has ever visited the Edinburgh Fringe either as a performer or a punter. This mystique was, to some extent, immortalised in the film Festival in 2005. While the reality is slightly less raucous than the film portrayed, the judging panels are indeed as tenacious as they are portrayed when it comes to fighting for their preferred candidate and the rumour mill is definitely in full swing outside of the panel meetings. While the rumour mill often gets it wrong, in my experience, the opinion on the shortlists, which is purely subjective, of course, also runs wild and ensures earnest debates and bar-room buzz into the early hours.
For one month in every year, at least, everyone, from acts to journalists to audience members, is talking about comedy and they are most often doing so through the prism of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards.
'a launch pad for the careers of our greatest stand-ups' – Iain McDonald, BBC July 2009
There must have been something in the air in 1981. Alternative comedy burst forth at the Comic Strip, Bill Burdett-Coutts founded Assembly Rooms at the Fringe and the Edinburgh Comedy Awards were born in the guise of the Perrier Award.
And me? I was playing Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream on tour with the company from the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park. In 1982 - wanting to do my own work - I brought my own adaptation of HE Bates' Dulcina to the Celtic Lodge on the Royal Mile with my friend Colin Watkeys. Colin directed, designed the set and lights, did the press and I did everything else and had a whopping part. Everything, including the set, had to fit in to my ford Escort or it didn't come. We sank our life savings into it and learned how to produce.
We got a terrific review in The Scotsman, sold out the run, were offered some touring dates and a run at the Finborough Arms, a pub theatre in London.
While at the Finborough, we started doing late-night comedy on Fridays and Saturdays. We had fantastic performers doing open slots - Jeremy Hardy, Paul Merton, Rory Bremner - while I compered because we couldn’t afford to pay anyone.
Colin and I became fascinated by the idea of using comedians in a theatrical context, so on our return to Edinburgh in 1983, we had comic John Dowie playing Strindberg, alongside Mark Steel in A Little Cabaret for Bertolt Brecht. To this day, I have enormous regards for the skill, drive and sheer balls you have to have to be a comic - let alone writing ability, charisma, timing and the courage to mine your life and views for good material.
Those two summers at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe changed my life. I did work I really believed in, met a busload if interesting performers, made incredible connections, had enormous fun and got noticed. More than that - Edinburgh gave me my lucky break.
By the end of 1983, I had become artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse Theatre in Covent Garden. We did fantastic cutting-edge theatre work and I continued my commitment to stand-up with more late-night comedy. In 1984, I took over the Perrier Awards, persuading Perrier to put a lot more money into it, starting Perrier Pick of the fringe Season at the Donmar, bringing nine shows in three weeks to London. This is my 29th consecutive year at the Fringe, my 26th running The Edinburgh Comedy Awards. Comedy has grown, with clubs all over the country and comic talent and audiences to fill them. The awards too have grown to include awards for Best Newcomer and a Panel Prize. In 1984 there were only about 40 shows eligible for the award. In 2009 there are about 350 shows. And yes we will actually see them all.
The range of talent is astounding. Everything from physical comedy, story telling, character comedy and improv to pure stand-up. It is only by seeing so many different (and so many different types of) shows that the best begin to emerge.
So what is the panel looking for? How do they manage to come to a shortlist of six shows? Simple really. Great material, wonderful performances, spot on timing, an original point of view, a rapport with the audience and lots of laughs. And there is that indefinable something that a comic has, to bring all these things together and sustain it for a whole hour. Not easy. There’s also a special kind of buzz, one you hear from the comedy fans in the queues and in the bars by the comedians themselves: "Oh, X is in a major roll, he’s really cracked it this year". I don’t vote (thank goodness) but I do get to listen to the passionate panel debates.
"Listen to A's material!" "What about B's originality?" "Savour C's timing!" "Did you see the way D bounces off the audience?" You may not agree with the shortlist, in fact, you personally might not find some of the nominees funny. Sense of humour does differ from person to person after all. However, I bet if you went to see them all, you'd have to agree they are not just good, but great at what they do.
The former Perrier award was first presented to Cambridge Footlights in 1981. This line up included Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Tony Slattery and Emma Thompson. The Award has consistently catapulted comic geniuses into the nation's consciousness and TV screens. They have grown to become a coveted national institution with a list of winners and nominees that reads like a who's who of comedy, including Frank Skinner, Eddie Izzard, Steve Coogan, Lee Evans, Jenny Éclair, The League of Gentlemen, Peter Kay, Rich Hall, Laura Solon and many more.