Why no comedy contest is ever fair

by Dean Burnett

There is an ever increasing number of comedy contests across the UK. I, like many other aspiring acts, went through a phase of entering as many new-act contests as I could. Nowadays, I have no interest in them. Admittedly, had I ever won one, I may feel differently. But if a true comedy contest is simply one where the best comedian wins, can any honestly claim to be such a thing? And how do you measure ‘best comedian’ anyway.

There are many variations on the comedy contest formula. The most basic, and perhaps most honest, are gong shows. Several new acts all have a chance to keep an audience entertained, whoever manages it for the longest time wins. Not so much about ‘the best comedian’ but ‘the act which is best at performing in the current situation’.

Many gong-shows are notoriously rowdy, so is the audience ever completely impartial? Would a young posh female act be given the same amount of tolerance as a burly working class guy talking about wanking if the audience was primarily drunken blokes, even if she had better material? But gong shows, at least, seldom claim to be more than what they are, and many have at least two minutes gratis for the performers to get started. Many acts need longer to hit their stride, but then they shouldn’t chose to enter a gong show.

Many contests are more local, regional affairs. These don’t really claim to be prestigious or worthwhile career advancements, and most pay only Lip Service to the seemingly arbitrary rules. A cynic may see them as a way of getting acts to perform for nothing, but most seem good natured and well meant. These contests are likely to have a strong regional bias, as they are set up, managed and usually judged by local acts/promoters. A fellow new act and I once drove five hours to attend a contest in the North of England. The first act completely screwed up his set, probably because he was hammered. He still won though, because, as the judge said, ‘he’s usually really good’. Well, that’s OK then, as I’m usually terrible. Not sure how he knew that though.

Many of the contests rely on audience voting. This is sometimes not a case of ‘who’s the funniest?’ but ‘who brought the most friends?’ Sometimes a judge will decide a winner based on who gets the biggest audience response. Again, who brought the most supportive friends?

Judges seem like a good idea, but how judges are selected is tremendously variable. The person who runs the gig? The contest organiser? The venue manager? A local celebrity? A recognised comedy act? A well informed comedy industry person would seem to be preferable, but this can have its own pitfalls. Is it fair to judge a newcomer by accepted industry standards? Some say yes, some say no.

Some contests are very high profile, in a media sense. In this age of demographics, this could introduce more bias. An hilarious but controversial act could be the best comedian, but how will that look on screen? Will that reflect poorly on the channel/publication? Much better to go for a safe option, surely? This depends on how much influence the media bods have on the selection. The worst are televised contests (believe me, I know), where the contest has to fit a pre-determined narrative. That isn’t how comedy works. That isn’t how life works, but it has to look that way.

There are also a growing number of online contests, where people post their comedy videos and people vote for the winner. This is obviously skewed in favour of younger types with knowledge of computers and social networking, rather than decent comedians, it’s ‘who can bring most friends’ in a virtual sense.

Most people who enjoy stand-up would agree that any decent comedy contest has to be live. But the structure of the live contest has its own inherent flaws. Some slots are better than others; first on after the interval is good, first or last overall is bad, as you have to deal with a reluctant or pissed crowd respectively.

I’m not saying all these things I’ve described happen all the time, but they generally are difficult to rule out. In practical terms, a truly fair contest may be impossible. It would require some absolute quantifiable measure of comedy ability. The structure of a contest would need to change too, perhaps with each heat happening three times to a different audience of complete strangers, with the order or acts randomised each time, but without any act filling the same slot twice. Those who score the highest on average win.

A genuinely fair contest would require an incredible amount of hard work and technological advancement. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon, but it’s only comedy after all, don’t take it so seriously…

Published: 9 Jun 2009

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