I am going to win the Edinburgh Comedy Award

Yianni Agisilaou has a dream...

This year, in the fourth week of August, an event both usual and unusual will occur. A panel of judges will hand out the Fosters Comedy Award for the best comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe. That – of course – is the usual part. The unusual part is that they are going to award it to me. And the really unusual part is that when that happens, the whole comedy industry will be winners too.

You’re confused. If you’ll allow me to digress, I’ll clarify.

Like many of you reading this, I just submitted my tax return for 2010-11. The welcome news is that I was due a tax refund of about £500 (yay!) The bad news is that that refund can be solely, exclusively and tautologically pinned to my expenditures of approximately £10,000 at my longstanding, gold digging tax sink of a friend, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. As a lot of people are currently planning their expenditures for Edinburgh 2012 I think this piece is timely.

Oh boy did I buy the works in 2010. I paid some hibernating bears for timeshare access to a cave (as an added bonus, my audience could also hear Henning Wehn’s cave, doubling the value of their ticket). I sent a Scottish family I’d never met on a luxury holiday for a month. I even paid to have tickets to my own show printed, alleviating that horrible nagging feeling you get when you don’t exclusively shoulder every last bit of the financial burden of an enterprise.

Yes in 2010 I, like so many otherwise sensible people, paid three months wages to work one month for free. I squeezed an elephant through a cat flap for every last audience member, and boy do threadbare audiences of 12 make procuring gales of rolling laughter even easier than the Sunday stroll that it already is.

Last year, however, I did my show on the Free Fringe and it was an out-and-out delight. I averaged 70 people per show, 150 on weekends, we took £3,000 in the bucket over the month – more than the amount we both took in from and paid for the cave the year before. The only catch (there’s always a catch!)... no industry.

And that – of course – is why we comics become financial fools. Because the system is set up such that if we want anyone to come and see us: if we want the reviewers to come, if we want the BBC to come, if we want any of the movers or even the shakers (I know, even the shakers!), the producers, the agents, the important people (anyone but punters really) to come. If we want access to these hallowed gatekeepers, then we need to pay for the privilege.

And so we pay. I paid. And why? Because I, like so many of otherwise sensible people, have an ego, an enormous ego massaged by delusions of grandeur, that knows, that just knows that there’s something unique about us. A singular, as yet unrecognised genius. I saw the £10k less as profligate, foolhardy expenditure, more downpayment on my first BBC series. The whole setu reminds me of the sage words of Homer Simpson: ‘In a world gone mad, only a lunatic is truly insane.’

It is ridiculous. It’s more tragicomic than anything that anything even the most gifted of us have ever written. Ever. And we all see the effects, both financial and personal. Friends having nervous breakdowns. Acts gigging gratis for months afterwards. Fruitlessly trying to track down Three Weeks student reviewers by their initials to ask how they could possibly have missed the point.

I know we say this every year, but it really has to stop.

And so, in an act of supreme selflessness, I, Yianni, have resolved to win the Edinburgh Comedy Award this year while performing on the Free Fringe in order to help reshape our Edinburgh, from the current financial gangbang into a more financially palatable one in which we don’t need to bankrupt ourselves in order to be seen.

There is no need to thank me. You are all welcome.

I do understand that as hard as I might try, that this is patently unlikely. It would be unlikely even if the way they awarded the prize was to write the names of all shows on fish in a barrel, drew one out and then shot it.

It is unlikely. But it is possible. And if it’s not me that achieves it, I hope that someone else does. Because when it happens, it will benefit all of us.

The last two years have seen Imran Yusuf and Cariad Lloyd nominated for the Best Newcomer award both while performing free shows. These were fantastic achievements, both in their own right, and as a signal to less experienced comedians (who can least afford these massive outlays) that they don’t have to bankrupt themselves for their first show and still be in with a chance of recognition if their show is good enough.

But that’s only half the job. I would like to see a day where the Free Fringe is a legitimate choice for any comedian who still harbours aspirations of having a BBC producer come and see their work. I don’t feel that that is currently the case. Comedians, rightly or wrongly, still feel that they forfeit any chance at critical exposure by performing there.

I do realise that Robin Ince is an exception to this. However Robin is successful enough and has enough of a following to be able to make it clear that it his his choice to do the Free Fringe. He doesn’t need the career boost, he’s already got the Radio 4 series. I would like things to change, so that the comedians in the middle, the ‘90 per cent’ so to speak, no longer novices, yet not household names see the Free Fringe as a viable alternative for performing in which they don’t have to sacrifice the chance at recognition for financial austerity.

Maybe the Fringe isn’t mature enough to award its best show prize to something on the Free Fringe, but I certainly hope that one could at least get nominated. And when that happens (and it will happen at some point) I hope that it makes it that much easier for performers to opt out of the financial lunacy which is the current standard model without compromising their ability to have their work seen by people who can help exhibit good work to a much wider audience.

It would also have the pleasant side-effect of allowing comedians to spend more of their hard-earned money on such lavish luxuries as their families.

So that’s my wish. Am I a dreamer? Undoubtedly. But all change starts with a dream. Change only comes about by people providing a credible alternative to the status quo. And let’s face it, everyone would love to live in my dream world. Hands up any comic who likes paying so much for Edinburgh? Anyone? Didn’t think so. As long as we all see the current nightmarish ego‐fuelled financial hell hole as our only option for career progression, then we will continue to pour our hearts, souls and wallets into it to our own financial and emotional detriment.

Remember, a show isn’t any less funny because the comic didn’t pay for the venue.

I am and will continue to do my bit. Two hours a day working on my show until August, which will be on the Free Fringe. If the unlikely should happen and I’m standing on the podium on August twenty somethingth, then please remember, I did it for all of us.

Published: 27 Jan 2012

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