Everyone's a winner

Chortle editor Steve Bennett on the 'patronising' if.comedy award

Everyone’s a winner – at least according to the if.comedy panel. The £4,000 prize for encapsulating the spirit of the Fringe went to, err, all the comedians. After all, they argued, it’s comedians who make the Fringe. Well, durr.

But this result has the patronising tone of a school sports day, keen not to have winners and losers, so presenting everyone with a ‘thanks for taking part’ badge with a happy penguin on it.

The cash was behind the bar of the Spiegeltent on Monday night, to be shared by those comics who hadn’t already gone home (many venues having closed on Sunday) or were simply in no mood to party after three-and-half long weeks. Around 200 comedians attended the two-hour session, under half the number taking part in the festival.

The awards panel’s heart may be in the right place, but their solution smacks of an disappointing cop-out. Was there really no one who encapsulated the spirit of the Fringe? It’s hard to define exactly what that spirit is, but I’m sure it’s not letting a banking giant swoop in and buy you a couple of drinks, then reap the publicity benefits of its largesse. Some comedians will have lost around £7,000 bringing their shows to Edinburgh; yet their share of the prize, should they have taken it, would be less than £10.

It seems obvious that the panel couldn’t think of a worthy recipient, which shows a lack of imagination. The Panel Prize was only set up three years ago, an instantly rewarded Mark Watson for his innovative 24-hour-plus shows. The second went to Fringe stalwart Arthur Smith for his art exhibition. Have they really run out of ideas already?

Truth is, not every comedian does encapsulate the spirit of the Fringe. Does a ruthlessly ambitious corporate-style comic playing to hundreds and people and making thousands of pounds reflect the spirit in the same way as cult hit Doktor CocaColaMcDonalds, playing a cheap keyboard in his underwear and Kiss-style make-up. I’m no particular fan of the good doktor, but he would surely have made a better recipient than no one – or everyone,

Or how about Paul Foot, for performing 24 gigs in a day, or the people who have come back year on year, such as Simon Munnery, Richard Herring, Stewart Lee, John Hegley or Arnold Brown? What about other weird and wonderful acts from Edward Aczel to Kirsten Schaal. What about Peter Buckley Hill for establishing the Free Fringe; or Stand owner Tommy Sheppard for his strong views on how things should be done – which, admittedly, includes being a staunch critic of the if.comedies and the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, which he sees as divisive.

Some of these would be controversial winners, some would probably be wrong, but at least it would have been a decision. This prize isn’t subject to the same rigours as the main award, and is purely on the whim of the panel, which perhaps means not enough thought is given to it – especially if the deliberations for the top prize prove time-consuming.

Even no Panel Prize winner might have been a better result than everyone, transforming the award into a discretionary one to be awarded only when someone really captured the imagination. That’s if the Panel Prize isn’t dropped after this fudged result.

This, frankly, is a blow to the credibility of the if.comedy awards that have struggled to have the impact they did when they were sponsored by Perrier. No result is ever going to please everybody, but producers usually do a good job in at least ensuring the awards have the respect of the hard-to-please comedy industry. That this prize is shared by everyone has, however, reduced it to a joke.

Almost as soon as the Panel Prize was announced at the weekend, every comic began plotting to put ‘if.comedy winner’ on their poster for 2009. It should be encouraged. After all, it’s a subversive, imaginative and funny way to make a point… and that really is the spirit of the Fringe.

Published: 27 Aug 2008

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