'I am looking forward to comedy’s future in the woke world' | Edinburgh Comedy Awards director Nica Burns addresses the industry

'I am looking forward to comedy’s future in the woke world'

Edinburgh Comedy Awards director Nica Burns addresses the industry

Edinburgh Comedy Awards director Nica Burns has today paid tribute to Sean Hughes, and likened the new generation of socially ‘woke’ comedians to the insurgent spirit of alternative comedy in the early 1980s. Here is the full text of her address to the comedy industry at a lunch celebrating the start of the 2018 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.


Welcome to the 38th Edinburgh Comedy Awards and our annual movers and shakers lunch. How lovely to see you all. A lot has happened since last year.

On October 16, the fearless, original, wonderful Sean Hughes died at just 51. When he won best Comedy Show in 1990 with A One Night Stand with Sean Hughes, he was just 24. The show was considered a groundbreaker at the time. Why? Because, instead of doing an extended stand-up gig, he created his own imaginary world in a bedsit weaving the jokes into a narrative. I remember how it felt, fresh, natural, funny, extraordinary.

 And Sean kept on being extraordinary. He did everything on his own terms. On the one hand, he was a huge commercial popular success, a long-serving team captain in Never Mind the Buzzcocks and a radio DJ: he loved pop and pop culture. On the other hand, he wrote poetry, short stories and novels, including the dark revenge thriller The Detainees and he was an actor. I remember a mournful, moving Touchstone in As You Like It with Sienna Miller and Helen McCrory in the West End, the TV series The Last Detective and… Coronation Street! When he died, tributes from fellow comics came flooding in. Here are two.

Steve Coogan said: ‘Sean paved the way for people like me. He was a year younger but he charmed the pants off everyone with a disarming, fresh approach to comedy. He bared his soul. All the women were in love with him and all the male comedians wanted to be him. He seemed natural and made more orthodox comedy seem tired. He won the Perrier and had the world at his feet.’ 

Al Murray said: ‘Sean Hughes won the summer I decided to try to be a comic. He was being daft, meta, ironic and Byronic, all at once. After a decade when stand-up had reinvented itself, he made stand-up look fun, glamorous and above all, a creative place where you could play.’

What Al Murray was referring to when he said that standup had reinvented itself was the birth of the alternative comedy movement at the start of the 1980s. A group of young comics made a conscious decision that it was unacceptable to tell jokes that were racist, homophobic and sexist – things which were standard TV and club fare at the time. 

They believed they could be funny without making these three sections of society the butt of their jokes. This became a movement and within a few years they had run the old comics off the screens and out of the clubs. What they thought wasn’t acceptable to laugh about, helped changed society’s attitudes and became the norm. The comedians set the agenda.

Today, it is the woke movement which is setting an ever-evolving agenda as it seeks to establish a clear marker for what is unacceptable today. Let’s remember how it snowballed the day before Sean died. 

On October 15, 2017, Alyssa Milano used the phrase ‘Me Too’ as a hashtag, inviting people to share their stories of sexual abuse and assault. Twenty-four hours, and half a million tweets later, that hashtag had been used on Facebook by 4.7 million people in 12 million posts worldwide. 45 per cent of Facebook users in the US had a friend who posted using the term.

So how does a comic looking to get a laugh and entertain, juggle all this? I have no answers, only questions. How do they write a joke where they have to get all the right words in exactly the right order when meaning and audience sensibilities are changing and evolving so quickly? When a movement is this big, how do you get clarity and balance between self-expression, freedom of speech, conscience and consciousness of others? 

Is it possible to be dangerous? If so, where is the line? Can you have strong opinions without being inadvertently offensive? What is it to be brave and exciting? And funny? And still woke? 

 Well, before last year’s #MeToo, two Edinburgh Comedy Award winners did the most dangerous thing they could do; they stood up and told the story of their rape. Yes, Richard Gadd and Hannah Gadsby. And before them in 2013 Adrienne Truscott took on the subject of rape in Asking For It, bravely wearing very little. Groundbreaking shows. They started a debate and showed what comedy could do and say. Hannah’s show is now on Netflix. Mainstream.

I think as we embrace the whole concept of the woke movement, we will look back at this decade as a transformative moment for comedy, like the 1980s. I am excited. Richard and Hannah have shown that challenges like this spur performers to even greater heights. 

For a funny hour of woke comedy look no further than John Robins and Sara Pascoe. Last year they both did shows on the break-up of their relationship without one single word of disrespect to each other. Good comics are intelligent, clever and talented. I am looking forward to comedy’s future in the woke world.

In 2012 Sean Hughes wrote: ‘This festival has never been scared of words and this is why it is more vital than ever" and that being a comic ‘is an amazing opportunity to speak truths’.

So, I think it’s very fitting that this year when we present the Best Comedy Show Award we will dedicate it in memory of Sean Hughes. Our first winner to pass and far too soon. So please raise your glasses to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, to comedy and to the much missed Sean Hughes.

Published: 5 Aug 2018

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