Every year the Edinburgh Comedy Awards has a team of scouts who quietly go out and ensure every eligible show gets seen. Here Mark Muldoon exclusively reveals what life is like on that team.
How do you fancy seeing 42 comedy shows in 6½ days? When I tell most people that's how I spend my holidays nearly every August, they recoil. "Sounds a bit intense, pal".
This year there was roughly 500 shows eligible for the Edinburgh Comedy Award. It's still now - in its 41st year - regarded as the biggest prize in live comedy. Earlier this month I was part of a team of scouts dashing around Edinburgh watching a large proportion of those shows. If they were worth getting excited about we'd insist that one of the award's ten judges sees it.
It's tiring but inarguably exciting work, requiring a substantial spike in caffeine consumption. A good proportion of the acts I saw will never have any idea I visited, but all eligible shows do get seen, unless they ask not to be considered.
You start to really lean into the mystery of the experience, preferring not to learn anything about a show (other than its title) before entering the room. You then sit down with absolutely no idea what particular vision of performance art you're going to experience in the next hour: 60 minutes of puns? A warped, dark exploration of mental health? Or maybe an hour of clinical advice on vaginal and pelvic floor health?
How did all this come about? Everybody that scouts for the awards - formerly called the Perrier - has been a judge of the prize at some point. In 2015 I spotted their competition in Time Out magazine to win a place on that year's panel. Nearly every fringe since, I've helped out as part of their team of scouts. If that sounds like an absolutely ideal way to spend your summer holidays, rather than "a bit intense, pal", keep an eye on social media for the competition to return next spring.
It means I got to see what feels like a pretty representative cross-section of shows at Edinburgh 2023. And the standard seemed pretty high - which may not be wholly good news: the extremely high cost of performing at the fringe might be reducing the number of people willing to stage shows here, unless they feel like they've really got a hit show on their hands. The continued lack of acts from minority ethnic backgrounds continues to be an embarrassing issue for the event, and you do wonder if the increased costs are contributing to the problem.
Below are my top ten favourite discoveries. There's maybe a perception amongst comedians that they're more likely to be reviewed if they hire expensive PR or are staged in certain venues - these recommendations come free of such potential biases. It's just a list of one person's favourites, from 42 shows allocated at random: some are unknowns, others may have a little industry success already behind them.
Second best discovery was Alice Cockayne: an exciting new clown talent who's got creativity to spare and keeps the joke rate high.
After them, I loved Tom Lawrinson, who appears to have transitioned very smoothly from viral content to live performance: he's got a lovely comic mind.
Self-described 'Asian transgender lesbian' Robin Tran has certainly had a colourful life so far: you're going to have a great time hearing about it.
Near the start of the month Frank Lavender was only getting around ten audience members into a vast 180-seat room, but successfully turning it to his self-deprecating advantage. He parodies old-fashioned club comedians, whilst also having a lot of fun indulging exactly that kind of comedy. I hope his fringe picked up a bit.
Salma Hindy and Danielle Deluty became friends on the NYC comedy scene. Both having grown up in strict religious households (Muslim and Orthodox Jewish respectively), their joint show celebrated their parallel journeys out of these backgrounds and into womanhood, love and sex, as well as the strong bond they've formed with each other.
Holly Spillar's hour maybe had a little padding in it, but she's still definitely a find. Her hour about vaginismus (vaginal tightness that prevents penetrative sex) showcased her pleasingly unhinged clowning persona.
Finally, it's hard to full-throatingly recommend Olivia Xing's show in an article reporting on stand-up comedy - half of it takes the form of a lecture largely centring on Chinese politics - but before all that more serious stuff she showcases her remarkable natural comic talent. She's the very definition of 'one to watch'.