Opinion: Brains Beats Banter Again

John Kearns

So John Kearns won the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award today. The first ever Best Newcomer to win the main prize in the following year and, perhaps more significantly, the first Free Fringe performer to win the Edinburgh Comedy Award. The Free Fringe has been having more of an impact every year since Imran Yusuf first picked up a Best Newcomer nomination, but that’s another story. I want to celebrate and discuss Kearns’ victory here.

At the start of today – and, to be honest, at the start of the Fringe – I predicted that Sara Pascoe would win the Foster’s Award. Maybe, in the end, for those loving a narrative, that would have been too much of a rerun of Bridget Christie’s win last year, not that the panel would have looked at it that way. I’ve heard that the vote was close, but I don’t know who it was close between.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. In retrospect it is easy to see why the judges opted for Kearns. The make-up of the panel – usually including at least two broadsheet critics, this year Alex Hardy from The Times and Alice Jones from The Independent* –  tends to have a bias towards the cerebral over the crowdpleasing. There is something about the people who want to be on a comedy panel that self-selects those who think hard about stand-up and tend to appreciate more than mere joke merchants. Hence the recent victories of the likes of Bridget Christie, Dr Brown and Tim Key and the “defeats” for John Bishop, Jason Manford and Peter Kay. 

I don’t know how Alex and Alice voted, but it can often come down to a head-to-head between artist and populist. Though the most populist this year was ex-teacher Romesh Ranganathan and I doubt if he was runner-up. In fact for a change the whole shortlist was pretty brained up rather than dumbed down, a line-up positively brimming over with -isms. Absurdism from Sam Simmons, feminism from Pascoe, radicalism from Liam Williams, conceptualism from Alex Horne.

Kearns clearly pleased the judges the most. I’m not for a moment suggesting that he set out to tick boxes, but for any comedians thinking about their 2015 show already here’s a few pointers. Kearns had a bit of meta-comedy about the nature of comedy, a bit of clowning, a bit of low-level audience participation and a bit of existentialist pondering. He was also very original. But most of all he was very, very funny. Crack all of those, particularly the last one, and surely you’ve got a chance of catching the panel’s attention.

*Unless the rules have changed since I chaired the panel, the chair, Mark Monahan from the Telegraph would only have a vote in the event of a tie, but he can take part in the discussions.

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