This is the story of a spontaneous comment that got out of hand, and grew, momentarily confusing an accommodating Japanese performance art group, and, ultimately, inconveniencing a corporate arts sponsor. But it’s also a story about how we value creativity. Is Art about books sold, tickets bought, and units shifted, pleasing the largest possible number of people to squeeze the maximum amount of bums on seats? Or is it rather more opaque than that? And above all, this is the story of what can happen when you drink three pints of Fosters and hit ‘reply all’.
I have been a professional comedian for twenty years now. I’ve attended the Edinburgh Fringe Festival every year but one since 1987. I love it. I live for it. It’s the best thing in my professional life, and the third best thing in my personal life. There’s no curators and no programmers. You pay to enter the brochure, hire a venue, from two seats up to two thousand, and you’re in for a month’s slog, irrespective of supposed artistic merit or commercial prospects. Then it’s up to you and your creditors. For some, the four weeks of the festival offer a glorious mess of artists of all disciplines, – theatre, dance, music, performance art and, yes, comedy, – coming together in a vast celebration that they effectively subsidise themselves because they believe it’s worth it. For others it’s nothing more than an ugly trade fair for stand-up comedians and micro-celebrities looking for a TV break.
The truth is, it’s both these things, and more. I’ve shared venues with both Denise Van Outen and with a Haitian voodoo dance troupe who thought, until week 2, that Edinburgh had a military curfew. This year, there were 2,500 different shows a day, and the average audience size was 4 people. It would take six and a half years to see all these shows. In its infinite variety and intent, this massive sample can accommodate any glib generalization you want to throw at it. There’ll always be enough examples to support your theory. And long may it remain so, unique, unknowable, all things to all comers, from stag and hen parties wanting to trade insults with a punchy comic, to bold aesthetes seeking out bald Polish physical theatre ensembles.
The worst thing about the Fringe, apart from the insurmountable debts incurred by the majority of performers and the promoters and agents that exploit these debts, enslaving the foolish turns for years to come, is the Comedy Awards, chosen by an increasingly powerful committee of mysterious experts, and supposedly ensuring the recipient career-making exposure. Established in 1981, these were formerly known as The Perrier Awards, but the sponsors quit in 2005, perhaps as a result of performer protests about World Health Organisation condemnation of the their parent company Nestle’s developing world practices. “There’s the other 48 weeks of the year for politics,” said the committee’s head, a successful West End promoter called Nica Burns, when challenged on the WHO’s statistics of 1.5 million child deaths annually as a result of Nestle’s infant milk formula.
This year the awards have hooked up with Foster’s, a beer brand currently seeking to align itself with laughs generally, via sponsorship of all Channel 4 comedy and the proposed generation of original on-line comedy content. For, as Heineken UK Brands director Mark Given said on the awards’ website in a typically Orwellian statement, “Comedy plays a singularly important role in the lives of Foster’s consumers and we look forward to facilitating and fostering their engagement with comedy in all its guises.”
Ever since their inception the exact criteria of eligibility for the awards has been elusive and changeable, yet the possibility of snagging the now £10 000 prize money is what encourages some of the 700 or so comedy shows in the fringe to rationalize their potential losses. In the eighties and early nineties your eligibility was apparently decided by Nica Burns on a whim. Since then ever-shifting rules, about the size of audience the act normally plays to, about their degree of television exposure, limit the field, the awards’ parameters always lagging behind public taste, cultural trends and advances in technology. This year’s panel prize winner, a young American called Bo Burnham, doesn’t have his own TV show, but he has 65 million hits to his You Tube videos on the internet, which is a kind of computerized TV young people watch these days. You get the idea.
For me, the worst thing about the awards is the way the inevitable media coverage reduces what I believe to be the greatest arts event in the world into some kind of competition, an event which can be won, and how this conspires to suggest that Nica Burns is some kind of spokesperson for the Fringe, which thrives precisely because it is not regulated. Playing up the awards’ importance in the wider scheme of things, this year Nica Burns issued a statement pointing out that sixteen of her previous 170 or so nominees are now stadium-filling success stories. But most aren’t.
Some, like Johnny Immaterial, gave up. Some, such as Daniel Kitson and Will Adamsdale, fled the uncomfortable exposure the awards gave them. Some, such as Emma Thompson, disassociated themselves from the awards during the Nestle years. And many, such as David O’Doherty or Phil Nichol or Arnold Brown, have produced much brilliant work since, untroubled by stadium sized acclaim or significant financial reward. It’s a numbers game, and a show of sixteen unqualified commercial successes is so likely statistically as to tell us nothing about the awards’ predictive abilities, but to reduce the Fringe, and Edinburgh in August, to the notion of a petridish to grow jokes for the stadium gigs of tomorrow seems stupid and soulless at best, and at worst deliberately cynical.
Worse still, Nica Burns’ approach encourages the idea that the Edinburgh Fringe is something artists pass through, on the way to being ‘discovered’, rather than something that can be enjoyed and participated in for its own sake, because it is superb. “I wouldn’t imagine Al Murray would need to come here any more”, said a visiting acquaintance this Summer, surprised at the pub landlord’s self-esteem seeking appearance in a small venue at lunchtime. Call me bitter if you must, but this revealed, unambiguously, the perception that those of us still playing the fringe were second rate losers wasting our time, a perception the idea of Art As Competition fostered by the Foster’s awards encourages.
Being a judge on the Edinburgh Comedy Awards committee must be increasingly difficult. Way back in the 1980s comedy was yet to be the New Rock And Roll (™Janet Street-Porter 1992), and nobody knew comedians might one day play stadiums, so it was easier for the judges to follow their hearts in handing out their unasked for gongs. Thirty years on, the idea that comedy in a massive space may constitute a night out, facilitated by exposure afforded to acts by prime-time career-making shows like Michael McIntyre’s Road Show, means that the critics on the Comedy Awards Committee are expected to act as all-seeing Cassandras, pointing people towards the next John Bishop, whose journey from Pleasance Courtyard Portakabin to football stadium size stardom, via some McIntyre TV gigs, took less than a year.
Undoubtedly, it was a slice of this high-profile exposure by association that sold Foster’s on the idea of sponsoring the then orphaned awards. That and that fact that “comedy plays a singularly important role in the lives of Foster’s consumers”, laughing all the way from the drip-tray to the urinal. But somebody, it would seem, wasn’t prepared to wait for this year’s winner to become a future star, and wanted to hitch the new sponsor’s brand to a big name immediately, and in the last week of July the public were invited to vote on-line for an all-time Comedy God, drawn from nearly three hundred individual past award nominees in nearly 200 shows, some explicitly named, some under the names of the shows they won with, the majority of whom there is no video evidence of for the conscientious voter who didn’t perhaps attend the last 30 Edinburgh Fringes to check, and none of whom presumably were asked if they minded their names being used to drive traffic to a Foster’s site.
The way public polls work, whichever former nominee was currently the best known comic in Britain with internet users, probably Michael MacIntyre or Russell Howard, would win the spurious poll, and the new sponsor would be happy to have their profile raised by association, at the expense of hundreds of other artists, none of whom agreed to be part of a Foster’s marketing exercise.
I got in just after midnight on Monday July 19th, and found someone had copied on to me by e-mail a badly punctuated press release announcing the Foster’s awards’ devious All-Time Comedy-God award plan. I had drunk three pints, ironically of Foster’s, having done a set in a central London club and the stayed to watch Greg Davies’ act. Incensed by the press release, which had been sent out to the great and the good in the entertainment world, I wrote an instant and furious critique, calling the organizers ‘morons’, ‘illiterates’ and ‘whores’, and suggesting that Frank Chickens, a Japanese performance art duo nominated for the Perrier in 1984, when the awards were a rather less commercial proposition, might arguably be the best act on the list, but would not get any votes because the public hadn’t heard of them.
To my mind, the Fringe is the work of many hands over many years, most of them unpaid, and it wasn’t for Foster’s to walk in at the eleventh hour and claim a stake in thirty years of comedy by a public poll so poorly thought out as to offer a predictably safe victor. Then I pressed ‘reply all’. If I’d only had two pints of Foster’s I wouldn’t have had the guts, and if I’d had four I wouldn’t have been sober enough to do it. But, the next morning when I awoke, I found that the three pint rant had sudden and unexpected consequences.
Firstly, the Foster’s Comedy Awards’ publicist Anna Arthur contacted my agents and said that because I had used the word ‘whore’ I was a misogynist and that they would make sure everyone knew what kind of a person I was. I was happy to issue an apology, in an email which I entitled Whore Clarification. “To clarify my use of the word ‘whore’ I wasn’t using it in a sexual or sexist sense, but in the commonly understood metaphorical sense of ‘corporate whore’. I think this is clear to anyone reading the piece. I didn’t have Anna and Nica specifically in mind, but was thinking of everyone involved with the awards over their 30-year history from top to bottom, including all the sponsors, judges, administrators, nominees, winners, and anyone who has ever attended the awards shows, irrespective of their gender.” The matter was then dropped.
Secondly, though I don’t have a Twitter account, as the only time I searched for myself on the Twitter site I was disturbed to see my f-list celebrity movements around the country essentially being updated by unpaid spies the length of breadth of the land, the Twitterverse, got hold of the Frank Chickens’ cause. Nudged by the followers of the comedians Richard Herring and Robin Ince, the internet swiftly voted Frank Chickens to the top of the All-Time Comedy God poll, ahead of even Michael McIntyre. It appeared that corporate money might be used to highlight Frank Chickens’ founder Kazuko Hoki’s three decade career of idiosyncratic multi-media live-art, rather than cementing the easy fit with an already wealthy and famous chat show friendly stand-up that Foster’s might have preferred, a much better representation of the true spirit of the fringe.
Unbeknownst to me, Frank Chickens had recently reformed and Kazuko Hoki professed herself bewildered by the whole campaign, as she did not consider herself a comedian or know who Michael McIntyre was, which was of course perfect. She even assumed that the bizarre looking musical genius Tim Minchin, then second in the poll, was actually a non-existent person, also made up by disgruntled voters. Fairly quickly, Foster’s gilded their voting website with various passwords and gateways, but Frank Chickens remained the people’s choice throughout August, a nagging story underscoring the main PR thrust of the awards themselves that refused to go away. I was offered dozens of opportunities to speak about the accidental campaign on local and national news shows, but declined all but the most insistent, instead allowing events to take their course.
On the 18th of August, as an extra show on top of the month run I was doing in the 150 seater room at the Stand, I had a one off show in the Festival Theatre and asked Frank Chickens, now an 18-piece mega-ensemble, if they would consider closing the show, after Franz Ferdinand had played a selection of hits. Frank Chickens accepted, graciously under the circumstances, and were pleasingly superb – surreal, joyous and entirely free of cynicism, the perfect antidote to the Foster’s awards. The whole thing couldn’t have been better if it had been planned. Which it wasn’t, despite the Foster’s awards people’s suggestions.
The All-Time Comedy God was supposed to be announced on Saturday August 28th, alongside the £10 000 winner of the annual award, which this year was Russell Kane, who is managed by Avalon, a company which recently got The One Show’s Christine Bleakley four million pounds for transferring from the BBC to ITV, resulting in questions in parliament.
Instead, the All Time Comedy God was announced late the following afternoon, after the Fringe was over and after Monday’s papers had been put to bed, to minimize coverage of Frank Chickens’ victory. The All Time Comedy God award was now renamed “The Foster’s Funny Four”, and the low-key press release featured gimmicky advertising-style portraits of the four poll-toppers – Michael McIntyre, Russell Howard, Tim Minchin and Kazuko –made from crushed Foster’s cans.
Under the circumstances, this took on an ugly resonance, like branding a disobedient slave to teach them a lesson. Foster’s, presumably still unable to comprehend the exact nature of the opposition to them, had made their winners’ actual human faces into beer adverts.
Foster’s position on Kazuko’s win was that it was ‘evidence of the British sense of humour’. But it wasn’t. It was 30,000 people who had had enough, just for once, of the bullshit that surrounds us every day, the bread and circuses, cheapening everything, turning everything sour. I haven’t been in touch with Kazuko since her face was made into a massive Foster’s advert, presumably allowable on the basis of something she signed about her likeness for the awards committee nearly three decades ago, and I hope she isn’t upset by this turn of events. But there’s something brilliant about it, her face, fixing you with the flinty and yet playful glare of a true artist, while McIntrye laughs light-ent style, and Russell Howard and Tim Minchin look indie-rock moody.
Without wishing to downplay the amount of effort thousands of heroic cyber-nerds all around the world put in, it was comparatively easy for the public to sabotage the stupid Foster’s poll. The kids had on their side a number of things that are an anathema to The Man, for it is he, in his world of inane corporate speak, his shit-trough of marketing disguised as philanthropy. In short, the kids had wit, intelligence, taste and honesty. And a communications network that bypasses the mediated information we are usually fed, the advertisers’ lies, the PR people’s spin, the news wank. But Frank Chickens’ victory was a happy and unplanned accident.
Once, our irritation and annoyance withered on the vine as we got up from the TV news to find a pen. Now we can go viral while our anger is still hot. Imagine what we could do if we put our minds to it. Something superb.