Tag Archives: competitions

The President in a comedy competition

President Obonjo

Regular readers will know I am not above getting other people to write my blog for me.

Last weekend, Benjamin Bello aka President Obonjo of Lafta Republic took part in the annual Leicester Square New Comedian of the Year competition.

I asked him about it.

This is what he told me.

President Obonjo

President Obonjo onstage

Comedy competitions are a great way to showcase your talent in front of industry people and to play to audiences that have never seen your act, but there are times you wonder after you have been going for years: At what point do you stop calling yourself a New Comedian? 

It has been a great year for me, reaching the finals of seven comedy competitions and winning two of them has helped raise my profile. One was based on audience voting only and the other was a combination of audience voting and the judges voting.

Reaching the finals of seven comedy competitions in one year is no mean feat… but there are comedy competitions and there  are comedy competitions.

I recall at the beginning of my comedy career I won the Luton Comedian of the Year competition and I thought I had conquered the world. I had no idea of other comedy competitions like the BBC New Comedy Awards.

I have entered the prestigious annual Leicester Square New Comedian of the Year twice in previous years going out in the heats and then in the quarter finals the following year. I had resigned myself to not entering again and decided instead to enter the Great Yorkshire New Comedian of the Year 2016. (Benjamin lives in Luton) I was runner up and, as a result, I automatically progressed to the semi-finals of the Leicester Square New Comedian of the Year.

A few weeks before the semi-finals I knew I had to invite friends to come and vote and support me. Invitations went out on Facebook and I tweeted on Twitter and I spoke to a few people individually and they said they would come – I was elated.

I continued gigging across the country to get match fit.

I needed to prepare a polished five minute set.

As I sat in a coffee shop, I reflected on my Edinburgh Fringe show last year.

It was a one hour show. I received five stars with some degree of success.

I thought: Why am I stressing about a comedy competition with a five minute set?

The Leicester Square gig was on a Sunday. I turned down all other gigs the weekend before, just to relax and reserve my energies.

On the day of the gig, I could not relax. I was not worried about my set but more worried that no-one would show up and support me and that would hurt me more than not getting through to the finals. This competition includes audience voting and it does help if your friends are in the audience voting for you.

I arrived at the venue.

The first semi-final had been concluded that evening and I knew one of the comedians who had gone through to the final. He had come third at the Great Yorkshire New Comedian of the Year 2016.

I thought: Yes! I am going to get through to the final!

I met the comedians I was going to be competing with. Some were already in the Zone.

We walked into the venue to choose where we wanted to be in the running order.

I chose the last spot – I am the President and I should close the show.

I thought: It’s going to work! 

The venue was filling up and no-one showed up to support me.

I thought: My election strategy won’t walk tonight. I am going to be performing to an audience of friends of other comedians.

This was going to be tough no matter how funny I was. It was going to be hard to get through.

I waited in the dressing room. The MC called my name and said this was the most difficult spot. I got on stage, did my thing and I was pleased with my performance. Very pleased.

The results were announced.

I was not placed in the final.

My initial reaction was one of utter disappointment. I had wanted this so much.

As I walked out of the building, an audience member came to me and whispered: You were very funny tonight but I could not vote for you.

Another comedian said: You smashed it; you should have got through.  

As I walked home, I thought: I gave it my best shot, but who knows? I might get a wild card.

That thought – I might get a wild card – kept ringing in my ears. I got home, slept it off, checked my email.

There was a gig offer from a comedy promoter but no wild cards.

A few days later, the finalists were announced.

I smiled and wondered who was going to win.

President Obonjo: dictator to Benjamin Bello

President Obonjo: yet more places to conquer

I needed to move on but I wondered if I would ever do another comedy competition. Three more are left I think: the BBC New Comedy Awards, the Old Comedian of the Year and the Silverbird Comedy Awards for those over 55.

I still have a few more years left for that last one. LOL.

I have no regrets about taking part in comedy competitions. They have been a real opportunity to showcase my talent in front of the industry and I have had great reviews from them.

President Obonjo of Lafta Republic will be taking a show to Brighton, Glasgow and the Edinburgh Fringe next year.

It will be titled The Rise of the Comedy Dictator.

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Comedy competitions, awards and reviews – it’s mostly a matter of luck

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I try not to review shows. That just leads to people unleashing verbal abuse on me in later months and years. So I really do not know why I agree to be a judge on award shows. I think I have been on two – it might have been three – this year.

That excludes the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards which I organise every year at the Edinburgh Fringe. All three of those awards – for Comic Originality, best Cunning Stunt and ‘the Act Most Likely to Make a Million Quid’ are so quirky that people do not seem to take too much offence at being nominated but not winning.

Last night, I was a judge at the Laughing Horse New Act of the Year Competition – twelve acts, eight judges. The winner got £1,000 and a booking in (I think it was) Hong Kong. Next year, rather than be a judge, I might enter as a Lewis Schaffer tribute act to try and get the money and the free trip. How hard can it be?

I mean being a Lewis Schaffer tribute act.

(From left) Nick Coppin presented the Award to winner Jenny Collier; with runners-up Olaf Falafel and Ed Caruana

Last night (from left) presenter Nick Coppin with winner Jenny Collier and runners-up Olaf Falafel and Ed Caruana

For the record, comic Jenny Collier won last night.

She was a very worthy winner. Well-constructed gags; excellent delivery; attractive stage persona; would appeal to a mainstream audience but, as I wrote on my non-PC sheet of paper “can do dirty sweetly”, so she will also be able to appeal to less mainstream audiences. And she looked, sounded and performed as television friendly.

She was one of two Welsh acts with English accents. Perhaps this is a new genre of comedy. She deserved to win but, to be honest, she was one of four acts I would have been equally pretty much content with winning. And, of the other eleven acts, all were arguably good in different ways. As the fifteen acts had been whittled down from over 800 entrants, there were never going to be any bad acts on the bill.

What I am trying to say is:

  1. it is almost a matter of luck who wins competitions although
  2. there must be some reason why eight judges settled on one act although
  3. it is still almost a matter of luck who wins competitions because
  4. judges are just people and different people have differing tastes

It is a bit like the star system in reviews.

If you get 3 stars, there is nothing at all wrong with your act. It is a good, entertaining act.

If you get 4 stars, you were exceptional on the night.

If you get 2 stars, there is a structural or presentation problem with your act.

If you get 1 star, you have an interesting act or show. At the Edinburgh Fringe, I once talked to a performer who had had a show which got a 5-star and a 1-star review FOR THE SAME PERFORMANCE. The two critics went on the same night and saw the same performance.

Coins of the realm - you could almost just as well throw one

Coins of the realm – you might almost just as well toss one

If you get more than one 1-star review, your show is either irredeemable buffalo dung or you are so wildly original you split critics and audiences which is probably a good thing.

The bad news is that true comic geniuses seldom make money. To be popular, you have to tread some sort of acceptable middle ground which means you are never shit but you also never hit the peaks of unexpected, original uniqueness. Abject failures can take solace from this.

Which brings us to 5-star shows.

Frankly, in my experience, whether you get 4 or 5 stars is a matter of luck because – certainly at the Edinburgh Fringe – critics do not want to give out too many 5-star reviews because it demeans their credibility. If 174 movies all got Best Film Oscar one year, you would not think much of the credibility of the Oscars.

And, in a festival like the Edinburgh Fringe (which runs three-and-a-half weeks) I think it is extremely difficult to get a 5-star review in the first week. It certainly is with any critic who is doing his or her job properly. Because, at the start, the critic has no benchmark to measure this year’s standards by until he or she has seen quite a few shows.

If he or she gives a 5-star review to a show they see on the first or second day, what happens if most of the other shows they subsequently see in other days and weeks are equally good or better? They can’t give 5-star reviews to everyone.

So the moral for today is…

Awards, prizes and star ratings mean something.

They can be used in publicity, which is useful. But, if you don’t get ‘em, it ain’t the end of the world and, in that horrible but true American phrase, today is the first day of the rest of your life.

Today is your starting point.

As in comedy clubs, so in life.

I think I may start to submit pseudo-meaningful sayings to calendar and diary manufacturers.

The Malcolm Hardee Awards, with ‘Million’ award in middle

Next year’s increasingly prestigious  Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards await collection in Edinburgh

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Edinburgh Fringe’s Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards to be re-branded as non-competitive music competition?

Stephen K Amos hosted last night’s show

Stephen K Amos hosted last night’s show in the Purple Cow

My abiding memory of last night is of my chum Scots comedian Janey Godley biting my shoulder halfway through a comedy act. “I am being Luis Suárez in the World Cup,” she told me.

This is how it started…

At 6.05pm last night, I was sitting quite happily on my sofa in Borehamwood when I got a phone call from Janey asking me if I could get down to the Underbelly’s upside-down Purple Cow on London’s South Bank by 8.00pm to be a judge in the final of the English Comedian of the Year competition.

Janey has often mentioned to audiences that she can get someone killed for the price of a bag of chips (she is a Glaswegian with contacts), so I thought it best to agree.

When I got down to the upside-down Purple Cow, I found out that the other judges included Chortle comedy website editor Steve Bennett. His review of the evening appears on the website.

Amiable Janey Godley has given up smoking.

Ever jolly Janey Godley has given up smoking

But I also found that Janey had given up smoking four days ago.

This was not good.

She tried to attack me with a fork.

During the judging, she bit me on the shoulder.

I feel I got off lightly.

Promoter Alan Anderson’s Scottish Comedian of The Year contest has been running for almost a decade in Scotland, but this was his first English one.

300 comedians applied. We saw the last, best ten. The carrot which attracted them was a £1,500 prize, a trip to perform at the Adelaide Comedy Festival and, of course, the title English Comedian of The Year 2014.

Janey Godley showed no side effects from giving up smoking. (Photograph by Steve Best)

Janey Godley: no change in her behaviour to me last night (Photograph by Steve Best)

Judging which of ten comedians is ‘best’, of course, is a thankless task. The five judges have now made enemies of nine comedians and, interestingly (or not), I said to Janey that I thought the comic most likely to ‘succeed’ was actually one not in the announced top three.

Opinion on contests varies, of course.

How can you say one comic is ‘better’ than another when they are performing different acts?

Well, often, it is not too difficult for the panel of the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards to choose our annual winners at the Edinburgh Fringe. But, then, we are in a very niche market. And we have no rules, except…

The Malcolm Hardee Awards, with ‘Million’ award in middle

3 Malcolm Hardee Awards await their winners in Edinburgh

To win the main Malcolm Hardee Award For Comic Originality, your act and/or the way your act is presented has to be seriously weird. If we have seen the format before, you are probably not going to win. Last year, Adrienne Truscott won and, really, the number of shows I have seen in which a performer, naked from the waist down, presents a serious treatise on rape is… well… it was certainly comic originality. A straight traditional stand-up is unlikely to win.

Our annual Cunning Stunt Award for best Fringe publicity stunt last year went to Barry Ferns aka Lionel Richie for printing and distributing around Edinburgh totally fake issues of the Fringe magazine sheets Broadway Baby and Three Weeks which publicised his own show and – to cap it all – he published fake news sheets at the exact time the former Perrier Awards were announced claiming he was a major winner. I saw people avidly reading them not realising they were fakes. An excellent Cunning Stunt.

Richard Rose (left) wit Gareth Ellis and his eye yesterday

Rose (left) shows where he punched Ellis’ face

In lieu of any worthy winner of the Malcolm Hardee Award for Act Most Likely To Make a Million Quid last year (and because the trophy had already been made) we gave a special ‘Pound of Flesh’ Award (in effect, a second Cunning Stunt Award but using the Million Quid trophy) to Ellis for getting repeatedly punched in the face by stage partner Rose and then claiming he had been mugged in the street by a punter irate at the content of their Jimmy Savile show… all for a few inches of extra publicity.

These were all worthy winners in fields with few competitors, although we did find some worthy also-rans for them.

In theory, you cannot compare two comedians’ acts. But, if the results were worthless, no-one would care. People like to win prizes and titles… and reviewers’ stars… and good reviews.

We started with one Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award in 2007. Now there are three. They are increasingly prestigious.

John Ward with main Malcolm Hardee Award

Malcolm Hardee Award designer John Ward waits

This year, I am thinking of adding a fourth award: the annual Malcolm Hardee Blatant Bullshit Award.

So far, the only competitor would seem to be The Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh (which also runs other clubs in Glasgow and Newcastle). The Stand Comedy Club ‘does not approve’ of competitions, although it advertises acts as “award winning” if they actually win any.

Recently, the Chortle comedy website reported this piece in their weekly trivia column:

He has been vehemently opposed to competitions in comedy, calling them a ‘malignant and destructive influence’ on the artform. Yet last night, The Stand Comedy Club owner Tommy Sheppard welcomed the Deuchars Beermat Fringe competition to his venue in Edinburgh, with heats in Glasgow and Newcastle to follow next week. And, unlike most competitions that keep the commercial side separate, this one insists that all acts must ‘weave’ the name of the sponsor into their set. But Sheppard told Chortle he saw no conflict as the Deuchars competition was across all performance genres: ‘We’re convinced it’s not a comedy competition,’ he said. ‘The majority of people taking part last year – and so far this year – are musicians.’ And the winner of last night’s heat? A comedian, Ross Leslie.

Tommy is an honourable man and the Deuchars competition is, of course, a music competition not a comedy competition. That is why, on their website, they say “whether you’re a professional, or simply someone who has a flair to share that will make us smile, laugh (or cry!), we want to hear about it.”

The winners of the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality have included Reggie Watts (2005), Doktor CocaColaMcDonalds (2007), Robert White (2010) and The Rubberbandits (2012) – all of them basically music acts. So I am thinking of re-naming the awards The Malcolm Hardee Fringe Music Competition, running the show in a venue calling itself a music club and insisting that we will ban all performers who do not weave the phrase “increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee” into their acts. This would make the Awards more politically correct and also, that way, the event could no longer be considered a comedy competition nor, indeed, a competition at all – although, quite reasonably, comedians could compete in it.

Of course, I will only do this if someone pays me money to do it.

I have standards.

I await offers.

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