The bad news is that, every year around this time, I fear nobody will do any publicity stunt that is award-worthy by the end of August. The good news is that every year so far, somebody has.
The Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award for best publicity stunt promoting an act or a show at the Edinburgh Fringe was created in 2008 specifically because comedian Gill Smith sent me an e-mail halfway through the Fringe nominating herself for the main Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality.
She said she was writing to me nominating herself because then she could then legitimately put on her flyers and posters MALCOLM HARDEE AWARD NOMINEE even though we had not nominated her.
She said she thought Malcolm would have approved.
I had to agree that he would have.
So I started the annual Cunning Stunt Award and Gill won it. We felt we had to give it to her before she awarded it to herself.
In 2009, the award-winner was fairly obvious even before the Fringe started.
The Perrier Awards had lost their Perrier sponsorship in 2006, then got sponsored by Intelligent Finance who, for one year, called them the unwieldily-named if.comeddies then, for two years, called them the if.comedy Awards and then Intelligent Finance removed their sponsorship possibly because of utter confusion over the name, possibly because of world financial meltdown or possibly because everyone still called them “the former Perrier Awards” anyway, so the publicity value to Intelligent Finance was zero. Personally, I had always called the new awards The Iffies.
So, in 2009, the awards were looking around for new sponsors.
London-based American comic Lewis Schaffer – always an original thinker – issued a press release to the media saying he was now sponsoring the awards for £99, they would be called “The Lewies” in his honour and his mother and agent would be on the judging panel but this would not mean he had any undue likelihood of winning. He issued this spoof press release under the name Nika Burns (the former Perrier Awards were/are run by Nica Burns).
A couple of publications actually fell for this stunt and printed the spoof as fact and, even more ridiculously, Nica Burns’ lawyers threatened to sue Lewis for defamation because his ‘Nika Burns’ press release had made slighting reference to the French and Nica did not dislike the French. Lewis also got ‘sacked’ by his own agent for the spoof.
Nica’s lawyers demanded an apology, which Lewis duly gave them in writing. It included the sentences:
“Lewis Schaffer wants to make it clear that Nica Burns had absolutely nothing to do with the press release sent on June 6th, 2009 from ‘Nika Burns’, it was entirely created by Lewis Schaffer. Nica Burns did not say she ‘gladly accepted his offer of £99 a year for sponsorship’ of what had previously been called the ‘Perrier Awards’. Anyone knowing Lewis Schaffer knows he couldn’t come up with that kind of cash… Lewis Schaffer’s only defence was that his ‘press release’ was created to publicise his Edinburgh Fringe show -‘Lewis Schaffer – Bigger and Blacker’ – running August 6 to 30 in the Ballroom of The Counting House, behind the Pleasance Dome.”
This apology, written under legal threat, was also issued as a press release and admirably managed to include (for a second time) his Fringe show’s name, dates, venue name and location. A neat trick, even if he did lose his agent.
So there was really no serious doubt about who would win the 2009 Cunning Stunt Award, which Lewis eventually did.
Last year, again, the award was almost in the bag before the Fringe began – again through the misdirected actions of the former Perrier Awards.
By now, those eternally-named “former Perrier Awards” had managed to get Fosters lager as a sponsor. The Perrier Awards had started in 1981, so 2010 was their 30th anniversary. Fosters had the bright idea of pretending they had been associated with the awards for somewhat longer than they had by mounting a campaign “Fosters Edinburgh Comedy Awards – Celebrating 30 years as the unofficial Oscars of Comedy”.
I thought this was a dodgy strategy because it seemed to risk them getting sued by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, who are usually very protective of their ownership of the name ‘Oscar’.
But they got away with it, though people still called the things “the former Perrier” Awards.
Part of their strategy last year, however, was to invite a public vote for a ‘Comedy God’ to be chosen from all 173 (mostly Perrier) nominees of the previous 30 (well 29, actually) years. Their idea, I presume, was to get some iconic populist name like Al Murray or Frank Skinner associated with their branded awards.
This incurred the always fearsomely impressive wrath of comedian Stewart Lee who sent what he called a “grumpy” e-mail to the organisers and who wrote about his objections in the Guardian and elsewhere. His valid point was that it was ludicrous to compare past nominees – some were entire shows, some were artists and most were performances never seen by the people voting. How could you compare or choose between Catherine Tate and The Arthur Dung Show? He suggested people might as well vote 1984 nominees, the excellent though little-seen and (he thought) disbanded Japanese performance art group Frank Chickens.
This people did in droves, presumably as a protest vote, and, as a result, the Frank Chickens art collective won the contest as ‘Comedy Gods’ – announced in a rather low-key way by the award organisers. Frank Chickens, it turned out, had not disbanded and, though they had not played the Fringe for years, they came up for a special performance with Stewart Lee.
As a result, Stewart Lee almost inevitably won the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award because, although totally unintentional, his e-mail to the former Perrier Award organisers and his later articles and interviews resulted in media publicity and a viral campaign which resulted in successful promotion for a Frank Chickens Fringe show which did not exist at the time but which, as a result of the publicity then did exist.
You can see Stewart talking to Malcolm Hardee Award judge Kate Copstick about his prestigious win here.
The fact that a publicity stunt is unintentional is no bar to winning a Cunning Stunt Award. There are no rules (Malcolm Hardee would turn in his urn if there were) and you don’t have to apply for the Cunning Stunt Award (though Gill Smith did).
Indeed, applying for the prize makes a win less likely.
If you have to make the Malcolm Hardee Award judges aware that you have done a publicity stunt then, by definition, the stunt has failed because they were not aware of the publicity.
Having said that, I now fear nobody will do any publicity stunt that is award-worthy by the end of August.
Another year. Another Fringe.