Funniest on the Fringe: From bad poetry to a campaign against Virgin trains meet the contenders for this year's Edinburgh Comedy Awards

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The Independent Culture

The shortlist for this year's Edinburgh Comedy Awards, formerly the Perriers and the if.comedy awards, may not have any women on it but the panel have nevertheless made some interestingly leftfield choices. Those up for the "unofficial Oscars of comedy" include the lo-fi poet Tim Key, the whimsical Tom Wrigglesworth, new man John Bishop and sensitive, neurotic soul Jon Richardson.

The shortlist consists of six acts (the last time it was that high was in 2002) that span sketch, character comedy and stand up. The rumoured favourites have all made it save for the poor Pajama Men, the American comedy dream team who were lavished with five stars both this year and last but still couldn't find space in the hearts of the panel. Meanwhile, on the newcomer list, William Andrews was supposed to be a possible but his previous character work ruled him out of the running – a shame as his show was one of the funniest and most inventive this year.

My heart screams for Tom Wrigglesworth to win the coveted main prize but my head says that, given the large number of nominees this year (there were only four last year), he has an unpredictable fight on his hands with strong feelings for Tim Key and Idiots of Ants. As for the newcomer prize, I am torn between Pete Johansson and Jonny Sweet. Past experience has taught me that whether you are inside or outside the final meeting room you can end up walking away very disappointed and somewhat surprised.

Best Comedy Show

Tom Wrigglesworth's Open Return Letter To Richard Branson

Pleasance Courtyard

After a disappointing debut last year, this rake-thin, mop-topped Northerner has returned to the Fringe with a superb show that has beguiled all who have seen it. Wrigglesworth tells us the true, and widely reported, story of how he stepped in to help a pensioner who was made to pay the full fare on a Virgin train bound from Manchester to London after she had mistakenly boarded a service that didn't correspond to her ticket. Ultimately this action brought about a policy change from Virgin and the comedian is now campaigning for other train operators to follow suit. Wrigglesworth binds his narrative together with wry and gentle (but not too gentle) humour to produce an enthralling and ultimately very moving show.

Joke: "I am on the cusp of getting married. Well, I'm engaged to be harassed."

Idiots of Ants: This is War

Pleasance Courtyard

Third time lucky for the Idiots as they prove they are more savvy than dummy by getting nominated for their latest show. Very much from the "boy band" school of sketch comedy, this troupe look smart and are equally neat in the presentation of their sketches. All too aware of the pitfalls of sketch comedy, the quartet avoid the puerile and the facile to come up with some genuinely innovative ideas which have included a much-watched internet hit "Facebook in Reality". Their success in Edinburgh comes off the back of a recent stint at Montreal's prestigious Just for Laughs comedy festival – a prime slot at which is ironically part of the new Edinburgh Comedy Award prize.

Sketch example: The "Federation of Fatherhood Preparation" in which dads-to-be learn how to tell terrible jokes and be generally embarrassing.

Tim Key

The Slutcracker, Pleasance Courtyard

As with all members of the sketch troupe Cowards (they include Tom Basden, Lloyd Woolf and last year's Fringe First winner Stefan Golaszewski), Tim Key has found success with his solo Fringe projects. This lower than lo-fi show has the comedian, in the midst of his scattered belongings, reciting short poems, some as short as "Tanya googled herself – still nothing." The whimsical mood of the show is reminiscent of John Hegley or Spike Milligan and, like the latter, Key can conjure brilliance and dead ends by turn.

Joke: "A simile is a bit like a metaphor but half way through you say "like". Geordies are very good at them."

John Bishop: Elvis Has Left the Building

Pleasance Courtyard

In the last three years the Liverpudlian comic John Bishop has proved that he's not just a solid club comic, he can craft a good hour too. Always extremely personable, Bishop's show this year sees him loosely trying to plot his own life against that of Elvis, measuring achievements and dreams fulfilled. At times I found the show lacked punch and pace, but Bishop has a number of ploys and set pieces to keep you interested, not least some footage of when he played alongside some of his Liverpool FC heroes at Anfield.

Joke: "I could never tell my dad that I was a member of the RAC; it would be like telling him I've got a favourite musical."

Jon Richardson: This Guy at Night

Pleasance Courtyard

The Lancastrian comic Jon Richardson approaches comedy from an unashamedly nit-picking and miserablist perspective, the polar opposite of the "live-and -let-live" school. The idea of missing one's station or stop, for example, he finds utterly abhorrent. Despite the rants, he manages to remain amazingly personable throughout. I often find myself on his side, though our shared neurosis sometimes impedes the comedy for me. That said, this is the third solid show from Richardson since 2007, when he was nominated for the if.comedy newcomer prize. Another consistent performance without, I feel, being entirely groundbreaking.

Joke: [On spotting a cosy couple]: "There is no way I am dying alone and you've got each other."

Russell Kane: Human Dressage

Pleasance Courtyard

Following on from last year's nominated show, this working-class Essex boy turned Middlesex English graduate unloads more of his thoughts on class and the front we don in order to get on in society. By comparison with last year it's a confused effort and even more frenzied. He has to repeatedly shoe-horn in populist material as a platform to launch back into more theorising. It feels like Kane is emptying his head of his ideas and hang-ups for his benefit more than for ours.

Joke: "My dad just had to stare at a shelf to put it up."

Best newcomer

Jack Whitehall: Nearly Rebellious

Pleasance Courtyard

Already known from Big Brother's Big Mouth and The TNT Show, television exposure has not been a hurdle to nomination for the man dubbed as "the next Russell Brand". Whitehall's set sees him grapple with being a middle-class rebel without a cause and along the way pushes various buttons representing the concerns of bourgeois youth – such as how to be a convincing rude boy. While this debut is technically flawless, the content is nothing exceptional. Hopefully future television engagements won't get in the way of proving that his stand-up shtick can mature.

Joke: "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but fuck it I'm with BUPA."

Jonny Sweet: Mostly About Arthur

Pleasance Courtyard

Having bagged the role of David Cameron in a More 4 production, Sweet's stock is up, but hopefully he will still have time in the future to add to the legacy of this quirky debut show about his deceased – but fictional – brother, Arthur, whose job it was to write the blurbs on the back of novels. Built for comedy, the cartoon-faced Sweet is no stranger to the Fringe having appeared in a number of sketch shows with Joe Thomas and Simon Bird of The Inbetweeners fame. Definitely off-the-beaten track, Mostly About Arthur is a curious, often hilarious, and sometimes puzzling show.

Joke: "'Conclusion' – the trade union for book blurbists."

Kevin Bridges: An Hour to Sing for Your Soul

Pleasance Dome

After an appearance on BBC1's Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow, fellow Off the Kerb stablemate Bridges saw his entire run sell out. Hailing from Clydebank, Bridges began stand up when he was just 17 and the following year, 2005, reached the finals of the Fringe's So You Think You're Funny competition. While some have criticised the ambition of his material, his robust delivery can plough through a range of material and give it due comedic emphasis.

Joke: "Everyone had a teacher at school who was a bit dodgy, a bit of a pervert. In our case it was our maths teacher. I remember if you forgot your calculator he'd make you do the lesson in your underwear."

Pete Johansson: Naked Pictures of My Life


Canadian comic Johansson's career is simmering away nicely back in his native country and in the US, and now his Fringe debut has tapped him into a UK fanbase who have been charmed by his self-deprecating style. From within this Big Lebowski-esque hulk come some pithy one-liners and the right balance of honesty and embroidery. An assured and warm hour.

Joke: On Susan Boyle: "Make sure it really is her before you ask for an autograph."

Carl Donnelly: Relax Everyone It's Carl Donnelly


As jaunty as his corkscrew curls, cheeky chappy Carl Donnelly looks like he should belong in the Hair Bear Bunch or a Hendrix tribute band. He displays a laid-back approach as he sets about making everyday scenes absurd. Why exactly does it take three people to make a sandwich in Subway, he wonders while worrying about the conspiratorial way in which someone approaches him in a supermarket and suggests that pitta bread goes well with hummus. Already a winner of numerous other newcomer awards, his first solo show demonstrates his considerable charm.

Joke: "I've got terrible hand-eye co-ordination which is annoying. Luckily my foot-ear co-ordination is awesome."