Edinburgh Festival `99: No business like l'eau business

It's true there are a load of laughs when you are a judge for the Perrier Award, but that's one of the most tiring things about it.
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No one has tipped a glass of ale over me, stuck out their tongue or called me names. Not yet, anyway. There's always tomorrow night, though. Perrier party night. The party during which, at half past midnight, an envelope yields up the identity of "the most original, funny, up-and-coming cabaret or comedy act on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe".

The announcement will be made by last year's winner, Tommy Tiernan, before a clubful of comics and media people. At this hour of inebriation and fatigue, and when a cheque for pounds 5,000 has just changed hands, who could blame even the most gracious funnyman (and it still seems to be mainly men) from wanting to take a swipe - in word, if not in deed - at the Perrier judging panel, which has failed to recognise that his particular act was the one to champion?

Ambitious comedians take the Perrier seriously, as does anyone else whose livelihood is bound up in the UK's booming industry devoted to the manufacture of laughter. And although those not caught up in the festival melee tend to behave as though there is more to life than this annual caper, it's the fact that punters take it seriously that counts.

Jenny Eclair, the only female comedian to have scooped the award since it was set up in 1981, reported that audiences to her shows doubled as a result of her 1995 win, while the US stand-up Scott Capurro saw attendance rise fivefold after he bagged the Best Newcomer Award in 1994. It has come as no great surprise, then, to find that a place on the panel has gone hand-in-hand with a serious amount of hard work and psychological pressure.

Getting down to the short list that was announced on Wednesday - Terry Alderton, Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding, the League Against Tedium, Al Murray and Ross Noble - has involved frenetic activity. In order for the 165 eligible shows to be assessed, the administrator has had to devise fantastically elaborate lists and timetables for the 10 panel members - seven media professionals and three members of the public; a nice range, from old hands to fresh-faced fans - and co-ordinate some 600 separate visits.

Within an hour of arriving last week, I was dispatched to see a former winner of the Newcomer Award, Arj Barker, in a new show all about, ahem, lacking inspiration for a new show. Over the next four days, in the run- up to the first panel meeting in which a "long list" of about 10 shows emerges, I was packed off to see another 18 offerings, none of which, mercifully, proved as desperate.

There is ample potential for madness in the method of these early proceedings, as you plunge from one taxi to the next, from one airless sweat-box to another. The other panel members start to resemble unreachable contacts in some espionage thriller, forever glimpsed standing in other queues, intent on their own missions. The routines threaten to melt into each other. You lose count of the times that creaky observational material is launched with the words "Anyone here from...?". There's a shocking number of spurious announcements by airline pilots, and enough references to Edinburgh to establish a parallel city, distorted through caricature, in your mind's eye.

Perhaps it's because of the desensitising and desanitising quantity and velocity of all those different, often fakely chirpy, voices that judging on the Perrier is less daunting a task than it at first appears. The work that is more than a match for all the surrounding lunacy stands out relatively quickly. Within a few hours of the first meeting, the panel, gathered round a boardroom table the size of a Hebridean island, homes in with very little disagreement on a cluster of names - the rest having been methodically rejected, often with the briefest emphasis ("I lost the will to live after I saw this show"; "Charming people, but no"; "I've got one word for this - knob").

All five of the acts that made it to the final short list at the end of the second meeting, which involved detailed (and unprintable) discussion of each long-listed act, have a distinctive derangement about them. I argued and voted for all of them. I am lucky to have a list that reflects my tastes - I believe all these acts have an originality and wit that deserves to be more widely enjoyed: if they have failings, they are the failings of inexperience rather than comedic inadequacy. If you've any complaints, I'll see you outside.

Terry Alderton has the bendiness of Lee Evans and his endearing hyperactivity, allied to a much rougher, more urban outlook and imitative genius. Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding, who won last year's Newcomer Award as The Mighty Boosh, have returned with Arctic Boosh, which involves another hallucinogenic adventure plotline on which to hang their schoolboyish rapport and unique brand of throwaway surrealism.

The League Against Tedium is the answer to all those who despair of the drab familiarity of the stand-up format: Simon Munnery, who communicates as much through multi-media technology as he does piercing aphorisms, now relays images of himself on screen via a closely held sword. It doesn't represent real progress, but that's the whole idea. Wavy wizard-haired Ross Noble could be described as the burbling bastard child of Eddie Izzard - when he picks up an image from the audience, he doesn't just toy with it, he constructs a complete surreal playpen around it that never topples down (well, almost never).

Al Murray has now been nominated for the fourth year running as the brilliantly conceived, bullish incarnation of little England, the Pub Landlord. There was controversy at the beginning of the festival when he was required to withdraw and then reinstated because of a contested definition of the star status. His presence on the short list suggests that there will be controversy again, whatever the outcome of tomorrow's vote. My only tip is that when the dust has settled nothing, not even a hangover, should obscure the fact that this year, there have been a lot of extremely funny goings-on.

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