Edinburgh Festival: So who are the jokers in the pack?

Stand up and be counted: Mark Wareham checks out the talent at this year's comedy contests

For every winning comedian there are a dozen dogs, and never was that truer than in stand-up talent contests. But in the mid-Nineties, as the words "comedy" and "business" have started to appear on the same bill, even the talent contest has slickened up its act. Gone are the days when you could turn up for a heat, or even the final, and be more or less guaranteed to spend a cringe-filled hour of joy, contorted in your seat with embarrassment at the death throes of a succession of no-hope jokers.

Alas, at Monday's Daily Telegraph Open Mic Award, only three of the 10 finalists failed to impress, and only one of them came close to nudging the cringe factor. Indeed the winner, Glaswegian Frankie Boyle, and in particular Noel Fielding, an appealingly strange graduate with a routine about biscuit wars, look to have promising careers already in the bag.

The most established of the comedy competitions, Channel 4's So You Think You're Funny?, has been running for nine years and has produced an array of talent including Phil Kay, Rhona Cameron, Ed Byrne and this year's Perrier winner, Dylan Moran.

If Moran's triumph and the rise of Ed Byrne suggest that the Irish are coming, this was reconfirmed in Sunday's So You Think You're Funny? final when first, second and third places all went to Irish comics, including winner Tommy Tiernan (see right), who went to the same school as Moran in County Meath.

You may only have five minutes to make or break your career in a talent contest, but comedy pups are getting in on the act fast, with another competition, the BBC New Comedy Awards, launched this year. And the prize money isn't bad either: pounds 1,000 to pounds 1,500 for winning a new faces contest compares more than favourably with the pounds 3,000 on offer to the winner of comedy's top gong, the Perrier Award.

But although the comedy talent contest has turned pro, with organisers requesting videos to weed out the nutters, it was still refreshing to witness, in Monday's Open Mic final, a slavering bald bloke banging together two tins of food while screaming, "And Tony gives it to Mary". It was a deeply disturbing moment and reminded you exactly why talent contests should hang on to their grassroots.

So did they think they were funny? We asked two of the contenders of C4's contest

Competitions are tough. Everybody wants to win but nobody wants to make an asshole of themselves. We were all backstage last night trying to be casual. "Oh, you know, whatever, I just want to enjoy it." You can't help being sucked into the feeling that this is your big chance and if you don't do well, you'll spend the rest of your life in the backseat of a taxi cab saying, "I coulda had class, I coulda been a contender."

I was on last, which was hard, and I was also on after this guy who did brilliantly. He was cracking them up and I was backstage saying, "Oh shit." Once I got on, my hands were a bit shaky and one joke got absolutely nothing. It's like jumping out of an aeroplane, pulling the rip-cord on your parachute and realising that what you actually have on your back is a sack of potatoes. When a gag goes well, it's brilliant. You feel omnipotent, "Yes, yes, yes. I can do this and I think that girl over there fancies me."

I was more nervous going on stage to collect the cheque than I was doing the gig. I was trembling. I wanted to be cool. Just walk on, smile, wave, take a bow, collect the prize and stroll off. Instead I sprinted on stage, started jumping up and down shouting, "Yahoo." I got very drunk and my entire body was filled with helium and I was floating above the Gilded Balloon saying, "Thank you very much, please kiss me." This morning I feel like a wet teabag. But I'm going to have a glass of champagne for breakfast. Yes.

TOMMY TIERNAN, WINNER

Wanting to be a stand-up is an old-fashioned, reach-for-the-stars kind of ambition. It looks scary and glamorous, like being a gangster, or a test pilot.

And it isn't. It's playing to clubs that are smaller and less inhabited than your own living-room. It's finding out that death is not painful or cathartic, just humiliating. It's remaining a nobody for a very long time.

Then So You Think You're Funny? comes along, smoking a fat cigar, pulling bank rolls out of its pocket and beckoning you into its limousine. Who wouldn't think the fast track to stardom was about to open up just for them?

It isn't, of course. Even for the winner of SYTYF? there is a long hard slog ahead if the brief acclaim is to be converted into hard-core fame - the kind that gets you beer commercials. Last year's winner was Lee Mack. He's great. He may make it yet. But have you heard of him? Has your mother?

The real pull of the competition is confirmation that you have The Right Stuff. Comedians crave assurance. Laughter, applause, repeat bookings all help, of course. But a gag that kills one night can fail to make a scratch the next. What all comedians want is the certainty that they are good. Then they will be, of course - because more than anything else stand-up is a confidence trick.

Competitions like this one offer the illusion of certainty. We believe the judges can rise above the innate subjectivity of humour. The name of the competition says it all - the subtitle should be "Let us be the judge of that". And if they say you are, the next time an audience disagrees you can tell yourself: "They're wrong. I'm funny. I know."

So much for theory. What about the reality? Well, as someone who came second in their heat, I can tell you that that little nugget of self-confidence in my rib cage is hardening up quite nicely, thank-you. The finalists are probably already booking their venues for next year's One (Wo)Man Shows. And those who didn't get placed are no doubt drawing succour from the fact that they were among the 49 who made it to the heats, out of over 400 applicants.

One way or another, we all know we're a bit funnier than we were before. Or so we think...

SIMON EVANS, ALSO-RAN

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