Alice Jones: Picking the best comedian is a serious problem

Simmons starts the show dressed as an astronaut and ends it smashing tacos on his bare chest
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The Independent Online

If you want to know what the locals are watching on the Fringe, ask your taxi driver. "I went to see that bloke who won Funniest Joke on the Fringe," said one. "And I didn't laugh once." But then what do awards really mean when it comes to comedy, the most subjective of all art forms? And can you really judge a 60-minute show on the strength of one 30-second gag? Nick Helm's winning password joke is typical of a glittering hour full of witty punchlines, but gives no indication of the shouting, dry ice and unexpected sweaty cuddles you'll have to sit through to hear them.

Still, prizes continue to drive the Fringe and shape the comedy landscape beyond it, particularly the Edinburgh Comedy Awards. This year, the real scrap is for Best Newcomer as more debutants than ever before were eligible for nomination. So far, the buzz has been loudest around the mellow American motor-mouth Hannibal Buress, Humphrey Ker's brilliantly written and acted wartime caper, and Holly Walsh, a former children's television presenter who recounts how she broke her arm leaping off Worthing pier at the Birdman competition.

As for the main award, the shortlist is split between the high-octane, in-yer-face physical comedy of Helm, Sam Simmons and Adam Riches and the more traditional stand-up of Josie Long, Andrew Maxwell and Chris Ramsey. Long and Maxwell have both chosen to tackle politics, crafting intelligent hours which touch on the riots without ever tipping over into the angry rant-com of the Eighties. A prize for either would be a nod to a more serious and engaged Fringe this year.

If, on the other hand, the panel favours off-the-wall, there's plenty of novelty to be found in Simmons' act (he starts the show dressed as an astronaut and ends it smashing tacos on his bare chest), while Helm could steal the double with his relentless rock-star posturing.

My money, though, is on Riches who, with a bizarre set of characters, a Swingball and a smoke machine has turned audience participation into a fine art.