across the pond

Edinburgh Chose Chaos With Its Best Comedy Show Award Winner

Photo: Euan Cherry/Getty Images

After 24 days of experimental Fleabag parodies, cabaret for passengers in cabs (get it?), questionable one-liners, exhausting culture-war debates, and nearly 3,500 shows in total, the 75th Edinburgh Festival Fringe came to a close on August 29. This year’s £10,000 prize for the festival’s best comedy show, sponsored by U.K. television channel Dave, was awarded to the simply titled Comedy Show, performed by 30-year-old Australian comedian Sam Campbell. Campbell joins the ranks of previous winners like Hannah Gadsby and Rose Matafeo, who won for their shows Nanette and Horndog in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

Campbell has been performing stand-up and working steadily on U.K. and Australian television since the early 2010s. He’s written and performed comedy sketches for the BBC and Channel 4, appeared on Australian panel shows, and once gave a TED Talk about his idea to eliminate the human head and transplant its organs onto the torso. Reviews of Campbell’s Edinburgh show were glowing with many of them citing a tongue-in-cheek one-liner he used to contextualize his comedy: “My mind is a prison full of crazy ideas. And I think there’s going to be a jailbreak!” His comedy is a mess of offbeat non sequiturs, multimedia experiments, and subversions of comedy norms. But sift through the chaos, and there’s a clear goal in place — to get away with a caper undetected — and a number of calculated strategies Campbell employs to accomplish this.

Consider this set Campbell performed at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2019. With only four minutes to get the audience to buy into a closer that is more of a bizarre participatory ritual than it is a joke, Campbell spends the entire time establishing then immediately breaking the audience’s expectations of where the performance might go. He switches personas on a dime from sheepish comic who makes silly puns to aggressive comic who gets riled up by mundane observations. He delivers a PowerPoint presentation that glitches repeatedly until his credit-card details “accidentally” appear onscreen. Then, without explanation, new-age instrumental music plays and he raises his arms, traces an imaginary circle in midair, and bows respectfully while an ape’s picture appears on the projector above him. Addressing confusion in the audience, he yells, “I’m sorry, have you people never been to a comedy show before in your lives? Everybody! Arms up!” In an instant, the entire audience mimics Campbell’s choreography, and they do so four more times, as if to suggest Campbell was right to admonish them for not knowing this was the expectation. (“I wanna see bigger circles, and I wanna see more respectful bows!”) By the time he walks offstage with an anticlimactic “I’ll see you later,” he’s hypnotized them into thinking this was a perfectly logical ending to a comedy set.

At an awards presentation held at the festival on August 27, Campbell gave an acceptance speech where he showcased these same sensibilities. “I deserve the award and I was expecting it,” he joked. “No. It was a big surprise. It’s insane.” He then informed the audience that he would use the award’s prize money to “be taller.”

Edinburgh Chose Chaos With Its Best Comedy Show Award Winner