By Stephen Eisenhammer
EDINBURGH (Reuters) - A few months ago Max Olesker and Ivan Gonzalez, both 27, were sitting in a dank East London flat poring over lines and comedic pauses. Now they're in the running to win one of Britain's most prestigious comedy awards.
The comedy sketch duo known as Max and Ivan, whose tender narrative of a school reunion has packed in audiences all month and caught the attention of critics, have been shortlisted for the Foster's Comedy Award for best act at the Edinburgh Fringe, the world's largest arts festival.
The award brings with it 10,000 pounds ($15,600), but more than that it is a launch pad for stardom.
British actor Hugh Laurie (best known for U.S. TV medical series "House") won the award, then called the Perrier, with British actors Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson as the Cambridge Footlights back in 1981.
Since then "The Look of Love" actor Steve Coogan, and the sketch group behind the dark UK TV comedy "League of Gentlemen" have also won the prize.
The award has become an important marker both for emerging talent and for the state of alternative comedy in general. It cannot be won by comics who already have a TV series or can fill a 500-seat venue under their own name.
"(Winning) would change our prospects, of course it would," Olesker told Reuters in an interview in a dimly lit bar above their Edinburgh venue.
"The prize is a milestone, it's a wonderful thing."
The other six shortlisted acts were predominantly stand-up shows, but covering a wide spectrum.
Nick Helm with his high-energy and self-aggrandizing show, James Acaster whose sketch centres on wanting to marry Yoko Ono, and feminist comic Bridget Christie's rampage against men's magazines and misogynists.
Seann Walsh, Carl Donnelly, and Mike Wozniak round out the list. The winner is announced on Saturday.
Like most of the performers in Edinburgh Max and Ivan first came to the Fringe as students having met at university. It is an important training ground for young comics and actors, and often their first exposure to the professional industry of critics, agents, public relations and full-time comics.
It has also become an important place to make the lucrative move into TV.
"There's a lot of producers around, they come up for the last week and see a bunch of shows," Gonzalez said.
"We don't usually know they're in, but in the weeks after Edinburgh we'll suddenly be called for a series of meetings in London."
One producer sitting watching Bridget Christie's show told Reuters his visit to Edinburgh was the most productive week of his year.
Edinburgh is all about making it.
Nick Helm, whose career took off on the back of successful Edinburgh shows and has made the shortlist for the second time this year, opens his high-energy show with all the awards he missed out on.
"I've done 22 shows in 15 years," he bellows dressed in an Evel Knievel outfit, "I've been ignored by an industry that knows nothing... I lived off Cornish pasties, I couldn't pay my rent," as giant rude hand gestures involving middle fingers fly on the screen behind him.
Now with a solid reputation and a pipeline of work extending right through to next September, Helm says he looks back with fondness on the early days.
"It's really satisfying coming back to where I started when no one knew me," he told Reuters.
"I used to come and watch comedy at the Pleasance (one of the main venues) and 10 years later I'm doing comedy at the Pleasance."
For Helm Edinburgh is a grueling but rewarding training ground.
"When I first came up to do comedy I did about two years worth of gigs in a month... by the end of that month I was a better comedian."
Often this self-improvement is all comics come away with. The Fringe, with nearly 3,000 shows performed by 24,000 artists in 273 venues, has grown to such proportions that performances get lost in the noise.
As one sheepish group creep in late to James Acaster's show, the stand-up comic asks why they are late. They had come from another show which had overrun. Who did you see?, Acaster asks. "I can't remember the name," comes the response.
"And that ladies and gentleman sums up the Fringe," says Acaster. "Spend a year spitting your guts out writing a show and people forget your name as soon as they walk out."
($1 = 0.6421 British pounds)
(Editing by Paul Casciato)