The science of comedy: The best gags from this year's Fringe
What makes a good joke? For Brendon Burns, winner of last year's if.comedy award, it's all about algebra and hang time. (Eh?) If that doesn't raise a chuckle, here's 50 top gags from comedians on this year's Fringe
Friday 15 August 2008
Stand-up comedy is just some dude with a social disorder professing to be the world's only sane man. And that's what makes comedy interesting. It's a language with a degree of craziness. All the best comics have a twisted world view, and people either feel that they share it or that they don't and maybe they just find it amusing.
Compared with other art forms, comedians have to be interesting to keep people's attention. I was at the Glastonbury Festival this year and some guy in a band announced to the crowd: "Hey. I wasn't going to wear my wellies but then I thought I'd join all of you and wear my wellies. God bless the welly!" Everyone cheered like he was the Second Coming. There's no way we could ever get away with being that banal. You have to entertain people on so many levels.
My favourite jokes are when there's a hang time; where the crowd has to consider the target before realising that it's them and their pretensions. The first joke I remember, and the first opening line I ever saw, was by Flip Wilson. It had a massive influence on me.
Wilson was a black American comedian, pre-Pryor and pre-Cosby – the guy they all nodded to for tackling racism before people even called it racism. It was 1980, in Texas, and my folks had snuck me into a dinner-and-show comedy club. Everyone in the club was white, all wearing Stetson hats. Wilson was the only black guy; he was wearing a tux and he had a full band. For his opening line he walked up to his white bandleader and said: "Does your Daddy know you work for a nigger? It'd kill him!"
The entire room killed themselves. At first, they thought he was making fun of the band-leader, then they thought he was making fun of himself – and then they realised that the target was actually each and every one of them. He was the most powerful man in the room, running the show. I was nine years old and I still remember the hang time between him saying it and the laugh. It was so powerful.
My entire show last year was a hoodwink – there was a plant in the audience. I knew that, slowly but surely, I'd be able to create a mob mentality in there. And at the very end, I had the Flip Wilson moment I'd wanted since I was nine years old. You can do that kind of comedy in the UK – people are very comedy-literate.
My other favourite jokes are those that can work on three levels. I like jokes that people can take either at face value, or with a subtext, or which I can tell by pulling a silly face. In a lot of my routines, I'm just venting my spleen and it's funny because it's always at a terribly trivial target. That's the nature of the human psyche. We don't get upset about the world in general, we get irritated by people having loud Walkmans. We get upset about the trivial and silly about the serious.
It's not for nothing that we're sometimes called joke technicians. Comedy is algebra with personality. You only have to look at how many guys in my industry are maths geniuses. That said, my least favourite jokes are those that are just words by numbers, where there's a rhythm and people only laugh because they've already got the punchline. I like jokes where it's left up to the audience. I hate it when comedians complete the algebra: A + B = C. I prefer to say, "A + B ... Go on, you're smarter than that – what does it mean?"
Is there anything you can't write a joke about? Absolutely not. One of my favourites is by Vince Fluke. "So I was watching The Great Dictator with Charlie Chaplin. Turns out I was watching actual footage of Hitler. What the hell was I laughing at?"
I have the label of being offensive. But I'm at the Edinburgh Festival and my show has the tag-line, "Warning! This show may cause offence." If people come and get outraged, I tend to think, 'Don't be ridiculous.'"
I've become a better joke-writer as I've got older. For years after I started out, at 19, I was not a joke technician. I'm a testament to putting the work in. I used to be much more about performance over material before I realised that people are owed jokes. This is comedy, you're a comedian – so tell some jokes. That's the real art and it's the toughest bit of our job. Joke-writing is hard and it takes a long time to learn how to do it. I learnt a lot about it from Adam Bloom – he's a lot more meticulous than me. Ed Byrne is another great guy to learn from. He simply trims the fat. Everyone hails him as the best at cutting to the funny. There's nothing's unnecessary in his routine – no posturing, no pondering, no pretensions.
Have I learnt what doesn't work? No. My strength is that I can have a 20-minute routine appear to me in a flash of inspiration. My weakness is that what is funny to me is often not funny to other people. If it was up to me, I'd just be yelling a word that I was amused by that day over and over again. I'm basically a pretty good joke technician with a terrible sense of humour.
This year, I've written a show that's fun and I have fun doing it. Expectations are up because I won the if.comedy award last year, but they should be up. The show is a love letter to all the punters who have forked out money to buy a ticket to see me over the past 10 years. I just want to make that guy in the second row, with the folded arms, who is a bit grumpy and has had a bad week, laugh like a drain and make him forget about life for a while.
Brendon Burns is at the Assembly Rooms, 8.55pm, to 24 August, except 18 (0131-623 3030)
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