Edinburgh Festival Fringe: The greatest comedy event in the world

Veteran stand-up Stewart Lee explains the lure of the Fringe, 10 comics, young and old, tell us whether the scene is all smiles. And, for the punchline, a concise history of 'alternative comedy'
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The Independent Culture

Next year I'll turn 40, and for my generation of stand-up comedians there's a Year Zero attitude to 1979. Holy texts found in a skip out the back of the London listing magazine Time Out tell us how Alexei Sayle, Arnold Brown, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders destroyed the British comedy hegemony of Upper-Class Oxbridge Satire and Working-Class Bow Tie-Sporting Racism with a few explosive, post-punk punch-lines. Then, with the fragments of these smashed idols and their own hands, they built the pioneering stand-up clubs The Comedy Store and The Comic Strip. In so doing they founded the egalitarian Polytechnic of Laughs that is today's comedy establishment. Every religion needs a Genesis myth and this is stand-up comedy's...

The comedy community I joined in the late Eighties still retained traces of its birth in opposition to both the political and the entertainment establishments of its day. But what's happened to comedy on the front line, in comedy clubs and at the Edinburgh Fringe? Would the pioneers of yesteryear recognise the territory they carved out?

In the Eighties, London clubs such as Jongleurs and The Comedy Store hosted stand-up comedy, satirical songs, and even magic. Now a massive chain of Jongleurs and Comedy Stores nationwide sells simple man-and-a-mic stand-up to audiences of stag and hen nights – they're a branded franchise, like TGI Fridays or Pizza Hut, serving up comedians and chips in wicker baskets before the disco and late bar. For this reason, the better acts that play Jongleurs gigs have a set which bears little relation to their best work. The London Comedy Store declares itself the National Theatre of Comedy. But like Jongleurs, the Store is now a night out first and foremost, and a platform for adventurous work second. Their bookers ignore the risky, innovative acts that would justify their hyperbolic marketing in favour of guaranteed crowd-pleasers with often breathtaking people skills, squashed talents struggling to work good material into an environment where it's not necessarily wanted, and a few jaded veterans hanging in there for the not-enormous fees.

But the blandness of the big chains means that in every city that has a Franchised Laff Retail Outlet ™, at least one alternative venue seems to have thrived in opposition to it, such as XS Mallarkey in Manchester, or The Comedy Box in Bristol, which have almost no crossover with the franchises in terms of acts. The same sort of seismic shift that pitched The Comedy Store against Bernard Manning's Embassy Club 30 years ago now plays itself out again, but in a post-Blair Britain. What we need is a phrase, such as Janet Street-Porter's early Nineties classic: "Comedy is the new rock'*'roll", to nail the New Alternative Comedy and we'll have a full-scale movement, primed and ready, for fans and performers to align themselves to. The difference today is that the front line that the French and Saunders generation manned has moved North from Soho and Leicester Square and permanently repositioned itself in Edinburgh in August.

I first worked on the Edinburgh Fringe in 1987 (I'm approaching my 20th Fringe), so I feel qualified to state that, right now, Britain and Ireland have the greatest stand-up comedians on the planet and that the Edinburgh Fringe is, for one month, the world's comedy capital. And they come from all over to be in the Scottish capital in August. There are brilliant Antipodean acts, such as Greg Fleet who is visiting the Fringe this month. All Canadians, meanwhile, are hilarious. But while American stand-ups, such as Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, crystalised the art form, their successors have largely forgotten what it is for. Whenever a high-profile US act tours here the quality of their work is usually disappointing. Any US comics with a real love of the form, such as Paul Provenza, end up returning to the Fringe again and again, in awe of our superior skills; or, as Rich Hall does, they spend as much time as possible in the UK, where the diminished commercial opportunities are vastly outweighed by the value of participating in a comedy community that seems to care about what it's doing.

The schism in the live stand-up scene is most evident in Edinburgh. For the last few years at the Fringe, acts that would wither before the hen and stag parties of the franchised comedy club chains have received superb reviews and won awards, before returning to their usual life of obscurity, near-poverty and patronising dismissal by big club promoters. Conversely, reliable franchise-club headliners – who can clear £80,000 a year doing corporate gigs andJongleurs weekends – venture to the Fringe to sacrifice a month of massive pay-days in search of credibility, but usually wind up with a set of two-star reviews from the critics and massive chips on their shoulders. Why? Because in Edinburgh stand-up is actually reviewed by critics and consumed by audiences who believe it's more than just something you go to to get drunk with a big gang of mates (one of whom will end the night chained to a dead horse with his pubic hair shaved off).

So, instead of complaining that stand-up comedy in Edinburgh is destroying theatre at the Festival (it isn't), we should accept the fact that we are still world leaders in something, and that we got here without public subsidy or private investment, via endless clammy summers of little weirdos working away in tiny Scottish rooms at their own expense. At the Melbourne Comedy Festival and at Montreal's Just For Laughs, a lot of public and private money is spent enticing comedians from all over the world to perform. Just For Laughs struggles to feel like much more than the Comedy Industry Trade Fair that ignorant journalists and cynical pundits accuse the Edinburgh Fringe of being. In Montreal, American actors pretending to be stand-ups perform endless strings of seven-minute showcases in the hope of a lucrative TV deal to audiences comprised largely of American industry insiders. The Montreal festival's choices of foreign talent often reflect this conservatism, or are the result of strong-arming by powerful agents. Last year Just For Laughs took the bold initiative of scheduling a series of actual full-length shows by respected practitioners of the art of stand-up from all over the world, and local media and visiting LA media executives reeled with shock as they struggled to comprehend true stand-up comedy, beyond its degraded American form.

But nothing like the breadth, quality or quantity of Edinburgh Fringe comedy is achieved. At the world's biggest and best arts festival, the performers in the Edinburgh Fringe effectively promote themselves and cover their own inevitable losses. In Edinburgh there is still a sense that strange things are happening without anyone's permission. Unlike any other major festival in the world, there isn't a selection procedure for the Edinburgh Fringe – the Fringe director is an administrator, not a curator or a programmer. People just invite themselves by booking slots, buying a "line-ad" , or entry, in the programme, and getting overdrafts to pay for their shows (an afternoon slot in a middling venue might cost a stand-up £5,000 to £10,000 for the three-week duration).

Sure, TV commissioners and journalists and agents can come and spectate, but the Fringe would be happening with or without them. From the bars of their hotels, industry visitors and cultural commentators may imagine the Fringe is the stock exchange with jokes: "Sell white male stand-ups! Buy female Asian sketch groups!", "The improv market is about to crash! " But here on the trading floor it feels like Babel, and it's brilliant.' Not that you'd know this from the comedy broadcast on TV or radio. A BBC Radio 4 producer earlier this year put the problem in this way: he explained how his father once came to the Fringe to visit him, and was exposed to talents in tiny rooms above pubs far superior to anything he came across on TV or radio, and was confused as to why this was the case.

The producer explained that the procedures which led to talent being spotted or commissioned were many and complex, and that it was often difficult to translate what was great about them to other mediums. Then eventually he heard the sound of his own dissembling voice and blurted out, "You're right. It's ridiculous isn't it." Few first-time visitors to the Fringe return with their sense of cosmic fair-play intact. "These people are br illiant," they say, "why haven't I heard of any of them when Joe Pasquale is a household name?" Well, I haven't really worked in television or radio comedy for nearly a decade now, but here's an urchin's eye view through the letterbox of that big, fancy house.

We know that the BBC's own trailers are as believable as their phone-in competiton results. Imagine if the BBC was actually allowed to make programmes as fascinating, tasteful and diverse as its promotional " idents". (I'm still waiting for that show where the contemporary dancers perform in slow motion on top of a skyscraper.) The most dishonest BBC ident is the one that alludes to everyone's favourite sit-com of the last 10 years, The Office, as being a product of risk-taking enabled by "the unique way the BBC is funded", however, everyone in the business knows that the then controller of BBC2 hated it and tried to pull it after the first show. The Office was unique in tone, style and vision, and as such is not at all typical of television comedy commissioning procedures, which punish flair and reward malleable, cooperative conformity.

It's unfair to single out any particular programme as an example, but perhaps the worst example of recent years is the BBC3 sketch show Rush Hour. Where classic sketch shows such as Big Train or Monty Python's Flying Circus were defined by the distinctive writing and performing style of the teams, Rush Hour, and its contemporary ilk, are defined thematically, by subject. It is hard for TV executives to quantify style or a particular comic aesthetic. They are more comfortable talking about where a comedy might be set, or what kind of objects might feature in it. Rush Hour differed from many of the current crop, which have concentrated almost exclusively on the world of thirty-something relationships lately, to look instead at the hilarious world of transport. The result was a loveless, producer-led mechanism for squandering talents such as Marek Larwood and Adam Buxton, both of whom have appeared at The Fringe pursuing their own unique, individual ideas. This, like many current comedy shows, was clearly a programme that no one, in their hearts, really wanted to make.

Radio, by its simpler nature, could act quickly to capture blossoming talents in the moment with small mobile units. But Radio 4's laborious commissioning procedures mean its comedy remains almost exclusively the kind of middle-class sketch shows where people wander in and out of shops asking for things, establishing an absurd premise, and working it through to its logical and predictable conclusion in irritating student-review voices. Radio 4's most formally radical comedies remain the subversive quiz-show formats, such as Just a Minute and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, developed in the Sixties and Seventies by the now wizened veterans that still staff them. I am a middle-aged, middle-class man, who once wrote for a 1980s Oxbridge student review, and even I find Radio 4 comedy middle-aged, middle-class and studenty.

It takes courage to allow talents with a vision to follow that vision – and The Office happened despite the BBC rather than because of it – and the only place you will see the comedian's vision undiluted by television executives is on The Fringe, or, increasingly, on the internet.

There are few modern sights more depressing than a 39-year-old man who has just figured out iTunes sitting down to write a piece about how he feels the internet may change the entertainment industry. At the moment, YouTube is full of genius-nerds developing their own funny 50-second fragments, that can generate enormous feedback without an orchestrated campaign. But now TV comedy producers want some of that internet excitement. Again, because none of them are smart enough to analyse the tone of individual aesthetics of comedy, they are excited instead by the delivery mechanism, in this case the internet. It was the YouTube success of some short pieces the writer-performer Peter Serafinowicz shot himself and posted that gained him his forthcoming BBC series, rather than his years of quiet and diligent work on various, hugely worthwhile projects such as Look Around You and Spaced.

But maybe the heady frontier days of the internet are already over. The suits are wise to it. Earlier this year, I took a script to a television production company. They suggested developing the characters on the web as icons people could interact with, to generate a buzz. I just wanted money to write a script, words and jokes and stuff, on pieces of paper, like in the old days, so I went home and cried. But on the positive side, if a stand-up comedian could eliminate the desire for mass acclaim, the internet could be one of the tools that relieves him or her of the need to cooperate with broadcasters. I have 5,000 MySpace friends. If each of them came to a gig, or bought a cd, every year, I would make a great living for the rest of my life without needing my popularity to be brokered by the unreliable interface of television or radio. The age of the MySpace comedian cannot be far off. Then we will be able to make the transition from the pre-lapsarian comedy paradise of the Edinburgh Fringe and bypass the broadcaster to achieve direct access to mass audiences, without needing to get any dirt on our shoes. Oh, let it be soon.

In the meantime, the Fringe remains the best place to experience the real cutting edge of comedy, and its role in facilitating cultural exchange, introducing new talents and establishing critical criteria is more important than it has been for some time. This is the good stuff. And a quick statistical scan of show titles in a festival that hasn't been programmed by a governing intelligence, or inhibited by any across-the-board artistic policy, or dumbed-down by TV producers, will tell you what comics really want to talk about.

Last year the Blair government threatened free speech with their woolly, but only narrowly defeated, Incitement to Racial and Religious Hatred Act, and continued its "elephant in the room" approach to the causes of terrorism here at home by refusing to even discuss the possibility that British foreign policy in Iraq was in any way a factor. Twenty comedy shows in Edinburgh last year mentioned these subjects in their titles alone – but how many people caught, say, Abie Bowman's plucky Jesus – The Guantanamo Years?

Television can't respond to cultural shifts with the same speed or precision, and radio doesn't seem to want to. As for the internet, its full potential for the dissemination of quality comedy has yet to be realised. Meanwhile, the Fringe comedy show is written and up and running, without any interference. And because the Fringe attracts people, in all fields of performance, who, however delusionally, believe they are doing their thing for its own sake, it's the best barometer we have of where artists and audiences want to go next...

Stewart Lee's new show '41st Best Stand-Up Ever' is at the Udderbelly @ The Underbelly, Edinburgh, 0870 745 3083, to 26 August

Andrew Maxwell

Andrew Maxwell was the winner of Channel 4's reality TV show 'King of Comedy', and he was named the Comic's Comic in the 2005 Chortle Awards. He is a regular guest on Ireland's current affairs comedy talk show 'The Panel'

What's the best thing about British comedy?

It's just generally in rude health, isn't it? The weird thing is it just seems to get bigger every year. And if you think about the guys who started on the circuit, Eddie Izzard is poncing about in 'Ocean's Thirteen', Ricky Gervais is on 'The Simpsons', John Oliver is on 'The Daily Show' in New York, and he's the funniest thing on it.

What's the worst thing about British comedy?

Without naming names, there are some of the guys who were big in the Eighties who should really fuck off.

What effect is the internet having?

It can be great for your business. It used to be, when you were putting a show reel together, you'd have to bike VHS tapes all over the place. Nowadays, if they want to see you they just have to go to the laptop, stick your name in, and there's the clip.

Which comedian do you tip for stardom?

Steve Hughes, Glenn Wool, Matt Kirshen.

Tell us a joke

I'm not very good at remembering gags. I'll tell you what really made me laugh, though. A friend of mine got into a fight with this huge Finnish guy, who said, "You want me give you a spicy nose?"The literal translation of "Do you want to get punched in the head" in Finland is "Do you want a spicy nose?"

'Waxin'' is at the Pleasance, Edinburgh, to 27 August – Edinburgh Fringe box office, tel: 0131 226 0000

Phill Jupitus

Phill Jupitus has directed music videos for Billy Bragg and once performed stand-up under the name Porky the Poet. He was a team captain on BBC2's 'Never Mind the Buzzcocks' and presented a popular breakfast show on BBC6 Music radio

How has British comedy changed since you started out?

With my generation – Jack Dee, Kevin Day, Alan Davies, Bill Bailey – there wasn't the sense that we were doing it as a job. We were doing it because we didn't want a job. Now guys are being signed by agencies like Avalon and Off the Kerb when they've got only 12 gigs under their belts.

Are there downsides to this rapid expansion?

If you are good, you can burn really quickly. It's like Ricky Gervais with 'The Office' and 'Extras'. There are 12 episodes of the 'Office' and 12 'Extras'. Which is great, but why didn't he keep doing 'The Office'? Haven't they done 60 episodes of the American version? Why can't we do that?

Is British comedy more popular than ever?

That hideous cliché about comedy being the new rock'n'roll is coming true. I remember back when Eddie Izzard first did a show at the Docklands Arena, I thought no, this is too big. But then I saw Lee Evans doing arenas and he made it work. Comics have learned the grammar of stadium rock bands.

'Phill Jupitus Reads Dickens' is at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, to 27 August; Phill Jupitus and Andre Vincent: 'Waiting for Alice' at Assembly Rooms, to 26 August

Barry Cryer

Barry Cryer has penned jokes for Tommy Cooper, the Two Ronnies and Morecambe & Wise. He is a regular on Radio 4's 'I'm Sorry I haven't a Clue', and an Edinburgh mainstay since 'Two Old Farts in the Night', with Willie Rushton, in 1990

How has comedy changed since you started out?

It's more frenzied now, more commercialised. I feel for some of the young ones, because they might get a break before they're ready. But they do work harder than we did.

What are the current trends in UK comedy?

There is a strange backlash to 'alternative comedy' going on. 'Little Britain' is done with fat characters, black characters, gay characters. All with an ironic wink. It licenses us to do subjects that, in the Eighties, comics wouldn't have touched.

So is this a comedy golden age?

The golden age is usually the one you remember personally. But I don't remember comedy ever being such a big thing as it is now. So I hate people of my age who knock the young ones. I just say, you've got to get out more.

Barry Cryer's 'The Elephant in the Pub' is at the Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh, 11-18 August

Lucy Porter

The cheerily foul-mouthed Lucy Porter crops up on 'Parsons and Naylor's Pull-Out Sections' and the 'Personality Test' on BBC radio, as well as 'Have I Got News For You' and 'Never Mind the Buzzcocks' on TV. She has also acted in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' in the West End, and written scripts for 'Anthea Turner Perfect Housewife'

What's the best thing about British comedy?

There's so much variety. At any comedy club you get solid punchline gagsmiths, you get whimsy, you get surrealism, you get improvisation, you get satire.

Who were your biggest influences?

Woody Allen and Caroline Aherne.

What effect is the internet having?

If I do a gig and mention I'm on MySpace, I get people searching you out and wanting to be my friend. It's a bit weird, but quite nice at the same time.

Which comedian do you tip for stardom?

Isy Suttie. She's very good.

'Lucy Porter's Love-In' is at the Pleasance, to 27 August

Rich Hall

Rich Hall won the Perrier Award in 2000, as country music-singing jailbird Otis Lee Crenshaw. Hall has had three BBC TV series, including last year's 'Rich Hall's Cattle Drive', and in his native US has written for 'Saturday Night Live' and appeared on 'The Late Show with David Letterman'

How has comedy changed since you started out?

Ten or 15 years ago, comedians emerged with the same ethos that fuelled pop music. Ben Elton, Alexei Sayle, those guys embodied the sense that, hey, we can just go up there on stage. Now you see a lot more comedians branching away from the traditional stand in front of a mic and just rant. That's partly because political comedy seems a bit futile now.

So there's a wider variety of comedy these days?

I would say so. You're under a lot of pressure nowadays when you start out to do something different. No one's afraid to try to be intellectual now, to cultivate a very specific audience. People go on stage now with well worked-out routines rather than just a big personality.

Are the UK and US comedy scenes different?

Slickness still sells in America. You still have a lot of comedians who're motivated by big cash, who are grooming themselves to get on Letterman. But since 'Seinfeld', more and more are noticing that it's the thing that gets them to that stage that is the thing they've got to stand by.

Rich Hall is at the Assembly Rooms, to 27 August

Reginald D Hunter

Reginald D Hunter is from Albany, Georgia, but has been based in Britain for 10 years. A two-time Perrier nominee, he won the Writers Guild Award for Comedy last year for his show 'Pride and Prejudice and Niggas '

What's the best thing about British comedy?

Britain has the best English-speaking comedy circuit in the world. Because if you have an idea and the balls to do it, somebody will give you some stage time, unlike in New York.

What's the worst thing about British comedy?

The lack of confidence. There are lots of British performers who are brilliant but fear success. The number of people like Peter Kay who go to great pains to let people know that they still eat at the same chip shop is just ridiculous.

What effect is the internet having?

It has made people more discriminating. There's just so much shit that's allowed to go through because, "Oh well, she's a girl." or " Oh well, he's black" or "Oh well, he went to Oxford."

'Fuck You in the Age of Consequence' is at E4 Udderbelly's Pasture, Edinburgh, to 27 August

Sean Lock

Sean Lock won Best Live Comic at the British Comedy Awards in 2000. In the early 1990s, he supported Newman and Baddiel and became the first comic ever to perform at Wembley Arena. He is the star of his own BBC sitcom, '15 Storeys High', and a team captain on Channel 4's '8 Out of 10 Cats'

How has British comedy changed since you started out? When I started it was just a laugh. It was like, how can we get away with this? I worked on building sites and in all sorts of shit jobs, and for me it was an escape from the workplace. But then all these people started getting famous, and I thought did they all have a meeting I didn't get invited to? People are much more professional now. There isn't that amateurish charm.

Is British comedy more popular now?

Every year, more people go to stand-up, more people enjoy stand-up, because they don't go to church any more, they don't go to political meetings and they don't have union meetings. And I think people like being told stuff, by people they consider to have an interesting or imaginative take on things.

Is comedy taken more seriously these days?

People say it is, but it's not really. The broadsheets have a contemporary dance critic, but they seldom have comedy critics. We're seen as being slightly above lap-dancing in terms of the arts.

Sean Lock is at the Pleasance, to 12 August

Tameka Empson

Tameka Empson one-third of the trio 3 Non Blondes, whose hidden-camera sketch show was a BBC hit in 2003-4. She also starred as the mouthy housewife Mrs Aphrodite in the West End musical 'The Big Life '

What are the best things about British comedy?

At the moment, I'm liking Channel 4's 'Friday Night Project'. I'm very much an improvisation person. But you know what I really like? The old sitcoms. 'Are You Being Served?' – the music alone just gets me. And 'Only Fools and Horses'. Now I watch more American comedy than British.

How has UK comedy changed since you started out?

When I started there was that thing of: is it black comedy? Will only black people recognise it or find it funny? And with 3 Non Blondes, it was a bit of a risk, but we tried to go mainstream. The black comedians I know are versatile. I think the problem stems from the industry, and people's difficulty with thinking out of the box. Admittedly, some black comics do focus their material closer to home.

Are new technologies changing comedy?

Of course the internet is much more accessible now. But I still think the challenge is to get your comedy over to people who don't normally use the internet or watch all these different cable channels.

'Marcia Brown the Unsung Diva' is at Pleasance Dome, to 26 August

Steve Punt

Steve Punt and his partner Hugh Dennis were in 'The Mary Whitehouse Experience' together. They co-host 'The Now Show' on Radio 4 and 'It's Been a Bad Week' on Radio 2, and they co-write the Radio 4 sitcom 'The Party Line'

What's the worst thing about British comedy?

A surfeit of character-based sketch es on TV. Too often there's a funny voice and a catchphrase, but not much character.

What effect is the internet having?

There are those in TV who are a bit scared by the sheer proficiency of what people are doing on the internet. It's an odd situation where the underground pirate stuff is much more sophisticated than the stuff you're watching on television.

Who were your biggest influences?

It's the same as anybody my age: Ronnie Barker dressed as a vicar, Eric Idle doing "Nudge Nudge", 'Not the Nine O'Clock News', and then 'The Young Ones' when I was at university.

Which comedian do you tip for stardom?

Holly Walsh.

Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis's 'Stuff and Nonsense' is at the Pleasance, 10-13 August

Jo Brand

Former psychiatric nurse and self-described Sea Monster, Jo Brand has starred in 'Jo Brand through the Cakehole' and 'Jo Brand's Commercial Breakdown', among many other TV shows. She is now a novelist, as well as a regular guest on the panel show 'QI'

What's the best thing about British comedy?

Shows like 'The Thick of It'. They just seem to have moved on in a sophisticated sense from what went before. And there are fewer sitcoms with hideous laughter tracks on them.

What's the worst thing about British comedy?

I think there are quite a few up-and-coming comics who say, "We're not really racist because we're doing it ironically." But the problem for me is that the vast majority of people who are racist and sexist just watch it and go, "Hey, isn't that great? They're doing our jokes again!" A lot of teenagers just take 'Little Britain' at face value and act accordingly.

What effect is the internet having?

I do think it's the way to go. It's more democratic. There's such a network of Oxbridge old boys and old girls who control television that you have a huge advantage if you were in the Footlights with them. So if as a performer you can directly reach your audience via the internet, that's a good thing.

Tell us a joke

"If your lover has put on too much weight, get them to walk three miles in the morning and three miles at night, and by the end of the week the fat fucker will be 42 miles away."

Interviews by Nicholas Barber and Brian Logan

A hilariously brief history of alternative comedy

Twenty five years ago

Alternative to... anyone who tells jokes at working men's clubs while wearing a tuxedo, and then spends the morning playing golf.

What to do: Buy a can of hairspray. Go to the Comedy Store. Release a single. Try not to be racist, but everyone likes a joke about foreigners, and some sexism and homophobia never did any harm.

Who tickled our funny bone: Rowan Atkinson (above), Billy Connolly, Tracey Ullman, Jasper Carrott.

Shows that made us laugh: Not The Nine O'Clock News, Three Of A Kind.

Sample joke: I'm not saying my mother-in-law's fat, but, hey, who bothers to get married these days?

Ben Elton is... hoping to write sketches for The Two Ronnies, and performing stand-up at The Comedy Store.

Twenty years ago

Alternative to... every second of comedy that predates the 1980s, but Benny Hill and 'The Good Life' in particular.

What to do: Either be a left-wing firebrand, or create a character parodying a left-wing firebrand. Put on a sparkly suit and/or a pair of Doc Martens. Hang out with miners. Don't be racist, sexist or homophobic.

Who tickled our funny bone: Harry Enfield, Rik Mayall & Adrian Edmondson, French & Saunders, Alexei Sayle, Julian Clary

The shows that made us laugh: The Young Ones, Saturday Live, The Comic Strip Presents, Girls On Top

Sample joke: I'm not saying my mother-in-law's fat, because that would objectify her, but she goes around stealing schoolchildren's milk rations, so she probably is.

Ben Elton is... co-writing exciting sitcoms, and performing exciting stand-up.

Fifteen years ago

Alternative to... all the shouting and swearing that went on a few years ago. Alternative is the new mainstream, so it's about time you smartened up and reminded everyone how well-educated you are.

What to do: Get your own sketch show/sitcom/panel game/talk show/all of the above. Go to the Groucho Club. Write a novel.

Who tickled our funny bone: Clive Anderson, Vic Reeves (above), Rob Newman. Plus all those from five years ago.

Shows that made us laugh: A Bit Of Fry & Laurie, Have I Got News For You, Whose Line Is It Anyway, Mary Whitehouse Experience

Sample joke: I'm not saying my mother-in-law's fat, but I'm going to improvise a monologue, in the style of Dylan Thomas.

Ben Elton is... writing environmentalist novels and West End plays, and his own BBC stand-up series.

Ten years ago

Alternative to... all those earnest Old Labour clever-clogs from the Eighties.

What to do: Forget about a little bit of politics – everyone knows the Tories are on their way out. Do some observational gags about sharing a flat with a lager lout. Go to the pub. Hang out with Britpop bands. Be sexist, but only ironically.

Who tickled our funny bone: Frank Skinner, Jack Dee, Eddie Izzard.

The shows that made us laugh: The Fast Show, Men Behaving Badly, Fantasy Football League, Absolutely Fabulous, Shooting Stars

Sample joke: I'm not saying my mother-in-law's fat, but I know I am. That'll teach me to get really stoned and buy 15 Kit-Kats from the all-night garage.

Ben Elton is... writing a sitcom about the police, and cutting down on his performing – all those novels take time, you know.

Five years ago

Alternative to... all those laddish, football-supporting blokes from the Nineties.

What to do: Choose the most bizarre, horrifying or miserable subject, and then act it out so naturalistically that viewers might think they were watching a documentary if it weren't so depressing. Go to rehab. Publish a children's book. Don't be racist, sexist or homophobic – just virulently misanthropic.

Who tickled our funny bone: Chris Morris, Armando Iannucci, Simon Pegg.

Shows that made us laugh: The League Of Gentlemen, I'm Alan Partridge, The Royle Family, Big Train, The Office.

Sample joke: I'm not saying my mother-in-law's fat, but if she is it's because she's got a genetic disorder called Prader-Willi syndrome. It's actually very serious.

Ben Elton is... co-writing a musical with Queen and performing stand-u p for the Queen.

Now

Alternative to... all those gloomy weirdos who don't make it clear where the punchline's supposed to be.

What to do: Lighten up. Doing stuff in character is all very well, but remember you're a entertainer, so there's nothing wrong with silly voices and prosthetic make-up. Publish an autobiography. Be sexist, racist and homophobic, but don't worry, it's all ironic.

Who tickled our funny bone: Little Britain, Russell Brand, Ricky Gervais.

The shows that made us laugh: Little Britain, Mock The Week, Peep Show

Sample joke: I'm not saying my mother-in-law's fat, but look at me dressed up as a fat mother-in-law!

Ben Elton is... writing a sitcom about being a parent, and performing stand-up on ITV while sitting next to a model.

The future

Alternative to... Who can tell?

What to do: Film your own montage of stand-up, sketches and animation, and then post it on MySpace. Go to a club you've set up yourself. Hang out with your Facebook friends online. Publish a blog.

Who will tickle our funny bone: Mark Watson, Josie Long, Tim Key.

The shows that might make us laugh:TV? TV is so 2007! Switch onto YouTube and comedybox instead.

Sample joke: I'm not saying my mother-in-law's fat, but here she is saying she's fat herself, live via the webcam.

Ben Elton is... writing a sitcom about how tricky teenaged daughters are, and perfecting "kneel-down comedy" as he accepts a knighthood.

Nicholas Barber

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