Clean and clever wins laughs on the Fringe: In the first of a series, David Lister starts a deadly serious search for the best joke at the Edinburgh Festival with a visit to the amateurs

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THE apocryphal story tells of the actor on his deathbed who was asked how it felt to die. 'It's hard,' he replied, 'but comedy's harder.'

He had clearly played an Edinburgh Festival. Here on the Fringe, home to nearly 100 comedy acts, I began a week-long search for The Joke. Forget the way they tell 'em, what are this bunch of introspective, angst-ridden comedians actually saying to make 'em laugh?

The place to start was not with the big names but with the unknown and unpaid, the students and non-professionals.

Every night at the top venue The Gilded Balloon, there is amateur hour, with the sphincter- tightening title 'So You Think You're Funny'. Backstage, the contestants' gangrenous faces showed that they suddenly did not. In fact, the standard was high.

The subject matter is the antithesis of Eighties alternative comedy; there was not a single political joke. Social observation, sex and self-deprecation remain paramount, but there are also a surprisingly high number of old- fashioned, structured gags.

Martin Trenaman, the 32-year- old, unemployed winner of the heat I watched, had a nice patter about how expensive driving lessons were, especially as he had passed his test. But he loved taking them because whenever the instructor told him he had done something wrong he could reply it did not matter.

And his final joke - clean, clever, apolitical and asexual - earned a large round of applause, yet it would not have found house room at Edinburgh a few years ago

He told how he was on the bus and an elderly woman turned round and said: 'I'm 79.' 'But I never asked her,' he said. Then an elderly man turned round and said 'I'm 83'. 'I never asked. Why do old people keep wanting to tell you their age? I call them old age mentioners.' He said later: 'That's my favourite gag. I'm into gags with punch-lines. They seem to have been missing for a while.'

And might remain so to judge from this year's crop of students. The Cambridge Footlights have a pedigree from Peter Cook through John Cleese to Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson. This year's bunch are offering packed houses at the Pleasance what they call minimalist comedy.

'We steer away from satire,' says cast member Dan Mather, 'because what's satirical at the beginning of a tour is stale at the end. So we steer away from politics. Everything is becoming more downbeat . . . The next big people are going to be minimalist. No pulling faces and wild gestures.'

In fact, what distinguishes the student joke from the rest is its self-consciously intellectual nature, often a comic extension of the Oxbridge word games.

A Judy Garland child in search of the Wizard of Oz meets Palindrome Man, terminally depressed at only being able to greet people with 'Madam I'm Adam' or 'God a dog'. A nervous don is lecturing on Shakespeare in prison: 'Macbeth is about murder. Well, not entirely about murder, actually. I mean, it comes into it slightly.'

Moving from the promising Footlights company to amateur night, one of the best laughs went to a young Irishman, Ed Byrne, who solemnly assured the audience: 'I consider myself a studenty type. I'm not actually at college, but I'm a complete tosser.' This non-student was fonder of conventional gags than his college counterparts.

But again and again the other amateurs selected by Channel 4, who were sponsoring the contest, returned to plays on words. 'This fellow went into a restaurant and booked a table. He was a referee . . . ' 'The lady at the fish and chip shop said, 'sorry about the wait'. I said, 'you shouldn't eat so many chips then'. ' One chap merely stuck his head through a newspaper and announced: 'Just looking through the paper.'

Tomorrow: In search of the ethnic joke.

Is there such as thing as a new joke? The Independent will give a magnum of champagne to the reader who nominates the funniest original joke of the festival.

Suggestions to Festival Joke, Arts Department, 40 City Road, London EC4 2DBY, or by fax to 071 956 1894.

(Photograph omitted)