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

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)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
fashion
News
videoJapanese prepare for the afterlife by testing out coffins
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford attends Blade Runner at Target Presents AFI's Night at the Movies at ArcLight Cinemas on 24 April, 2013 in Hollywood, California
film... but Ridley Scott won't direct
Sport
Hughes is hit by a bouncer from Sean Abbott
cricketStephen Brenkley on batsman's tragic flaw that led to critical injury
Sport
Dejected England players applaud the fans following their team's 3-0 defeat
football

News
people

Actress isn't a fan of Ed Miliband

News
The Bounceway, designed by Architecture for Humanity
newsLondon to add 'The Bounceway' to commuting options
Life and Style
Stefan Gates with some mince flies
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Rooney Mara plays a white Tiger Lily in forthcoming film Pan
filmFirst look at Rooney Mara in Pan
Life and Style
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
tech
Life and Style
health

Do you qualify – and how do you get it?

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales People & Team Managers - UK Wide

£67200 - £96000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Self-employed Sales People and ...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - IT Outsourcing - £70,000 OTE

£30000 - £40000 per annum + £70,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Reading , Sou...

Recruitment Genius: Kitchen / Interiors Designer - Maternity Cover

£21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company with a fast ...

Recruitment Genius: Trade Sales Counter Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This Market Leading Kitchen and joinery suppli...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital