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
A founder member of The Independent David Lister joined the paper in 1986 as Assistant Home Editor. He became the paper's arts correspondent in 1988 and is now Arts Editor and writes a column each Saturday. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Tuesday 23 August 1994
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.
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Weather bomb in pictures: Storms cuts power for tens of thousands – and snow is on the way
Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
Russell Brand was rendered speechless on Question Time by this man
Fury at Airbus after it hints the super-jumbo may be mothballed
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food
£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...
£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...
£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...
£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...