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)

News
newsVideo targets undecided voters
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Life and Style
Cooked up: reducing dietary animal fat might not be as healthy as government advice has led millions of people to believe
healthA look at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
News
Evan Spiegel, the founder of Snapchat, dropped out of Stanford University just before graduation to develop his app
techAnd yes, it is quite a lot
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Retail Business Architect

Flexible for the right candidate: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: I have a fa...

Calypso Developer

£500 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: Calypso Developer Calypso, J2SE, XML, ...

IT Developer/Analyst

£35000 - £36000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A market leading financia...

Pricing Manager, Finance, Edinburgh, £250-350p/d

£250 - £350 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is cur...

Day In a Page

Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

From strung out to playing strings

Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

A big fat surprise about nutrition?

The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

On the road to nowhere

A Routemaster trip to remember
Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

Hotel India

Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
10 best pencil cases

Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

Pete Jenson: A Different League

Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
Britain’s superstar ballerina

Britain’s superstar ballerina

Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
Berlin's Furrie invasion

Berlin's Furrie invasion

2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis