David Lister: One thing we can all agree on is that we can't agree on comedy

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The Independent Online

I've mentioned before that I have been wary of writing about comedy since I once said that the state of women's stand-up wasn't very good that particular year, and the comedy editor of the magazine Time Out wrote with a straight face: "David Lister should expose himself to more female comedians."

Both he and I suffered some jibes for that little phrase.

But this week I was thinking about comedy again as the Edinburgh Fringe drew to a close, and with it an unusually high standard of jokes. Stand-ups seem to be bringing one-liners back into their acts, and some of them seem to be quite original. I rather liked the one from John-Luke Roberts who said he was named after his father – about 30 years after his father.

But does the fact that I like it make it a good joke? I wondered this when looking at a survey of Fringe-goers this week on what were the best and worst jokes at the festival. The best joke on the Fringe was voted to be Tim Vine's "I've just been on a once in a lifetime holiday. I'll tell you what, never again". For me that's all right, but not actually as good as Vine's response on being told that he had won. He said: "I'm going to celebrate by going to Sooty's barbecue and having a Sweepsteak."

OK, maybe you had to be there. But what puzzled me more was the list of jokes voted in the same survey the worst on the Fringe. I didn't think Emo Philips's gag "I like to play chess with bald men in the park, although it's hard to find 32 of them" was at all bad. And top of the worst list was a joke by Sara Pascoe: "Why did the chicken commit suicide? To get to the other side."

Now I think that little humdinger from Ms Pascoe is one of the better gags to emerge from three weeks of the Fringe. Analysis of comedy is one of the more ludicrous and time-wasting activities in life, but I reckon that she took the oldest one-liner of them all and surprised the audience by giving it a slightly surreal spin, with a playful use of language. So why was it voted the worst of the festival? Did the voters turn up their communal nose as soon as they heard the words "Why did the chicken", thinking, "Oh, can't she do better than that?" Did they bother to listen to the rest of the joke?

Who knows? And maybe, who cares? You can't in any critical sense vote on jokes, you can't even in any critical sense recommend them, even though we all do. Comedy, more than anything else across the arts, is a matter of personal taste. Theatre, cinema, opera, dance, music – they are subject to personal taste too, but there are also objective criteria by which they can be judged. Where are the objective criteria for judging a joke? The next survey should ask voters to explain why they liked or disliked a joke, though there might not be many answers.

They just didn't see hard rain coming

How much cultural knowledge should the brightest students have? I have been wondering this during the current series of University Challenge. As Christ's College Cambridge knocked up a massive score, the four young geniuses failed only when they were asked to identify a particular song. None of them could. It was Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall".

The track was quite well known in its day, and actually beyond its day. They were then asked to identify other singers who had recorded the song. The first voice was one of the most recognisable in pop history, Joan Baez. Blank looks all round. The next was another pretty well-known singer, albeit not in the first flush of youth – Bryan Ferry. The four brilliant students looked at each other nonplussed. At this point, even quizmaster Jeremy Paxman was forced to exclaim: "This is amazing." He then mused: "How quickly these people disappear."

Personally, I'd have docked them 50 points and sent them on a course of lectures in 20th-century music.

A new twist to the children's matinee

A small but significant cultural initiative is shortly to take place for small but significant people. The English National Opera is to provide crèches at matinee performances so that opera-goers can leave their children with trained staff while they see the show. Musical entertainment will sometimes be provided for the little ones, I gather. Indeed, it will be singalongs and narratives based around the opera that their parents are seeing, so that the family can have a chat about it on the way home.

Does this mark the end for that essential cultural accessory, the babysitter? Will we one day see crèches at all arts venues? The ENO has made very little of its new initiative, but I suspect that if it is successful, it will be widely imitated and may prove to be one of the most pioneering ventures that this company has ever undertaken. It's a laudable move. And "I'm just going to check on the children" will also prove a good excuse for parents anxious to escape one of ENO's more maverick productions.