Martyn McLaughlin: The problem with an award for best Edinburgh Fringe joke

The obsession with the funniest joke at Edinburgh undervalues the art of stand-up, writes Martyn McLaughlin.

Comedian Adam Rowe, winner of the Dave Joke of the Fringe 2018 award, responded with polite scorn when asked if there was a formula for being funny (Picture: UKTV Dave/Martina Salvi)

Did you hear about the stand-up comic who became the punchline?

In an Edinburgh Fringe tradition almost as longstanding as exorbitant hotel prices and passive-aggressive Cambridge undergraduates forcing sheafs of flyers into your hand, a single joke has been hailed as the funniest aired at this year’s festival.

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Liverpool comedian Adam Rowe won the 11th annual iteration of the Dave’s Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, thanks to his line: “Working at the Jobcentre has to be a tense job – knowing that if you get fired, you still have to come in the next day.”

As has become customary during August in Edinburgh, which happily coincides with the silly season, the victor was asked to reflect on his triumphant joke, one of several whittled down into a shortlist by comedy critics before being voted on by the public.

And so a bleary eyed Mr Rowe dutifully clambered aboard the breaking news hamster wheel, giving a succession of radio and television interviews about his wisecrack.

Having asked Mr Rowe to repeat it in a deserted studio, the worst of his interrogators seemed hell-bent on establishing whether there was a scientific formula governing the art of being funny. The 26-year-old, to his credit, gave a reply imbued with scorn and politeness in equal measure.

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The impression left was one of a talented young comedian in a state of bemusement and mild irritation at the obsession over a one-liner.

If so, his vexation is well placed. For all that the prize helps showcase lesser-known names tramping around the packed Edinburgh circuit, it is a reductive signifier which does a disservice to the agile minds and diverse routines gracing venues across the capital. Yes, there are awards for the best show and newcomer, but the funniest joke gong has monopolised the publicity, thanks in so small part to the way dreary office-bound wits feel obliged to share the shortlisted gags with their colleagues via email or, worse, read them aloud by the water cooler. You know the kind of people. You’re probably sat next to one as you read this, and if not, then I’m afraid I have some sobering news.

Such tilts at reflected glory are, in truth, a damning form of praise for the comedians who wrote the material in the first place. Constructing a brilliant joke is routinely sniffed at as a frivolous pursuit, when in fact it is an exacting craft. Once released into the wild, the fruits of such labour can take on a life of their own.

While Tim Vine’s ouevre may be snobbishly disparaged by those who regard as it as little more than a carnival act, the very best of his one-liners are a masterclass in taut, absurd economy. (“Exit signs,” he once remarked. “They’re on the way out, aren’t they?”).

Similarly, Milton Jones once took it upon himself to construct an entire narrative for one stand-up show around one-liners. The result demonstrated the importance of lateral thinking and the use – and misuse – of language. Despite the self-imposed limitations of the format, he found ample opportunity to showcase some lines that were as thoughtful as they were hilarious. (“I come from a family of failed magicians,” went one. “I’ve got two half-sisters”).

And lest we forget the grandfather of the one-liner, Bob Monkhouse, a comic capable of combining directness, self-deprecation and playfulness in a single line (“They laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian. Well, they’re not laughing now”).

Yet to get the best out of these jokes, you have to be in the audience or, at the very least, watching a recording of the show. Vine’s laughs are generated not just by his wordplay, but the speed and rising, manic energy of his performance, while the jokes of Jones are enriched by knowing what came before. As for Monkhouse? The consumate ease and fluidity of his delivery almost charmed you into laughter by itself.

The problem with the Dave award is not that it celebrates clever one-liners, it is the way in which it robs them of their context, glibly reprinting them to leave you guessing about their rhythm and timing.

It also relegates to the periphery those comedians whose acts are not predicated on wordplay, puns, or waggery. Such a distinction is important, given this category has included some of the most talented stand-ups ever to grace a stage.

Take the late, great, Richard Pryor, whose repertoire and mannerisms evolved from an awkward Bill Cosby appreciation act into a freewheeling, unpredictable explosion of catharsis. He told jokes, but honesty, not humour, was what endeared him to millions the world over. The lines of his that resonated the most were the ones that served as codas to stories that laid bare his braggadocio as well as his vulnerability.

“When you’re on fire and runnin’ down the street, people get out of your way,” he told an audience at the Hollywood Palladium in 1981. The sentence doesn’t work in isolation, but armed with the knowledge that just six months before, Pryor set himself on fire in a desperate suicide attempt while freebasing cocaine, a distressing, remarkable pay off hits home.

Jokes are the most obvious weapon in a stand-up’s armoury, but there other devices which can cut deeper. So by all means, we should feel no guilt about enjoying impeccably honed and gleefully silly one-liners, but let’s lose our obsession with an arbitrary awards parade which homogenises the weird and wonderful world in comedy into a vaudeville chuckle contest.