Erikka Askeland: Having a good laugh is no joke

Do YOU want me to tell you a joke? If you are brave enough to have thought "yes" to the question, you should be warned I am not one of those people who can lay claim to a sense of natural comic timing.

Often when the gulf in which to crack a joke opens, I dry up. And the few jokes I might eventually stutter out are often the silly ones I can recall from childhood. For example, what do you call an elephant that is no longer six years old? Er, seven years old.

No really, don't invite me to one of your parties expecting to be entertained in this manner.

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My tongue-tied vacancy when pressed I suspect stems from a near traumatic incident in my youth, when I was nervously attempting to joke around with two cute yet surprisingly witty young men.

Until I got put on the spot: "Tell me something funny," said the cuter one. But I froze. Unable to think of anything remotely amusing with which to impress them, I slumped, my face burning with shame, and I gave up: "I can't," I said despondently. Which, after a moment of shocked silence, completely cracked them up.

What makes us laugh, any comic might tell you, is something that veers from the expected. This can be the expectation of good manners - apparently the oldest recorded joke is a Sumerian one about farting.

The psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, who was surprisingly fond of a laugh himself, said there were three kinds of jokes - gentle ones, that cause amusement through puns and plays on words, mimetic humour, and then there are the tendentious jokes. It is these ones that cut close to the wind, and make us laugh because they reveal what we haven't yet admitted to ourselves.

As the 64th Edinburgh Festival Fringe dawns next week, thousands of punters will be drawn in to see comedians, likely at the expense of the more traditional - but perhaps less satisfying - theatre and other performances.

Why have comedians become so popular? This year, the Fringe says that 37 per cent of its programme is comedy - up 2 per cent on last year. And that is before the breakaway Edinburgh Comedy Festival - which has been running now for four years - drew most of the big names that would have otherwise been playing the Fringe.

It has been noted that comedians are now more like rock stars, filling the conference centre and other major venues, while lesser-known names attract cult followings as word of mouth ensures that the really funny ones pack them in.

The growing demand for a night out that makes our sides ache with laughter is clearly an escapist tendency. More and more, people tend to choose this over a sober but thought-provoking piece of experimental theatre - although the best comedians often target current affairs in a way that can be both serious and amusing.

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Have you heard the one about Sir Fred Goodwin and the European sovereign debt crisis? No, neither have I. But there's bound to be some sharp wit who might yet come up with a punchline.The funniest jokes are usually the ones told from the perspective of the underdog, as a way of mocking superiors or even oppressors. This is why Jewish culture, or anyone with a mother-in-law, gives rise to such a rich comedic tradition.

They are funnier because they differ from racist or other offensive humour that works, with certain audiences at least, by siding with the powerful over the hated and feared.

What may be behind the growth in demand for comedy is simply the need for it. If you can laugh at it, it won't kill you. And while good gags have been with us throughout history and are found in all cultures, the rise of the comedian on stage gathered force in the limelight of the 1850s music hall in the UK and in Vaudeville at the same time in the US. These mainly provided some light relief for newly urbanised poor.

And now, for us, as gloom pervades the headlines, you really just have to laugh.