In defence of the joke no one found funny

Tommy Cooper: king of the killer one-liner
Tommy Cooper: king of the killer one-liner Credit: Rex

The Edinburgh Fringe is an ever-changing beast. More and more venues pop up each year to house more and more comedians. But one thing remains absolutely constant (and oh so predictable!) – the annual chorus of disapproval that greets the announcement of Dave’s Joke of the Fringe.

No sooner had Ken Cheng been awarded the crown on Monday for his sterling effort about a pound coin (“I’m not a fan of the new pound coin, but then again, I hate all change”) than the grumbling started.

“If a teenager had said this in a playground, it might be rightfully classed as funny,” huffed one user of this newspaper’s website. “The names of the judges should have been the number one joke,” added another. Quite good, that last one. But as a member of the panel responsible for the shortlist of 15 jokes, which was then put to a public vote, I should probably try and defend our choices.

Comedian Ken Cheng has won Dave's Joke of the Fringe award Credit: PA

What exactly makes a good one-liner? For me, it’s that crucial split second between set-up and punchline, when the cogs are whirring, just before the penny drops. Make it too simple and you haven’t earned the pay-off of a laugh (“My mate sat on my pumpkin. He butternut squashed it”); make it too complicated and the pause hangs a fraction too long, dampening the response (“I had a friend called Iain. Two ‘i’s... to go with the face”).

Of course, the delivery can have as much impact as the words themselves. I feel sure that if the same people harrumphing into their cornflakes at this year’s shortlist had heard the jokes performed live, they too would have had a good old giggle, not least because laughter is so infectious.

A great punchline should pull the rug out from under your feet. The comedian leads you up one road, before blindsiding you with a sharp change of tack. Tommy Cooper was the master of this: “My doctor told me to drink a bottle of wine after a hot bath, but I couldn’t even finish drinking the hot bath.”

Ed Byrne’s shortlisted joke also does this particularly well. “I have two boys, 5 and 6. We’re no good at naming things in our house.” Many one-liner specialists decide on a punchline first and then work backwards to the set-up, thus ensuring the necessary traps are laid.

Added to this, one-liners should always veer towards the absurd. The recent trend for observational and anecdotal comedy is rooted in real-life, the laughs borne out of audience recognition. Political or confessional comedy, meanwhile, mines laughs from anger and pain. This isn’t how one-liners, which are as old as comedy itself, work. Instead, they strike quickly, aiming straight at our funny bone, tapping into our affection for the ridiculous.

This is why I so love Andy Field’s shortlisted joke, “I like to imagine the guy who invented the umbrella was going to call it the ‘brella’. But he hesitated”, and am less sure about Frankie Boyle’s, “Trump’s nothing like Hitler. There’s no way he could write a book.” A great one-liner needn’t try and do any more than make you laugh.

Tim Vine, the only comedian to have won Dave’s Joke of the Fringe more than once, is the master of the ridiculous. My favourite joke of this year’s Fringe was one of his, though sadly it didn’t make the shortlist: “I met this owl from Yorkshire called Tony. Well, Tawny actually.”

Total nonsense but, as more and more comedians hold their noses at the thought of delivering a one-liner, preferring to spool their routines out slowly, it is worth remembering – and celebrating – these short shots of sugary silliness. They can leave you giddy with joy.

Ken Cheng: Chinese Comedian is at Pleasance Courtyard until Aug 27. Tickets: 0131 556 6550; tickets.edfringe.com