TOM UTLEY: Woke HAS killed comedy if this is the Fringe's best joke
25th August 2023

TOM UTLEY: If this is the best joke the Edinburgh Fringe can offer, then woke really HAS killed comedy

Heaven knows, tastes in comedy differ, and some of us laugh fit to burst at jokes that leave others cold. But most of us can surely agree on one thing: the one-liner that won Dave’s Joke of the Fringe award at this year’s Edinburgh Festival was not even remotely funny.

For those who missed this week’s reports, Lorna Rose Treen’s pun went like this (and, no, I don’t think you need worry about any danger of wetting your pants): ‘I started dating a zookeeper, but it turned out that he was a cheetah.’

For a joke to work, in my book, it should have at least some connection with recognisable reality, no matter how tenuous, while exhibiting at least a semblance of internal logic.

I’m thinking of past contenders for Fringe awards, such as two old favourites of mine, cracked by Tim Vine: ‘I’ve decided to sell my Hoover . . . well, it was just collecting dust’; and ‘Crime in multi-storey car parks, eh? It’s wrong on so many levels.’

But in my book, this year’s winner fails on every count. Yes, I can see that in its clunking way, the mention of the zookeeper’s occupation sets up the pun in the punchline. But let’s face it, in real life there’s no possibility of mistaking a large cat for a human being. A slightly improved version might have gone something like this: ‘I thought my boyfriend was a tiger in the bedroom, but he turned out to be a cheetah.’ I grant you, however, that this wouldn’t have split many sides either.

Comedian Lorna Rose Treen who was voted the winner of the Dave Funniest Joke of the Festival fringe with her pun: ‘I started dating a zookeeper, but it turned out he was a cheetah’

The winning joke was taken from her Edinburgh Festival  show, Skin Pigeon at Pleasance Courtyard

Now, perhaps I’m being very unfair on Lorna Rose. I confess I wasn’t in the audience at her Edinburgh show, which won some rave reviews, and I know that where comedy is concerned, an awful lot depends on timing and delivery. As Frank Carson used to say: ‘It’s the way I tell ’em!’

Speaking for myself, I simply can’t tell jokes. Almost every time I try, I muck up the timing or give away the punchline too soon. In the hands of a naturally funny professional, however, even the most unpromising material can raise a laugh.

To cite one example, a joke told by the great Tommy Cooper had me howling with laughter when I first heard him deliver it. It was along these lines:

‘I went into a pet shop and said, “I’d like to buy a wasp, please.”

‘The shopkeeper said, “Sorry, sir, we don’t sell wasps.”

‘So I said to him, “But there’s one in the window!” ’

There was something about the way Cooper told it — the look of confusion and irritation on his face when the shopkeeper denied selling wasps — that I found hilarious. But when I’ve tried to repeat the joke in the pub, people just groan and roll their eyes. So maybe Lorna Rose managed to make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear of the cheetah joke.

READ MORE: The woman behind the ‘funniest joke’ of the Fringe: Comic, 28, who admits her winning Edinburgh zookeeper gag was ‘naff’ grew up watching The Young Ones with her TV tech engineer father and shuns ‘identity’ comedy 

In her defence, I should also say that almost any joke is bound to suffer if it’s subjected to forensic analysis on paper, as I’ve tried to do here. What is certainly true is that very few witticisms indeed can retain their capacity to amuse if they have to be laboriously explained.

This is something I find every Thursday, when I meet a group of my fellow old buffers at the pub up the road from the Mail’s London headquarters.

Among our gang is a dear friend who is extremely hard of hearing — unsurprisingly, poor chap, since in 2005 he was sitting on the Tube at Edgware Road just a few feet away from the 7/7 bomb, which cost him one of his legs.

Anyway, his hearing loss means that if he sees any of us laughing over something one of us has said, he likes to have it repeated more loudly so that he can be in on the joke. It’s a problem that will be familiar to many who have entertained elderly relatives at family gatherings — or, indeed, others like me whose own hearing is not what it was.

All I can say is that Oscar Wilde himself would have struggled to sound amusing if he’d had to repeat every witticism he uttered, five times over, at increased volume every time.

To make it worse, my deaf friend is — oh, how can I put this kindly? — not always the quickest to grasp why a joke is funny, even when he has heard every word of it. This means we often have to explain it to him, at the top of our voices.

‘You see, when people say something is “just gathering dust”, they mean they don’t use it much. BUT GATHERING DUST IS ALSO WHAT VACUUM CLEANERS ARE FOR.’

Enough to say that by the end of this process, I tend to feel more like weeping than laughing.

Now, perhaps I’m being very unfair on Lorna Rose. I confess I wasn’t in the audience at her Edinburgh show, which won some rave reviews

Maybe Lorna Rose managed to make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear of the cheetah joke

One more word in support of Lorna Rose: I have huge admiration for stand-up comedians — even those I find painfully unfunny. You have to be extraordinarily brave, I reckon, to stand on a stage with nothing but a microphone between you and an audience, trying to make them laugh.

I felt this particularly keenly one memorable afternoon 21 years ago, when our first-born son — then aged 16 — tried his hand as a stand-up on Founder’s Day at his public school, Dulwich College. Imagine marquees, sandwiches, strawberries and elderly men in blazers, flannels and old school ties.

To my horror, our lad had dyed his hair bright yellow for the occasion, presumably thinking this made him look hilarious. In his father’s jaundiced view, however, it made him look more like a sinister cross between a rent boy and Harpo Marx.

Days earlier, he had asked me if I knew any good jokes he could incorporate into his act but, as usual when I’m asked to recall anything funny, my mind went totally blank. It was only much later — too late, alas — that I remembered a Bob Monkhouse classic that would have been perfect for the occasion, since Monkhouse was himself at Dulwich as a boy: ‘They all laughed when I said I wanted to be a comedian . . . [perfectly timed pause] . . . They’re not laughing now.’

All things considered, however, I reckoned that our George began his act pretty well, with his opening one-liner: ‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Or as a dyslectic would say, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen” . . . [dramatic pause] . . . Dyslexia doesn’t affect the speech, you see.’

Lorna has appeared in The Emily Atack Show on ITV as well as performing a voiceover role for a snake for a PETA advert

She met her director boyfriend Jonathan Oldfield and began tentative steps in the comedy world with improv troupe the Impronauts at the University of Edinburgh

OK, not side-splitting. But his loving dad roared with laughter all the same. Alas, no one else did — and from that moment on, his act fell ever flatter. Why, even his celebrated impressions of Paul Gascoigne, Sven-Goran Eriksson and Pingu failed to raise so much as a titter, except from me.

In desperation, he then tried one or two slightly risqué jokes, bordering on the obscene. But the only sounds that greeted these, apart from my own increasingly strained attempts at laughter, were the disapproving snorts and harrumphs of a ghastly old fellow in flannels.

I felt like yelling at him: ‘Don’t you realise my beloved son is dying a thousand deaths up there, trying to entertain you? For God’s sake, be kind to him.’

Perhaps I need hardly add that my boy’s appearance on Founder’s Day marked the beginning and end of his stand-up career.

Mind you, when I listen to Radio 4’s News Quiz or the Now Show, or the endless rants against Tories and Brexiteers that pass for comedy on TV these days, I myself feel more and more like that angry old harrumpher in the flannels.

This is a chilling age, after all, in which the humourless, woke Left appears increasingly to control everything we’re permitted to write, think or say. Just ask Graham Linehan, the creator of Father Ted, who was reduced to performing on a makeshift stage outside the Edinburgh Parliament after two Fringe venues cancelled his show. And why did they try to silence him? For no better reason than his widely held belief that men can’t turn into women, or vice versa.

At a time like this, when a word out of place can spell professional ruin, is it any wonder if comedians can find nothing funnier to observe than that cheetah and cheater sound the same?

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