[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/60953?ns=guardian&pageName=The+lost+art+of+telling+a+joke%3AArticle%3A1307306&ch=Stage&c3=GU.co.uk&c4=Comedy+live+%28Stage%29%2CStage%2CCulture+section&c6=Hazel+Davis&c7=09-Nov-19&c8=1307306&c9=Article&c10=Comment&c11=Stage&c13=&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FStage%2FComedy[/img]Previous generations could access any number of groanworthy gags to lighten the atmosphere: where has that skill gone?
As the current obsession with offensive comedy and its boundaries rumbles on, commentators and pontificators are wheeling out their best and worst gags by way of example, left, right and centre. The question "when is a joke not a joke?" has ruffled a few feathers within the industry – and plenty more outside it – but as a nation have we forgotten how to tell a good gag?
Time was, you could go to a comedy show and hear a string of jokes worth scribbling down to recycle and retell to your friends. Just twenty years ago, when my parents had friends round for dinner – or worse, when I did – my dad had a ready arsenal of stinkers he'd trot out when conversation dipped.
But the rise of alternative comedy in the 1980s helped put the scuppers on joke parroting. Traditional one-liners on racial difference, gender difference and mothers-in-law were out, to be replaced by more nuanced observation or rant. Standups became far more idiosyncratic; a Jo Brand line could only work if Jo Brand was delivering it in her voice and with her face.
It might be suggested that as a result, comedy got much more subtle. For better or worse, stand-up arguably became more about situational empathy and delivery than it was about appreciating the craft of a quickfire gag. Nothing illustrates this more than the success of Peter Kay. Not to play down his joke-writing ability, but it's safe to say that Kay's appeal (and this is routinely seized upon by his knockers) is principally down to spotting common shared themes and pointing them out – it's a style that's dominated comedy of the early noughties, honed today by the likes of Michael McIntyre and Russell Howard.
So while comedy has evolved into something broader, and maybe more exciting, I'd argue that the simple art of joke-telling is getting lost. Take Dan Antopolski, winner of TV channel Dave's best joke at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. While Antopolski is a funny bloke, I doubt even he would claim that his gag "Hedgehogs – why can't they just share the hedge?" comes anywhere close to say, Bob Monkhouse's "They laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian. Well, they're not laughing now". Simple, brutally self-deprecating and playful.
It comes as no surprise that the few contemporary comics who specialise in the old-fashioned pursuit of crafting a well-shaped gag, such as Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones, Gary Delaney and Tim Vine, are renowned for just that. As an aside, it's probably less of a surprise that the jokes causing the most offence have gained momentum by making for such easily quotable soundbites.
Jones, master of the one-liner and author of Where Do Comedians Go When They Die?, suggests that a post-modern knowingness stops standups (and their audiences) from being satisfied with a straightforward quip today. "These days you can only do a joke in the old 'three-men-go-into-a-bar' format on stage in a pseudo-ironic way. I've yet to see it work without some kind of twist on it."
He thinks this, coupled with the fact that comedy proliferates on TV, the internet and in print impacts "civilians" telling jokes: "The comedians of yesteryear managed to tour round the same set for ages but they can't do that now and this has had an effect on the man on the street."
It seems then that the higher the chance that someone will have heard the joke you're telling, the less confident we are in our ability to tell it. For better or worse, it looks like observational comedy is having the last laugh.
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Guardian: The lost art of telling a joke
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