Comedy can be a hard thing to get right. For example, did you know these articles I write are supposed to be funny? It’s true! But people so rarely pick up on the humour, because they’re too busy being mad at me for having such perfect opinions.
I have a lot of sympathy for aspiring comics. In order to find out what works, you have to do a lot of what doesn’t, which can be frustrating at best and painfully embarrassing at worst. It’s why events like the Edinburgh Fringe are so useful, providing as they do a venue for up-and-comers to try out a new act, or for veterans to move outside of their comfort zone with new material. Sometimes it goes really well. Sometimes only one person shows up to see you perform. That’s showbiz, baby.
That willingness to experiment is what allows venues like the Fringe to produce some of the boldest and most daring comedy to come out of the UK. So why is it that when it comes time to award a prize for “funniest joke” of the entire event, the winner reads like something that would be rejected from a discount Christmas cracker?
The Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, now in its 14th year, is presented annually to a quip or one-liner deemed most hilarious by a panel of judges and a public vote. This year’s winner was comedian Lorna Rose Treen, who captured 44 per cent of the vote with this gem:
“I started dating a zookeeper, but it turned out he was a cheetah.”
Look, I can’t think of anything meaner than making fun of somebody for making a bad joke, but I’m going to grit my teeth and try my best.
That joke won “best joke” at the annual joke festival. Just for reference, the Edinburgh Fringe is where Phoebe Waller-Bridge debuted Fleabag. It’s part of the reason we have The League of Gentlemen. Lily Savage got started there. How grim was this year’s lineup that we’re giving awards to something I’d downvote if I saw it in a Reddit thread?
I’m not the first person to point this out – Twitter/X has been especially unkind to this year’s winner – but the joke barely makes sense. Cheetahs and zookeepers aren’t synonymous, they’re just two things that are occasionally in close proximity to one another. A better version of the joke might be something like “Why did the tiger lose at poker? Because he was playing with a cheetah”.
If you didn’t think that joke was funny, don’t blame me – blame “jokesforkids.lol”, which is the site I stole it from, and has about 50 other cheetah-related jokes that make more sense than the one that won a prize at one of the world’s most famous and prestigious comedy festivals.
To be fair to Treen, it’s not just her. Of the top 10 jokes that were shortlisted for the award, only one of them even really registers as a proper joke. William Stone’s “Nationwide must have looked pretty silly when they opened their first branch” is pretty clever, and has that sort of cool Mitch Hedberg quality that helps it rise above the others, which are essentially just a collection of lazy puns and twee observations. This one by Daniel Foxx is especially egregious: “My grandma describes herself as being in her ‘twilight years’ which I love because they’re great films”. That isn’t even a pun! That’s just word association!
Maybe I’m missing the point, and there’s some kind of post-ironic element to the award that I just don’t get. Last year’s winner was somehow worse: “I tried to steal spaghetti from the shop, but the female guard saw me and I couldn’t get Pasta.” Clumsily specifying that the guard is female because you don’t have confidence that the pun will land if you don’t, is a level of hackery that I just don’t believe you can achieve by accident.
Maybe the judges are just so tired at the end of the Fringe, after watching weeks of cutting-edge, groundbreaking comedy, that the only thing that can get through to them is the bold simplicity of a really crap pun. It’s like a professional chef ordering McDonalds after a long shift, or Vince Gilligan sitting down for a Big Bang Theory marathon.
Maybe we’re just so tired from the horrors of the world that we don’t have the energy for anything more complicated than a cheap call and response. “Cheetahs are at the zoo”, we think to ourselves through the chalky haze of a thousand terrifying news stories. “Like a zookeeper! I get it. God, I hope petrol doesn’t get any more expensive.”
Or maybe I need to embrace this decline and go up to Edinburgh next year with my own show. “Award winning Ryan Coogan” sounds pretty good. I’ll start writing for it now; I have the jokesforkids.lol tab still open. All I have to do is copy and pasta.