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The uncomfortable truth about comedy

Street performers at the Edinburgh Fringe. Dan Smit/Shutterstock

The award for the funniest joke at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe was won by Lorna Rose Treen, with: “I started dating a zookeeper, but it turned out he was a cheetah.” It doesn’t really work, says Rod Liddle in The Spectator. “Why would a zookeeper be a cheetah?” If she’d said, “I started dating a big cat – turned out he was a cheetah”, it still wouldn’t be terribly funny, “but it would at least have semantic integrity”. The Fringe seems to have “banned all the stuff that’s really funny anyway” – the Leith Arches venue, for example, blocked Father Ted writer Graham Linehan because of his views on transgender issues.

Many progressive types say they don’t like comedy which “punches down” and makes fun of minority groups. But it’s only “punching down” if you consider black and Asian people, for example, beneath you. “If you consider them – and lesbians and transgender people and the disabled – not to be simply victims, but essentially no different from anyone else, then it is not ‘punching down’ at all.” The whole point of comedy is to “poke away with glee and guile” at the stuff which lurks darkly in our unconscious. As Freud put it, “jokes let out forbidden thoughts”. If we, say, laugh at a joke “equating Muslims with terrorists”, we’re partly mocking our own “deep-seated prejudices”. The joke is on us, and the laughter which follows is “truly cathartic”.