‘What makes a one-liner work?” Tim Vine was asked on BBC News last week. “Er .
. .” blinked the 47-year-old comedian. “It can only be one line and it has
to be funny.” Thus are trade secrets preserved, and we are left to figure
out for ourselves why Mr Vine’s latest effort won the prize for the funniest
joke at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
“I decided to sell my Hoover,” he told the sold-out audience. “Well, it was
just gathering dust.” This was judged a welcome return to form after he
slipped to an ignominious fourth place last year with: “My friend told me he
was going to a fancy-dress party as an Italian island. I said: ‘Don’t be
When you tell as many gags as Mr Vine – current holder of the world record
with 499 in an hour – it stands to reason that some of them will hit the
spot. The knack, according to seasoned hands, is arranging the order so that
the good ones will carry the stinkers.
What appears to make less sense is that the shamelessly old-fashioned,
fast-fire, clean and corny humour served up by Mr Vine and a handful of
fellow diehards still packs them in two decades after we were told that
sophisticated modern audiences had moved on. Mere jokes were no longer
enough; out went the old, in came narrative-style “alternative” comedy.
You couldn’t go to a show without being hosed down by F-words and drenched in
attitude by gloopy-voiced, predominantly Northern working-class comics who
thought it more important to make political points than to send the paying
punters home with aching middle-sections. Today, the notion that comedy must
have “meaning” is so entrenched in the business that anyone who plays a
routine purely for laughs is considered not merely tame but suspect.
Last week’s award is, then, for something more than Vine’s ability to write a
smart joke. It recognises that there is plenty to celebrate in the survival
of a style of comedy that was supposed to have become obsolete.
Beaming with middle-class wholesomeness and the benefits of a stern Christian
upbringing, Tim can be seen as a welcome antidote to the alternative
tyranny. Older audiences like him because he’s a throwback to how things
used to be, younger ones because they haven’t seen anything like him. Women
enjoy him because he isn’t angry, and men because he doesn’t endlessly flog
the dog-eared, bloke-as-perpetual-loser routines.
He realised early on that he wanted to be on stage. The first attempt at
stardom came when he formed an early-Eighties punk group with his brother,
Jeremy, now a prominent BBC TV and radio presenter. Both Vines were the
product of a close, socially conservative family and parents who secretly
hoped their sons might become missionaries. Somehow, they weren’t made for
the depraved world of rock, and their band, the Flared Generation, quickly
While Jeremy went off to Durham University, Tim drifted through a series of
lowly jobs, including a stint as a teaboy in the City. His parents, Guy and
Diana, wondered what would become of him, but one day Tim heard about a
competition at the Comedy Café in Shoreditch, offering a £25 prize for the
best new act. He didn’t win, but was hooked on the rat-a-tat style of
stand-up and he developed a flair for jokes that brought a much-need touch
of modernity to the hallowed format: “Conjunctivitis.com,” he’d say: “Now
there’s a site for sore eyes.”
To the gags he added an endearingly madcap act that includes songs, stage
tricks, wordplay, puppets and a variety of eccentric props. All necessary,
he explains, to prepare the audience for the next barrage of jokes.
Vine’s approach to comedy is meticulous. He scribbles the jokes down as he
thinks of them, more or less constantly, to be polished “like diamonds”
later. He sets a rough target of at least 15 jokes a day – not all of which
make the cut – and, like all comics, worries about the material drying up. A
few years ago he was hit by a rumour that he had borrowed jokes from the
late Tommy Cooper – one of his heroes – but was vindicated when it emerged
that Cooper had been wrongly credited with jokes penned by Vine.
At such times it helps to have faith, although Vine doesn’t make a fuss about
his Christian convictions. “My faith is important to me,” he says, “but I’m
a little bit suspect about people who appear to have all the answers – and
jealous as well.”
He is unmarried, well mannered, still lives near suburban Cheam in Surrey,
where he grew up, and perhaps the most subversive thing about him is that he
wouldn’t dream of swearing on stage. He describes his act as “mostly
silliness”, but his success suggests it’s rather more than that, and that he
knows exactly what makes a one-liner work. Even if he isn’t telling.
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