On my third day at this year’s Just for Laughs festival, Irish comedian Dylan Moran said something that piqued my interest. Moran had just told a joke about time—comparing it to a French waiter, since it’s never around until it comes and cleans up—and tagged it with a proclamation that it was the best joke at the festival. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.
Moran had me thinking: What was the best joke? And more importantly, how could I find it? With so many comedians and shows, and such a short amount of time, finding the best joke was no easy task. The plan: Go to as many shows as possible to identify a champion—not necessarily the best comedian at the festival, but the single best joke.
This task threw me into a lurch, an existential crisis of sorts, and I began questioning everything I knew about comedy. What even is a joke? Could bits with more elaborate setups compete on the same stage as Moran’s one-liner?
For instance, Chappelle Show co-creator Neal Brennan’s bits became an early favourite in the funniest joke race. In Brennan’s calm, assured hour, he mused on political attack ads, expressing gratitude that no such creations exists in the dating world. As he continued on, he invented one of these ads himself—doing the voices for a campaign that an ex might make to hurt Brennan’s chances with a new love interest (“Neal Brennan doesn’t like brunch”).
As the jokes piled up, tracking the competition became more difficult. One-liners and funny stories meshed together, like Chris Gethard’s comparison of Disney World to the nearby—and in Gethard’s opinion, far superior—Gatorland. I even got my fair share of musical comedy. Duo Garfunkel and Oates poked fun at bipartisanship with their song “Both Sides Can Laugh”. Todd Glass used the TG Band that accompanies his shows to mark jokes with an old-timey cymbal clash or a piano note, Will Forte performed revised renditions of 12 Days of Christmas and Green Day’s Time of Your Life with his trademark absurdity.
As my journey continued, I discovered it was easier to find a favourite new comedian than it was to find the best joke. For me, it was a highlight to learn about Australian comedian Nath Valvo, whose jokes about his boyfriend’s triathlon training were clever and charming (“I’m proud of you, let’s go home and do my favourite Sunday activity: Sleep.”). Valvo’s energetic set, which rightfully earned its place among the top tier in my festival.
The quest ended a week after it began, on the biggest stage offered at the festival. On Jul. 28, the Bell Centre hosted Controlled Danger, a headlining show with Dave Chappelle and his good friend John Mayer. Mayer played some music, and then Chappelle did some comedy. But the real treat was their candid display of friendship. Chappelle is a quick-witted comic, but he was funniest with Mayer, the two telling stories and making fun of each other. The camaraderie of their friendship made for a hilarious and excellent night, one that helped define my journey altogether.
With no shortage of excellent comedians at the festival, I found myself wondering, could I even find a funniest joke at the festival, or was that a fool’s errand? And after 21 shows and 75 artists over seven nights at the festival, it turned out to be a little bit of both. There’s no such thing as the funniest joke—given the nature of standup, no two shows are exactly the same.
That being said, my favourite one-liner was probably from Colin Quinn about debate and discourse. “Social media is part of the problem,” Quinn said. “When I was growing up, you couldn’t boycott things in your underwear.”