Although many of us like comedy a lot, it feels odd to ask basic questions about its purpose. ‘What is comedy for?’ sounds like a leaden inquiry directly opposed to the spirit of humour.

But really it is a way of getting more ambitious about what laughter can do for us. Intuitively, we feel that comedy is one of the things that helps us cope with the difficulties of living. A clue can be found in the fact – which at first sounds a bit surprising – that we don’t laugh at things unless they cause us very serious problems at other points in life. We can see this in the standard category of jokes: about relationships, family, sex, money, impotence, bowel movements… We laugh most readily around things that in other ways are very distressing. A good joke invariably has a relationship with darkness, anxiety and pain.