Old Jokes: Humour & History

How many times do we see a historian on TV pull a shard of pottery out of the ground and describe the social milieu in which it was shaped, fired and used? Answer: thanks to dumbing down, a lot less often than we used to. But while some may distrust the archaeologist who builds an entire dinosaur out of a length of bone, I’ve done exactly the same thing with the cultural artefacts I’ve consumed, made and reached an understanding of: comedy.

Writing and performing jokes are two sides of the same coin, and while you don’t have to be a performer to know how to craft a gag, there is no substitute for stage time when it comes to delivery. Studying Macbeth at school, we whipped through the gatekeeper’s monologue after the murder of Duncan, dismissing the thing as ‘a bit of comic relief’ though heaven knows none of us found it funny. ‘People did once, though,’ I thought, and from that thought came the idea that if you understood what made an audience laugh, you had the beginings of an emotional connection. When we look at a Greek wine jug, we remember our own boozy nights. When we see a Roman brothel, we test their morals against our own. When we are baffled by the laughter that greets a jester in a three-pronged hat, we have to ask what that audience is seeing that we are not. Decode the symbols, and you find out what is important to that particular audience in that particular time.

It’s a mistake to think that you have to chase down comedy that you like, or that you find objectively ‘good’. I’ve tried and failed to enjoy The Goon Show, but I understand its place in the the Pantheon of Great Comedy. The Goons were a post-war rumbling that in a hither-to strictly-ordered society, authority wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. The two obvious spin-offs (and these are much more to my taste) were Peter Cook’s satirical boom of the early 1960s and the Monty Python approach which took aim at the cosy authority of the comedy establishment itself. There is a direct line between Harry Seacombe doing daft voices and a pompous archbishop trying to dismiss ‘Life of Brian’ as ‘blasphemous’. (It isn’t. The bishop hadn’t turned up on time to see the whole film. If you watch ‘Life of Brian’ and call it ‘blasphemous’, you are an idiot or a liar, so make your choice.)

Looking to another popular entertainer of the day – revered by purists but seldom watched today by the casual viewer – is Tony Hancock who began as a stupid character falling for artless scams. Gradually the character and writers evolved, and the final TV series is a very sophisticated comment on a generation of people who can see an exciting world outside, but who slightly fail to fit into it. Neither part of the emerging swinging London, nor entirely comfortable establishment, Hancock struck a chord as a man caught between two worlds, and millions felt an affinity with that. If you would like to learn how to write comedy, you can do a lot worse than getting hold of all the existing radio recordings and listening to them in order. Then throw in the TV show. And finish with the film, ‘The Rebel’, which has a message about the art establishment that would make Damien Hurst shift uncomfortably in his seat.

Going back even further to the music halls of the late 19th/early 20th century, you really do feel the cultural ground shifting under you. These were the places of popular entertainment that gave us the likes of Charlie Chaplin who set an aesthetic for comedy that we still enjoy today (the joke repeated until it is not funny, and repeated some more until it is again) by freezing these moments on film. In a soundless world, Chaplin’s slapstick was a perfect fit for the medium, even if after leaving the cinema, the audience sat around the piano with the sheet music of ‘Boiled Beef and Carrots’. Our view of the era is shaped by the media that survives, and this is strictly either visual or audio – not a combination. If the talkies had come earlier, we might have a different view of Victorian Britain: the stock joke of the music hall was that all the male performers were being cheated on, and all the women were available for prostitution services after the show. And enjoying it, too. Victorian music hall is a lot less innocent and a lot more knowing than you might expect.

If there is one theme that marks comedy from other forms of drama, it is that comedy very often is about skewering the difference between what society expects, and human nature. It’s obvious in restoration theatre, just as it’s obvious in Basil Fawlty’s doomed attempts to gain status, or Blackadder’s attempts to avoid the sort of hostile situations he should be duty-bound to embrace.  If you’re wondering ‘why was this funny?’ ask what hypocrisy is being exposed – and you will be peering into the character of a bygone society.


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