Thursday, January 19, 2023

The Black Joke

A joke is something which makes you laugh.

If something makes you laugh, it is a joke.

If something makes you laugh a lot, or makes a lot of people laugh, it is a good joke.

The question I wish to set before the class today is "Are sophisticated jokes better than simple jokes?"

The question I will turn to tomorrow will be "Are rude jokes ever okay?" with particular reference to the oeuvre of Mr Ricky Gervais and Mr Jimmy Carr. 

Here is the most sophisticated joke I know:

"I love a good bum on a woman, it makes my day
To me it is palpable proof of God's existence a

It comes from a patter song by the legendary poet and chansonner Jake Thackray, in which a husband complains at very great and verbose length about the fact that his wife talks too much. ("She is one of those women who/will never use three or four words when a couple of thousand will easily do.") Jake's biographer and interpreter John Watterson (aka Fake Thackray) says that the first eight words constitute the best opening line of any song, ever. 

It's low comedy, of course. We laugh because the man has said a rude word -- the kind of rude word that little children laugh at in the playground. (Flanders and Swann's slightly priggish skit on the demise of censorship in the '60s was called "pee poo belly bum drawers". ) But the bawdy remark ("I like women's arses") is followed by a very serious one: the attractiveness of women's bottoms proves that God exists. The punchline combines the sexual remark and the theological remark into the only Latin pun known to have appeared on the Old Grey Whistle Test. 

"There must be a God because of human kindness, humming birds and lady's bottoms" is certainly an a posteriori argument -- a deduction based on empirical data, not pure logical necessity. But a posteriori literally means "based on what comes behind", and posterior is a posh euphemism for, well, derrierre. We laugh at the vulgarity; we laugh at the fact that a schoolboy word and a donnish word occur in the same sentence. And we laugh at the speed of the delivery: we don't quite have time to see what he's done before we're onto the next bit. The line break creates a tiny pause: it takes a fraction of a second before you realise Latin is being talked at you. (You hear it as "palpable proof of God's existence ay....posteriori." It's a variation on the hoary old "implied rhyme" trick -- "when the fellow was right in the midst of his frolics / the innkeeper grabbed him quite hard by the jacket". )

Here is the least sophisticated joke I know

What is the difference between a weasel and a stoat?
A weasel is weaselly recognised and a stoat is stoatally different.

This joke won second prize in the Beaver Club Super Joker Competition at Clacton Butlins in 1975. It is a pun and nothing else. I suppose it is slightly funny that someone has given a silly answer to a sensible question. And the great James Thurber said that weasel is an intrinsically funny word. But the joke has no further point. The first syllables of two English words sound like the names of two animals. Ho-ho.

I like wordplay. I don't like old-fashioned word-play: I prefer current puns. I once included ten different word-plays in the same article, hoping that at least one would get a laugh, but sadly, no pun in ten did. But a decent pun generally has to involve something apart from the mere fact of one word sounding like another word. For example: 

a: Dramatic situation: One character plausibly misunderstands what the other has said. ("Four candles! 'Andles for forks!")

b: Outrageous contrivance: A hugely complicated set up, generating tension which is relieved by the punch line.  ("It's a nick-nack, Patty Jaques: give the frog a loan.")

c: Dissonance: the speaker says something which seems nonsensical for a second, but is de-coded once you understand the pun. ("The vicar told the bellringer, and the bellringer tolled the bell.")

d: Double entendre: ("I do declare the prince's balls get bigger every year!") If the speaker is a pompous individual who doesn't realise he has said something naughty, so much the better.

e: Sheer, breath-taking ingenuity. ("Kings Cross Station -- A royal lobster.")

But we're linguistic animals: even the most unsophisticated pun can raise a smile. Like it or not, it is just funny that some words sound like other words. And we're also sexual animals, and social animals. Like it or not, it is just funny that men and women do a particular thing in bed; and like it or not it is just funny that there are parts of the body and bodily functions that we are not supposed to talk about. And I am sorry to say we are cruel animals: it is just funny when someone slips over or steps on a rake. If laughter is the object of the exercise, Jake Thackray didn't need to bother with the Latin. He might just as well have said "I like women's bums, me." He could probably have raised a laugh by merely walking onto the stage and shouting "Bum!"

So: by low humour I mean laughing at farts, bums, swears, custard pies, and pratfalls. (Pratt is an old fashioned word for bottom. A pratfall means falling on your arse. Bottoms are an indispensable component of English comedy. Fundamental, even.) By sophisticated humour I mean jokes which involve some ingenuity, or which have some sort of point to them. 

If you don't get a sophisticated joke, there is a chance I can explain it to you. You might not laugh: but you will understand why other people did. But if you don't find it funny when the clown slips on the banana skin, there is nothing I can do for you.

Here is a joke I didn't get the first time I heard it.   

Sigmund Freud: In your professional opinion, what comes between fear and sex?
Carl Jung: Funf

There is an old story about a local council official charged with censoring the postcards in a little sea-side resort (which, in the 1950s, often contained risque jokes). He adopted the policy of showing them to the Mayor's wife. If she said they were too rude to be sold in a respectable town, he judged them to be harmless fun and approved them. But if she said "Well, I don't see anything funny in that" then he decided they were genuinely filthy and banned them.

Doubtless, quite a lot of prudes pretend not to find dirty jokes funny when they really mean that they don't approve of them. When the Slitheen appeared in the Sarah-Jane Adventures, Clyde had to explain to Luke (a super intelligent alien clone) that "Farts are funny. They just are". But, by the same token, if Queen Victoria is genuinely Not Amused by bodily functions, then she isn't.

So. Low comedy is basically cheating. The low comedian points to things which are just-funny and tells us to laugh at them. The wit or the raconteur, on the other hand, points to things which are not funny and enables us to laugh at them. You don't need to go to a Carry On film in order to laugh at the existence of lavatories: you probably have one in your own house. But an evening with a clever humorist will allow you to see the funny side of tax returns and terminal cancer. He creates a funniness where it did not exist before.

So: sophisticated comedy is cleverer than low comedy. But that isn't the same as saying it is better. It is certainly not the same as saying it is funnier. We can't argue that opera singing is better than pop singing merely because it is harder. We don't have to say that Jane Austen -- who is never indecent and almost never farcical -- is intrinsically superior to Charlie Chaplin (who is the king of the custard pie and the banana skin) and Geoffrey Chaucer (who, among other things, makes jokes about sex, farts, excrement and genitals.) Granted, Chaplin doesn't just fall over, and Chaucer doesn't just say "fart". They put a lot of effort into setting up their jokes. Someone once asked Chaplin how to get a laugh out of a fat lady falling on a banana skin. Chaplin said that you showed the lady. Then you showed the banana skin. Then you showed the lady walking towards the banana skin. Then you showed the lady seeing the banana skin, and stepping to one side to avoid it....and falling down a man hole. But however much set up there has been "Spek, sweete bryd, I noot nat where thou art" only works if we agree with Clyde that farts are intrinsically funny.

The only criterion on which we can judge a comedian is whether or not they are funny. So, if, as a general rule, we laugh more at wit than at bawdy, the argument is over. Excrement, penises, swear-words and people falling over are components from which jokes can sometimes be constructed; but it is just not funny to walk onto the stage wearing a fake phallus and talk about taboo subjects.

But unfortunately for us sophisticates, low comedy is funny. People laugh their posteriors off at the silliest, crudest, rudest material. That's every vaudevillian's defence of his blue material. People pay money to come and see me. You can't get a ticket. My show sells out weeks in advance. Listen to the laughter. 

So: it's just a matter of taste. I prefer the sophisticated joke-smith; you prefer the basic purveyor of smutty stories. And that's fine: I like opera and you like jazz. I'm a cat person and you're a dog person. What makes you laugh makes you laugh and what doesn't doesn't. Nothing is better than anything else.

Did you know that the reason comedians talk about "blue" jokes is that, in the days of censorship, unacceptable material was underlined in blue pencil? I certainly didn't. 

So: can I come up with any reason why it's better to tell a complicated joke with a set up, a punch line, and some word play that hadn't occurred to us before, than it is to walk onto the stage, drop your trousers and shout "Arseholes!" (granted that both get an equally big laugh)? 

Maybe we could say that high comedy does several things; where low comedy only does one. Satire is better than slapstick because it makes you laugh and also offers a critique of corrupt politicians. A clever pun is better than a simple one because it makes you laugh and also makes you think about the nature of language. This is not an argument that satire is funnier than slapstick. In fact, it's allowed to be less funny. Many of us forgive Private Eye and Newsthump for not making us laugh as much as they used to because we agree with their political points. The only justification for a custard-pie routine is if it makes you laugh an awful lot. If it doesn't, it's just boring. 

Not all satire is sophisticated. An alternative comic who walks onto the stage and says "That Rishi Sunak --- what a bastard!" is on exactly the same level as a clown who comes onto the stage and shows the audience his bum. If people laugh, then people laugh. 

This kind of argument is essentially puritanical. Pleasure is bad; or at any rate, not good. If people enjoy laughter, then laughter is probably bad. Since laughter is bad (or at any rate, not good) then the burden of proof is on the clown to demonstrate that in this particular instance the bad thing is justified by some higher purpose. But contrawise, if laughter is good (or at any rate not bad) then there is nothing in the world more harmless and innocent than a lot of people in a tent watching a man in a silly hat pulling down his pants and slipping on a banana skin. The burden of proof is on the puritan to prove that in this particular case there is some harm in it. 

Which makes comedy sound a lot like pornography.  If pleasure is bad in itself, then dirty books are bad unless they possess a quality called "artistic merit" which makes up for the sexual kicks people get from looking at them. But if sexual pleasure is good (or at any rate, not bad) then there is absolutely no objection to a room full of male persons watching a female person taking all her clothes off -- granted, obviously,  that everyone involved has given their informed consent.

Okay then. Let's not be puritans. Let's be Epicureans. Why read comic books when there's great literature out there? Why waste your time tittering at bum jokes when the great humorists and satirists are gathering dust in the public library. It's not wrong, exactly, to enjoy gassy larger and instant coffee, but if you'd only try real ale and artisan espresso, you'd enjoy it more. Give up Roy Chubby Brown for a month and work your way through Jonathan Swift and you won't ever go back. 

Is that pretentious and judgemental? Okay then, try this one. If you can watch a clown falling over and be transported into a state of hysterical ecstasy then you are less likely to spot all the things which are actually making you unhappy and do something about them. Circuses are good things. So is bread. But the government is very probably using both of them to keep us docile.

Laughter is the opium of the people. So is theatre and chocolate biscuits and folk music. And, indeed, opium. But if you are screaming in agony, opium may be precisely what you need. If the common people really have nothing else to do then it makes sense for them to sing and dance and screw. The poor invented music hall and clog dancing because the rich were hoarding all the champagne for themselves. The problem with capitalism is not that fun is bad, but that fun is unequally distributed. After the revolution, we'll all have the resources and spare time to go to as many comedy shows as we like. 

You can make the same argument from a more spiritual position. The only true pleasure and the only true happiness come from union with God. Bounty bars, romantic love; the Marriage of Figaro and the Marx Brothers are all equally focussed on giving us a quick fix in the here and now. Pascal's Wager says abstain from laughter today so you can spend eternity laughing with the angels up in heaven tomorrow. People living serious, spiritual lives are much happier than those living frivolous worldly ones. Too much laughter makes baby Jesus sad. It also makes you sad in the long and infinite term. 

But these are arguments again all comedy whatsoever. If we monks have taken a vow to abstain from laughter, then P.G Wodehouse is just as off-limit as fart-gags. But if we are allowed to tell jokes in the cloister, then why is a sophisticated story more holy than a playground joke? Might it not be that a good honest dick joke is a good deal holier than a Wildean paradox? Low comedy laughs at the actual facts of the human condition; the way in which God decided to put incorruptible souls in flesh suits which piss and shit and have oddly shaped bits dangling off them. Wits and raconteurs create cruel paradoxes to show off their own superiority. CS Lewis thought you could extrapolate the whole of Christian theology from the existence of rude jokes and ghost stories. 

"But we monks -- we Christians -- are supposed to be very pure. And what you call low humour is really just laughing about impurity. We don't talk about our private parts or bodily functions or sexual immorality; and we only speak of God with respect. And the proper response to cruelty or misfortune, real or imagined, is sympathy and empathy. We don't laugh if someone slips on his arse, we offer him a cup of tea and check he's all right. You are right to draw an analogy between comedy shows and strip clubs. Men ought not to be looking at ladies breasts for enjoyment. And they ought not to be laughing at indecent stories, either. Some things may be just funny. But some of the things which are just funny are just wrong."

And that brings us up against a brick wall. The only justification for coarse, rude, silly, or cruel comedy is that coarseness, rudeness, silliness and cruelty are just funny. But equally, the only objection to them is that they shouldn't be. You shouldn't joke about certain things, because there are certain things that you shouldn't joke about. And puritanism will sweep the clever and sophisticated away along with the simple and crude. 


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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Scurra said...

Isn't part of the contention that puritanism is intrinsically doomed to fail simply because it cannot sweep away the simple and crude though? It can attempt to sweep away the clever and sophisticated because it knows how to recognise and neuter them, but fart jokes will forever remain out of reach.

Andrew Rilstone said...

That's a very good point...

Richard Worth said...

It is a challenging question and I am glad that we have bottomed it out. Specifically that you have bottomed it out: I just can't be arsed.

Thomas said...

The weasel-stoat joke is not such a simple one. Apart from the puns, there's also the perceived sensibility. For a moment, you're inclined to believe the answer because it has the right shape. It sounds like it makes sense, until you realize it doesn't.

Jane Austen has one indecent joke and it involves bums:
Scholars note that the joke reflects the character of the speaker.

Gavin Burrows said...

“Like it or not, it is just funny that men and women do a particular thing in bed; and like it or not it is just funny that there are parts of the body and bodily functions that we are not supposed to talk about.”

I’d suspect that what makes this stuff just funny is that someone else considers it absolutely not funny, and our glee comes from putting their nose out of joint. There’s no joy in shouting “willies!” If everyone else just says “sorry, what about them?” In fact I suspect much of what got called ‘British culture’ for much of history isn’t any cohesive or integral sense of identity but a perpetual war, running back and forth, between these two types.

We used to have Lent and Carnival as handy personifications of them. They may be archaic now, but I think it carries on till today. When we had Johnson vs. Starmer, I think much of Johnson’s PR was about painting him as the jolly chap who got up to hijinks and Starmer as No Fun. (It didn’t work so well with Liz Truss.)

I’d further suspect we are this way because we had Puritanism so early, and never really got over it. You could probably test that by comparing us to non-Puritan cultures, but you’d need to know more about them than me.

Andrew Rilstone said...

The point about jokes being to do with "laughing at things that some people think is just not funny" is obviously relevant to very bad taste jokes on inappropriate subjects, as well.

Do societies with different taboos tell different jokes, I wonder. If a country was more relaxed about nudity but still strongly religious, would clowns and low comedians do more blasphemy and less smut? Would Life of Brian fall flat if it came out tomorrow, because no-one of any importance would be particularly bothered by it?

Gavin Burrows said...

Parts of southern Germany have less of a nudity taboo. Would they have sat silently through the ‘naked Brian suddenly confronted by crowd’ scene? Or gone “ahh, those strange Brits with their hang-ups”? It semes to make sense that they would, but you’d need someone more cosmopolitan than myself to confirm.

Scenes in ‘Life of Brian’, which I confess just seemed funny at the time, would now be regarded as totally transphobic, which is a sign of how times can change if ever there was.

I sometimes wonder how inappropriate jokes were affected by the rise of the net. A friend used to say he couldn’t watch ‘Friends’ without shouting “Al Quaida, you missed some!” I doubt he’d have said that to someone from New York. But on-line there’s no telling where things will end up. Of course such things came to be weaponised by the Alt Right. But did they pick them up because the rest of us dropped them?

Colin said...

The margins of medieval manuscripts suggests that monks were pretty free with rude jokes.

Mike Taylor said...

"People living serious, spiritual lives are much happier than those living frivolous worldly ones."

Chesterton would have said that people living frivolous, spiritual lives are much happier than those living serious worldly ones. (And I would agree.)