Friday, October 29, 2010

Humorous Thoughts

How can you tell if you're sleeping next to an axe murderer?

In one of the great jokes of all time Bob Monkhouse said, 'My family laughed at me when I said I wanted to be a comedian; they're not laughing now.'

It's brilliant because, and I accept that if I have to explain why a joke is brilliant I might be struggling, firstly he got the pause at the semi-colon right every time. Secondly because it turns the tables twice. As he turns the tables on his family he turns them on us too.

I credit him with the joke, as I always do if I know who done them, because I know how long it takes to write a joke. If you can look and talk you can do observational comedy moderately well but to do jokes - that takes skill.

A clergy colleague once asked me to write him some new Christmas cracker jokes. Since I often joked and punned I guess he thought this would be easy for me. It took me hours. Then I handed them over and realised, as they bombed, that I had written jokes only I could tell. This was partially because of the length of the pause needed at the semi-colon but mainly because it turned out he couldn't read.

A regular visitor once described this blog as whimsical. I loved that. People often under-estimate how much truth you can smuggle in under the cover of light-heartedness. It increases the likelihood of my occasional deepish thought being pondered.

As a clerge I've been doing stand-up for years and the trick seems to me to be to judge the audience early before trying your best moves. I find, 'Good morning and welcome to the service my name's Steve Tilley' so extraordinarily useful in assessing the congregation's mood. If it is a congregation I don't know well they will, more than likely, be blown away by the fact that the minister told them his name. You can also surreptitiously, see if anyone spots you used the exact format of the introduction to Have I Got News For You. If they're with you on that you'll have comrades and companions for the journey (and it will be fun too). But in many cases a blocking mechanism takes place. People chuckling in church somehow feel they are being naughty. They don't think it ought to be fun. I go for at least one laugh every funeral if I can. It's usually what the dead person would have wanted, unless they were... no you don't trap me that easily.

Humour is complicated. When you deliver a punchline you are resolving incongruity by a pragmatic reinterpretation (Wyer and Collins - A Theory of Humour Elicitation 1992). Bet you didn't know that. And the amount of humour is a monotonic inverted U-function of the time and effort required for interpretation and reinterpretation (op cit).

So, for example, Emo Phillips' joke. 'When I was young my parents told me not to go near the cellar door for if I did I would see things I shouldn't see. Then one day I went near the cellar door and I saw - that the hall had carpet.' The parents turn from good to bad and Phillips' quirky character has another bit of background to it.

Which is why Stewart Lee's book How I Escaped My Certain Fate sub-titled the Life and Deaths of a Stand-up is so important. As a response to the adverse reaction to Jerry Springer the Opera from certain evangelical Christian quarters, in one section he attempts to lead his audience on a journey which ends with Jesus assisting him when drunk. Most of you will find it offensive. The point though is to address the boundaries of humour and taste. For in a piece where the subject matter is unpleasant - being drunk and sick - he portrays Jesus as a sacrificial servant. But obviously not in a way any Springer-hating, evangelical Christan would want him to be. At the same time as doing this, Lee has turned his back on all cheap-shot humour which humiliates people for their appearance. Quite right too.

Something funny is happening to comedy. The label 'comic' would seem inappropriate if you are not laughing at the label-wearer's jokes. Today some comedians lead you to the joke but then deliberately try not to make you laugh. Or try to con you into laughing inappropriately. And if you sit in the front rows you are opening your life to ridicule at the hands of another who has a microphone when you don't. A live comedy event then, once you've made sure you are in row C or further back, becomes not so much entertaining as an exercise in intellectual rigour. More like a philosophy gig maybe.

Oh, and I nearly forgot, if you can tell, don't sleep next to them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just back from the wonderful funeral of Fynvola James. An amazing lady who lived to the age of 97. Her 95 year old sister delivered a tribute which had everybody laughing from the first few phrases. And of course she did manage to include some thought provoking truths too.