Paul Johnson

Making jokes is hard, and is certainly no laughing matter

Making jokes is hard, and is certainly no laughing matter

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The most valuable people on earth are those who can make you laugh. Laughter is the great restorative and rejuvenator. I’m surprised more philosophers have not written about it: only boring Bergson. In recent years the people who have made me laugh most — ‘shriek’, as Nancy Mitford called it — are Carla, Leonie and Taki. Nothing can beat the running gags of life with intimate friends. But I like the professionals, too, who sweat at it, and whose only object is, as they say in Leeds, to ‘prise open them grim jaws of yours with a crowbar’. Query: why are Yorkshiremen so reluctant to laugh? Eric Morecambe from North Lancs used to tell jokes on the point, such as ‘Ee, lad, thou wert so funny I almost laffed.’ Or ‘Ees quite good, this lad, isn’t ’ee?’ ‘Aye, if you like laffing.’

I have been rummaging about in my copy of the Domesday Book to find an entry under Berdic, who held lands in Gloucestershire and is described as joculator regis. A sturdy fellow, I imagine, since making William the Conqueror laugh cannot have been easy, Normans being the French equivalent of Yorkshiremen in this respect. All English mediaeval monarchs had their ‘fools’. Sir Thomas More had a household fool who figures in the Holbein family drawing and was called Henry Pattenson (a distant forebear of Sir Les Patterson, perhaps, assuming the family altered the spelling of their name when they emigrated to Melbourne circa 1840). During the last decade of Henry VIII’s life, his fool, Will Somers, was closer to him than anyone else. Elizabeth I had a clutch of creatures who drew wages and clothing allowances, including Robert Grene and his son, ‘Jack Grene our foole’, Thomasina, a dwarf or muliercula, ‘Ipolyta the Tartarian’, ‘a lytle Blackamore’ and a funny Italian called Monarcho. There is an essay by C.C. Stopes, ‘Elizabeth’s Fools and Dwarfs’ in the volume called Shakespeare’s Environment. Of course I am not referring to the comedians of the professional stage, like Shakespeare’s contem-poraries William Kempe and John Shanks.

The mediaeval mind regarded physical and mental deformity with fascination, not untinged by superstition. The ‘holy fool’ was a reality to them, and fools at court could say things to monarchs which no one else dared, a phenomenon exploited by Shakespeare, especially in King Lear. Religious houses had fools too. The monks of Durham Priory had a creature called stultus or fatuus, brought out to amuse them at Christmas or on the feast of their patron, St Cuthbert. There was an annual ‘feast of fools’ in many cathedrals, in which the junior clergy and choirboys dressed up as popes, bishops, clowns and women for romps which aroused the ire of their seniors, ineffectually since the mediaeval mind recognised the absolute necessity for laughter. Even the most august institutions liked a titter. My old Oxford college, Magdalen, kept a dancing bear in the late 15th century. (In my time it had bears in the shapes of A.J.P. Taylor and C.S. Lewis.)

In this respect the Middle Ages continued into Stuart times; James I had a fool, and his wife, Anne of Denmark, a ‘jester’. The great change into rationality came with the Civil War, fools disappearing along with traditional ghost stories and much else for, as John Aubrey put it, ‘gunpowder is a great fugator of fantosmes’. And, of course, Puritanism largely stamped out laughter in the home.

If, as modern Puritanism and political correctness insist, there are only a limited number of subjects one is allowed to laugh at, the professional humorist or even those of us who just try to amuse our friends have to work much harder than before. Half a cen-tury ago, joke censorship revolved around sex. I have been reading an excellent study of Morecambe and Wise by Graham McCann, which analyses the BBC Green Book of do’s and don’ts, compiled in 1949 by Michael Standing, director of variety. Among topics banned absolutely were honeymoon couples, innuendoes about ladies’ underclothes such as ‘winter drawers on’, lavatories, ‘effeminacy in men’, fig leaves, chambermaids, ‘towel’ (‘because it has connotations’), rabbits, lodgers, commercial travellers, infidelity and ‘pre-natal influences’, such as ‘his mother was frightened by a donkey’. Standing insisted that comics should err on the side of caution, the motto being ‘If in doubt, leave it out’. The list included a ban on ‘trade names and Americanisms’, but mostly it was about sex.

This was the attitude that Ken Tynan devoted his life to destroying. And in a sense he succeeded, since every kind of crude obscenity is now permitted. Are we any better off? Do we laugh more? I would say not, since censorship just takes other forms. The Puritan tradition lives on powerfully, in the shape of the kind of woman who becomes a Labour MP in order to wag fingers with legal backing. There is more censorship in Britain today than at any time since the early 18th century, and the number of topics I now avoid increases week by week. It is not just a matter of excluding animal acts from circuses, for which I suppose a case can be made, but of introducing the philosophical/legal principle that anything likely to promote ‘hate’ or ‘hurtfulness’ must be forbidden. Racial or even provincial jokes are taboo. Not long ago a chief constable sought to launch a prosecution against someone for making the mildest of remarks about a Welshman on the radio. The Yorkshire jokes I have just told may soon be censored.

Looking the other day through a collection of Osbert Lancaster pocket cartoons, I calculated that about a third would now be banned. A majority of jokes are subversive in some way, and subverting means touching someone’s dignity or interests and so hurting. If hurting is not allowed, collapse of funny party must follow. As for hate, the introduction of the ‘hate crime’ merely pushes it underground, where it seethes and festers. There is certainly more hate in this country than ever I can remember, and much of it is directed against authority which seeks to transform us into politically correct zombies. The kind of escape valve traditionally provided by satirical comment in the media is not available, since editors are increasingly anxious to avoid trouble and will not allow their writers any latitude. When the law is threatening but vague, self-censorship inevitably follows.

I don’t think you can stamp out humour, however, and it pops up in strange ways. Jean-Paul Sartre was totally spoilt as an infant and when he was finally packed off to school had a correspondingly hard time, being small, ugly and no good at games or fighting. He survived, and eventually even flourished, by learning how to make his tormentors laugh. And it was this skill which made him tolerable — just — as a playwright. Cyril Connolly had a comparable experience. At Eton he had none of the traditional assets. Small, ugly, hopeless at rowing and cricket, socially insignificant and too lazy to star at Greek verse or Latin prose, he seemed at first not even a starter. Yet, by making the bloods laugh, he got into Pop, probably the only boy ever to make the grade by professional wit. This quality sustained him throughout life, and turned him from a failed writer into a successful literary character. If the ability to get a laugh is the most valuable contribution you can make in society, it is also the most precious of all assets.