Laugh, I Could Have Cried! By Trevor Plumbly
The Essence of Humour
It entertains, enrages and, at times, insults the focus of its attention; it’s often racist, sexist and all manner of other social no-no’s. Jewish humour is so entrenched in stereotyped perception that it would be culturally objectionable coming from an outsider, whilst Irish jokes are much funnier when they’re delivered with an authentic brogue. But a joke’s a joke isn’t it? God knows who came up with the first joke, but you can bet that someone else’s shortcomings were involved. That’s the thing about humour, it needs some form of discomfort to function properly; the old slipping on a banana skin is a good example: it’s funny, unless you’re the fall guy. I suppose humour started its real growth cycle in the late 19th Century, prior to that it was mainly confined to magazine form, and since the vast majority lacked reading skills or the wherewithal to buy periodicals, popular humour was restricted. Then came the growth of Music Hall and the birth of the stand-up comic, followed by radio and the talking movies. Slapstick died and dialogue took over, but curious guidelines applied.
The Norms of Humour
You could, for example, portray black people as lazy, simple-minded and permanently confined to the servant life; mothers-in-law were fair game and even the mentally impaired were often imitated to be part of the act. But, until relatively recently, sex and religion were taboo as far as mass humour was concerned. Sure, there must have been smut, but it was muttered rather than trumpeted publicly. In the 50s and 60s, humour started to find a real direction rather than remain a diversion between acts. Television suited humour better than the movies; half hour shows could be plotted tightly and there was little risk of the public getting bored, but the old taboos still ruled. Then came Alf Garnett and Archie Bunker; suddenly we were laughing at barely concealed racism and the word ‘poof’ was elevated to social conversation. I was never quite sure whether, like Lenny Bruce, those guys just wanted to get things out in the open, but they certainly paved the way for the riskier stuff to follow. Openly sexist routines and overtly camp performers appeared almost nightly on our small screens, until the arrival of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Sea Changes in Humour
John Cleese and co changed the perception of humour virtually overnight; the sacred cows were executed in just about every episode and we loved it! It was slapstick, satire and social irreverence rolled into one. Fawlty Towers followed, viciously lampooning snobbery with a pinch of sex and racism to keep the plot boiling. Sadly though, brilliant as it was, its success spawned a whole range of inferior sit-coms such as ‘Are you Being Served?’ and ‘Hi-de-Hi!’ that failed, in my opinion, largely due to facile scripting or just plain idiocy posing as comedy. After Cleese, there was little else to shock and comedy died for a while, smut made a brief come-back as did all manner of sexual permutation jokes, but the sparks simply weren’t there, or the talent. But, as always, theatre produces the unexpected.
The ‘unexpected’ in this case wasn’t exactly unknown; it’s just that we weren’t quite ready for him. Billy Connolly is a walking joke with his beanpole figure, unkempt hair and his goatee beard. He has a thick, almost indecipherable Scottish accent, his routine is based on the ridiculous, peppered with vulgarity and four letter words, his body language throughout is nothing short of superb in enhancing each joke. What would be objectionable from many other comedians is allowed for in Connolly; in itself the ‘F’ word isn’t funny, but he gets away with it by simply inserting it into his vocabulary in much the same way others would say ‘damn’.
Humour – a Purely Personal Matter
How we respond to humour is purely personal. For me Dave Allen’s gentle pokes at Catholicism, Peter Ustinov’s dry monologues, Tony Hancock’s amazing timing, Ann Russell’s operatic explanations and Victor Borge’s absolute droll delivery will produce a laugh every time, as will the aggressive vulgarity of Billy Connolly. Sure, a lot of it’s in bad taste, but humour’s moved past that; it had to, to survive. But, if your disposition can’t possibly cope with a few swearwords, there’s always the ‘off switch’ or dare I say it, ‘M.A.S.H.’ re-runs.