Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Me and General Robert Lee

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Are You Having a Laugh?

"Woman", Freud famously asked, "what does she want?" It probably never occurred to him to ask his wife.

It's a good thing Freud's question will go perpetually unanswered. Because if it was answered, all the fun would be over. There would be no more romantic comedies, no more jokes about men's reluctance to ask directions, no more jokes about women's craving for ever more shoes. There would be no more mystery or adventure or discovery in the relations between men and women.

The Dark Side of the Moon

One of the most evocative phrases in the English language, I think, is "the dark side of the Moon". As long as men and women continue to mystify each other, there will always be a dark side of the moon in everyday life.

And the mystery of men and women is not, of course, the only mystery in human life. There are certain questions which we keep asking, but which it would be a heartbreaking tragedy to ever have answered. Why do we like to watch scary movies? What is the essence of Irishness, or Englishness, or Frenchness? What is art? And-- the one that interests me right now-- what is humour?

I have read many, many attemps to explain humour, but I never felt that the citadel was in the slightest danger of falling. And yet the attempt not only continues to be made, but to fascinate. Someone who knew the writer Roald Dahl once remarked that anything you said about him would be true. I think that almost the same thing is true of "explanations" of humour. I've never encountered a theory that got to the bottom of the thing, but I've never encountered a theory that seemed completely wrong-- or completely uninteresting.

Reading the Funnies

I've been reading funny stuff in the last week-- my edition of The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker, and a couple of anthologies of humorous quotations put together by the Irish professor of mathematics and habitual anthologizer, Des MacHale.

(Incidentally, before I settle down to talking about humour-- and let me reassure the reader right away that I am not going to make any attempt to be funny while doing so-- I might mention that the primary reason I found myself re-reading these books was not out of a desire to be amused, but because of the particular state of mind they always induce in me. I was given Des MacHale's Ready Wit as a Kriskindle a few years ago, and reading through the funny quotations on so many assorted subjects put me-- to use a phrase I hate, but which seems most apt here-- in a very distinctive "head space".

How to explain it? Every now and again, I like to go to the St. Stephen's Green shopping centre, buy a "monkey business" smoothie, take the escalator to the first floor, and sip my smoothie while leaning on one of the balconies, looking down on the shoppers and coffee-drinkers and stragglers below. It gives me great pleasure to simply stare at all the passing people, and soak up the sounds of voices, footfalls and piped music that fill the air. It's a delicious feeling of being suspended, simultaneously distanced from the stream of life and closer to it than usual. And that is how reading anthologies of little snippets like cartoons or funny quotations makes me feel.)

But that's by-the-by, more or less. Even though I was reading these books to savour their atmosphere, rather than for belly-laughs, of course I found myself enjoying, appreciating and critiquing the cartoons and witticisms I was reading.

What makes a really good witticism? What makes a stupid and tiresome witticism?

Wit, its Cause and Cure

I think a really good witticism has to avoid the obvious-- a condition which may seem obvious in itself, but is anything but. Is anything more tiresome than witticisms that accuse all politicians of being crooks, or all lawyers of being low-lives?

I take an example at near-random from Des MacHale's Humorous Quotations. This is it: "Reader, suppose you were an idiot; and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself."

Is that funny? Is that clever? If I tell you it was written by Mark Twain, does that make it funny or clever?

I submit that it's a stupid and trite observation, even if it was written by one of the wittiest men in history. Members of Congress are obviously not idiots. Getting into Congress surely requires, if nothing else, a very high degree of savvy and wordly-wisdom. Besides, calling someone an idiot is really nothing but a schoolyard taunt, and aiming that taunt at politicians or lawyers doesn't make it any wittier.

But take, on the other hand, what is probably Mark Twain's most celebrated witticism: "Rumours of my death are greatly exaggerated". This quip is so influential that it is often obliquely referenced simply by using the words "greatly exaggerated". It never stops being funny. Why?

Because it is profound. It brings us face to face with the awful absoluteness of death-- a thing that it's surprising we ever lose sight of, but that we do. At the same time, it manages to sweeten and soften this stark truth by suggesting in a playful and surreal manner that death might not be so absolute after all. And-- even after we have heard it dozens of times, as we all have-- the format and language of the sentence is so familiar and lulling that we can't help doing a kind of mental double-take whenever we encounter it.

Marriage, Money, Alchol, Taxes and Being Fat


One of my own favourite witticisms come from Lord Liverpool: "Reform? Aren't things bad enough already?". I like this because it very neatly flips on its head the common assumption that one is either happy with the way things are, and thus a conservative, or unhappy with the way things are, and thus a radical. It also a expresses a rather novel (but not a perversely novel) view of life-- unlike all the tiresome jokes about stupid politicians or unhappy marriages.

There are too many painfully predictable witticisms about politicians, marriage, money, alcohol, taxes and being fat. Most of these witticisms follow the same formula. Des MacHale has especially too much esteem for the witless gags of Jo Brand, an English comedian who does her sex a disservice by focusing almost entirely on fatness and sexual intercourse.

The problem with the common run of witticisms on the above subjects is that they trade on the extraordinary idea that simply referring to these subjects is funny in itself. Take this couplet by Langston Hughes, that I came across in a book of comic verse:

Little Lyric (of Great Importance)

I wish the rent
Was heaven-sent.


What's funny or clever about that? Everybody wishes that the rent was heaven sent, especially landlords. We also wish clothes would iron themselves and that chocolate was a health food. Simply naming a desire doesn't make for humour in most cases. Why should it do so in the case of money?

Not that you can't be funny about money, any more than you can't be funny about politicians or marriage. One of my favourite New Yorker cartoons shows a man sitting in his bank manager's office and saying: "I'm having an out-of-money experience". But I think this is funny because it doesn't rely on the mere mention of money for its humour. It's obviously the parallel between "out-of-body experience" and "out-of-money experience" that does the comic work. (And it makes being broke sound strangely exalted.)

Pure Comedy

As well as tiresome subject matter, I think witticisms fail because of sourness. It's easy to sneer-- but, contrary to the Simpsons joke, it's not much fun, either. Because of Original Sin (possibly the most self-evidently true of all Catholic doctrines) we are nearly all temperamentally inclined to think disparagingly of others, to find fault, to whinge, to grumble, to detract. Witticisms that simply add to this downward pressure, this spiritual force of gravity that is bearing down on all of us all the time, may make us laugh, but they don't lift us. They send no breath of fresh air into the stuffy, overheated, unfragrant room of sullenness that most of us have locked ourselves into, most of the time.

When a witticisms takes the opposite tack-- when it is generous, optimistic, self-mocking, cheerful-- it makes the soul glow.

I think my favourite example of this is Oscar Wilde's line, "Work is the curse of the drinking classes". Now, you could consider this a cynical swipe that stereotypes working class people as being idle and habitually intoxicated. But I think that would be completely tone-deaf. I've always taken the aphorism as a playful, winking correction of an all-too-common misconception-- that people (especially poor people) should live to work rather than work to live.

Another famous witticism that I would class as a generous witticism, from a rather unlikely source, is Samuel Beckett's famous response to an actor who lamented he was failing. "Go on failing", he said. "Next time, fail better". (Or maybe not. I did read about such an exchange between Beckett and one of his actors, but a quick internet search shows me the words might have actually occurred in one of his plays instead. Let it stand.)

And before I leave this pleasant part of my article, I can't help quoting a third example of a generous witticism. Zig Ziglar, an American salesman and motivational speaker who was also a Christian, had a friend who told him he didn't go to church because it was full of hypocrites. "Don't worry" said Ziglar, "There's always room for one more." While this might superficially seem like a dig at his friend, it is really an uplifting reminder that we are all sinners, and that we should be less judgemental of our fellows.

Never Give a Cynic an Even Break


Generous-hearted witticisms like these are inevitably exceptions. Most witticisms, almost of necessity, tend towards cynicism and mockery. But there are degrees of cynicism, and there is such a thing as gentle and affectionate mockery. Sour witticisms are bad, not because they make sport, but because they are lacking in sport.

I think the best examples of sour witticisms are from W.C. Fields. Fields may have been the most kind-hearted of men in reality, for all I know, but the persona he adopted was execrable. Here is a selected list of his one-liners:

If at first you don't succeed, try again. Then quit. There's no use being a damn fool about it.

Children should be neither seen nor heard from...ever again.

I like children...if they're properly cooked.

Never give a sucker an even break.

I'm free of all prejudices. I hate everyone equally.

Anyone who hates children and animals can't be all bad.


I know these are jokes and that I could be accused of taking them too seriously. But, if they are jokes, where is the mirth in them? Breathing this kind of air makes you feel queasy very quickly.

The snipes against children seem the most typical of Fields, and these are particularly nasty. Of course it is easy to sentimentalize children. And of course children can be the most selfish, exhausting, even sadistic creatures you could ever happen to come across. But, despite all that, the distinguishing features of childhood are still wonder, innocence and vulnerability. And to sneer at wonder, innocence and vulnerability isn't just mean-spirited. It's downright Satanic.

I think the W.C. Fields school of witticism is detestable because it picks on the underdog. Every healthy instinct in humanity rejoices to see the "sucker" get the upper hand over the cynic, or in general, the little guy have the last laugh over the big guy. To invert that preference seems to me a kind of spiritual suicide.

Don't be such a Quirk

I have spent so long talking about witticisms, I haven't left myself much room to talk about cartoons. So, briefly, this is my own personal ideal of a cartoon:

1) It must be stand-alone, not one of a series, like Peanuts or Dilbert-- the whole joy of the thing lies in its being self-contained, a one-off. A cartoon should be a visual one-liner, although that analogy doesn't do justice to the poetry of the thing.

2) It must not, repeat not, repeat NOT, be "clever". The pleasure we take from it should not be in "getting" it, or a self-congratulatory pleasure in understanding the reference or allusion. (One New Yorker cartoon shows James Joyce's fridge, which has a list pinned on it of reminders to himself. Most of them are mundane things like "Buy tomatoes", but the last is: "Forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." This kind of thing makes me sick.)

Anti-humour and "quirky", "left-field", "offbeat" humour are also, to my mind, destructive of the simple charm of the comic cartoon. I think a cartoon should aim for the universal and timeless, should aim to pick up on something that everybody will recognize, rather than providing smirks for a clued-in clique. It should not be based on local or fleeting controversies, but on some aspect of human nature or of ordinary life which is familiar to us all. And who likes a smart-aleck, anyway? In a "clever" cartoon, the focus is on the cartoonist, not his subject; it's about how smart the cartoonist is (and, by extension, it's about how smart the reader is to be in on the joke).

3) It must have only one panel. Even a second panel dilutes the thing intolerably; it introduces time, and sequence, and continuity, and all the things that are gloriously absent from the tiny world of a single-panel cartoon.

Cartoons I Have Loved

A brief description of some of my favourite cartoons...

The first is from the days when personal computers were still an object of curiosity and discussion. I came across it in a special edition of a magazine (I forget which magazine) devoted the topic of personal computers. It showed a deathbed scene, the dying man telling the group keeping vigil over him: "Tell them I never bought a personal computer. Tell them I died unrepentant." (I myself think that old people should be disdainful of computers and modern technology, and I'm always mildly depressed to hear an old fogey talk familiarly of compressed files and paywalls.)

I also like a New Yorkercartoon that shows a man in a suit and tie, holding a glass, walking into a room where a cocktail party is happening and thinking, "Yipes! Grown-ups!" I feel like that man all the time.

Another of my favourites shows a man and a woman sitting on a sofa watching TV, while a coated and hatted figure who has just opened the door is proclaiming: "My wife! My best friend! My favourite TV show!" (Could any betrayal be worse?)

And finally, I like a cartoon by Graham Keyes (I think) that I saw in the Evening Herald, a Dublin newpaper, many years ago. It appeared at a time of particularly strong gale-force winds. It showed a man lying in bed, seen from above, and we see that his house has had its roof blown off. He has his eyes closed and is thinking, "That was a strong one". Rather paradoxically, I found this cartoon deliciously cosy. Not so much for the idea of the roof being blown off, but for the idea of a man lying in bed, too snug to even open his eyes as the storms howls around him. After all, we know the roof didn't really blow off, don't we?

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