Monday, 9 February 2015

What’s Funny?

The conversation had got round, as it so often does, to the best-ever British sitcoms; ‘Gavin and Stacey’, ‘Only Fools and Horses’, ‘Porridge’, all the usual suspects.  And so, naturally, on to the best comics (British too, these people don’t do American).  Again, no surprises – Morecombe and Wise, Tommy Cooper, Les Dawson, Ken Dodd …  They’d been to see Ken at one of his three-hour standupatons a few years ago: “And not a single swearword!”  They all agreed that swearing and comedy never mix: “Completely unnecessary.   Uncalled for.  Offensive.”  Yadayadayada.

I silently slightly disagreed.  I can think of several brilliant jokes which just wouldn’t work without the judiciously placed swearword.  (Alexei Sayle’s story of the two bee-keepers, for one.)  I couldn’t tell them (the jokes or the people), of course, but it did set me thinking.  What is it that makes us laugh?

I realise that I blogged about the philosophical underpinnings of this question a few posts ago, so I’m not going to go there again.  (I hear the relieved ‘phew’s and the unclenching of grinding teeth.)  But I still want to know.  I laugh at Buster Keaton but not at Charlie Chaplin, whereas you might do the opposite, so funniness isn’t an objective attribute.  In fact, I can find something or someone hilarious one day, and just irritating the next, so it’s not even to do with me or my relationship with the funnything, at least not in any durable sense.  It seems to be something independent, out there in its own right, like a draught.

Sorry, I said I wasn’t going to go there, and then went.  But I least I managed to stop myself before I got on to neuroplasticity.


  1. Les Dawson & Ken Dodd - gatekeepers of Hell as far as I'm concerned. Mind you they are just about the only 70's icons not behind bars...

  2. In my opinion, the only properly funny thing Morcambe and Wise ever did was the sketch where they made breakfast to the tune of "The Stripper". Very little of their material has stood the test of time. Some of the old Two Ronnies' stuff still makes me laugh though.

    On the subject of Ken Dodd; he was interviewed by Gyles Brandreth a couple of weeks go. GB asked him if Dodd was his real name and he said "No Gyles; it's an anagram."

    I have been thinking about this all week, and the only television programme I can think of that makes me laugh out loud is Top Gear. Something is amiss in the world of comedy.

  3. Les Dawson isn't behind bars, true. (Nor is Bob Monkhouse. Nor Spike.) Ken almost was, once, but convinced the authorities that he was just an idiot, like Jimmy Carr.

    Liz, your Doddy quote has me wobbling - I'm instinctively with Rog, but then he comes up with that ..
    I think I disagree about M & W - it isn't what they did, it's the way they did it. Honestly, can you picture Eric's face and not laugh?

    I agree though, something is amiss. Or else it's us, which kind of makes my original point.

    And I'm disappointed that no-one has asked me to tell the beekeeper joke.

  4. I don't know the beekeeper joke, will you tell it please?

  5. Oh all right, belatedly, here’s Alexei Sayle’s very silly beekeeper joke, which relies entirely on a swearword:

    Two beekeepers meet in a pub, and naturally discuss their mutual interest.
    “So how many bees you got per hive then?”
    “Oh, about fifty thousand.”
    “That all? I got at least eighty thousand.”
    “Hmm – isn’t that rather a lot?”
    “Yeah, I wondered about that. But then I thought - fuck ‘em.”