Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Humour is a funny business


I find it hard not to be funny. As much as I'm a serious-minded individual I think too much seriousness can wear a body down. All of my novels contain funny moments but I don’t really think of my books as comic novels. I think of myself as a serious novelist with stuff to say, you know, meaning-of-life stuff, stuff to go away and ponder. That’s why I write books, to make people think, not to tell stories. Stories are boring.

People use humour to deal with all sorts of things including tragedy. I, as regular readers all know, have suffered from depression for the better part of my life, but I don’t find that my humour suffers when I’m depressed. If anything, and I even mentioned this to my doctor, I’d say it improves; he had no answer for that. I wrote my first two novels while deeply depressed and they’re full of humorous situations. I favour dry humour delivered deadpan, I take especial pleasure in wordplay, but with the exception of slapstick there’s not much I don’t enjoy when it comes to comedy. I have a replica of the late, great Eric Morecambe’s statue – the one on Morecambe’s sea front – in the living room and I display a photo of him in one of the bookcases – a card my daughter saw and aware of my affection for the man couldn’t resist getting for me.

It is arguable whether either Morecambe or Wise would have made it on his own but my money would have been on Eric over Ernie. In Living with the Truth there is a scene where an excerpt from a Shakespeare play is enacted and I really do very little to the dialogue but I have the character of Truth play his part in the style of Eric Morecambe and two or three people have commented on this scene saying it’s the funniest thing in the book. It really isn’t but Morecambe is the kind of comic who could read the telephone directory and you’d end up in stitches. The whole scene in the book relies on the reader’s relationship with the real life Morecambe.

A perfect example of the importance of character can be demonstrated in this sketch by Rowan Atkinson in which he stands and basically reads a list. The list itself is rather silly but that’s not why it works:

In my mind this is why the character of Jonathan works for me, because I based him on a real person, the comic actor (you really couldn’t call him a comedian) Arthur Lowe. Lowe is best known worldwide for his portrayal of the pompous Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army. It’s certainly not all he did but a bit like John Wayne (although he’s nothing like John Wayne) he really only ever played himself. Here’s an excellent clip of the kind of character I see Jonathan as (bear in mind than amongst his many failings Jonathan is a misogynist):

The character of Truth in the book is modelled on the actor Paul Nicholas who you can see in this clip from an advert for Wispa:

but that’s not how my wife sees him. When she first read Living with the Truth she’s never seen Just Good Friends – which is where the two characters in the ad are from – and so she picked up on the phrase “like a character from a Monty Python sketch, but not like the angel of death” and cast Eric idle in the role. To be honest he would work perfectly although both Idle and Nicholas are far too old to play the character now.

The point I’m making here is how important first impressions and an awareness of cultural references are in setting up situations. I think this is one of the reasons that people end up being so fond of Jonathan when in actuality he’s really not a captainparticularly nice person. They associate him with a character they do have affection for because despite his own failings Captain Mainwaring is the linchpin that holds Dad’s Army together.

Why is Captain Mainwaring funny though? Because he’s a character who takes himself very seriously, too seriously in fact. He has no real sense of humour and although he does things that make us laugh he himself cannot see the humour in any of it. And that’s what’s so funny.

Jones PoleThere are a lot of theories about what makes something funny. I’ve heard it said that pain is the basis of all humour whether that pain be physical (the Three Stooges hitting each other) or psychological (Bridget Jones seeing the image of herself sliding down the fireman’s pole) and happening to somebody else. I think there’s a lot of truth in that as long as you interpret ‘pain’ broadly; torture is not very funny. I think, however, context plays a big part in how we make that assessment, what is appropriate behaviour for any given situation. Rowan Atkinson explains in his lecture in the documentary Funny Business that an object or a person can become funny in three different ways. They are:

  • By behaving in an unusual way
  • By being in an unusual place
  • By being the wrong size

The Listening RoomIt’s a theory certainly. So here’s painting by Magritte that shows a giant apple filling up a room. Is it funny? Yes it is but because it’s offered up in the context of ‘art’ we treat it seriously. We have come to accept art that presents us with incongruous imagery like this and know it’s not supposed to be funny. It is funny though, funny-strange, as opposed to funny-ha-ha. If there’s a joke there we don’t get it. And getting it is important. Here’s a joke for you:

Q: How many Surrealists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: Fish

That joke came top of a Radio One poll many years ago for the most esoteric joke. It is funny if you get Surrealism but I think more of us will get this one:

Q:  How many Dell Tech Support people does it take to change a light bulb?

A:  Ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring ring-ring …

Light Bulb Jokes: [n.1] {Ly-t Bul-b Jo-k-s}

Definition of: How many (name of group of people/persons) does it take to change a light bulb ?

Answer: (A finite positive integer F) One to change the bulb, and the rest to (behave in a manner stereotypical of their group) or (say something stereotypical of their group in certain situations)
Note: If F<2 then the joke can still be extremely funny, but you will probably need to choose a different generating formula. Where F=0, particular cleverness is required. –

As well as incongruity as a basis for humour there is another theory that goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle and that’s the superiority theory. I personally don’t see this as separate. In the main, things are the funniest when we get to observe them from a distance. We’re the person who plays the prank and gets to watch to see how successful we’ve been.

truthfrontIt’s all a matter of degrees though. If we step up a prank and someone winds up being beheaded then that wouldn’t be awfully funny. What if they broke a leg? Or sprained their thumb? When are you still allowed to laugh? In Living with the Truth and Stranger than Fiction we get to see a misogynistic misanthrope made a fool of by the personification of the truth. Of course there are reasons why Jonathan keeps his distance from humanity but that doesn’t change who he is. Truth is not being nasty when he tells Jonathan the truth about his life. He simply has no filter – he’s incapable of not telling the truth – and that’s one of the things we use in society all the time to shield ourselves: the lie. I don’t think most of us appreciate just how many lies we wrap ourselves in every day:

Q: How are you?

A: Fine, thanks.

No, you’re not but they don’t want to know that anymore than you want to tell them. Lies hide things and we humans hate hidden things. Unless they’re our hidden things. And if we’re all laughing at someone else then no one’s laughing at us. As they’re suffering though a part of us is thinking: Christ. I’m glad that’s not me.

Here’s a scene in Living with the Truth. The setting: Jonathan and Truth have just sat down to lunch in a local café. They’re both having fish and chips when Jonathan decides to ask truth about the existence of God:

“What’s He like?” he found himself asking.

“Hmm?” responded Truth, who was in the process of dribbling lemon juice into some neat little cuts he’d made in his fish, “Who?”

“God, of course!”

“Oh, Him.” He was deliberating which chip to impale upon his fork; now really wasn’t the time for isagogics or theosophy. It was hard enough simply spelling them, let alone doing them, not that there was anything simple about spelling them. “Well, let’s see: his full name is Ubiquitous Eternity God, he’s a sixty-two year old unemployed song-writer living in California in a single room in The Brazil Hotel (it sounds grander than it really is), he’s got a fondness for Budweisers, massage parlours and walking out in front of oncoming traffic and stopping it with a wave of his hand while he crosses the road.”

“No, He’s not.”

“Oh, yes He is.” This was in danger of turning into a panto.

“I don’t believe you.”

“Suit yourself, but it definitely says ‘God’ on his bus pass.”

“God—‘Our Father who art in heaven,’ the creator of heaven and Earth in six days—gets the bus?”

“Oh, you mean that Gawd!”

“You knew full well I meant that Him.”

“You need a Saint Bernard to find your sense of humour.”

Why is this funny? Because Truth deliberately misunderstands who Jonathan is talking about. Jonathan just feels ridiculed – he really can’t see the funny side of what’s going on here, but we can because it’s not happening to us. Of course there’s a cultural reference here, the panto: pantomimes aren’t big in the States and so the whole ‘Oh, no he’s not – Oh, yes he is’ scenario will go whoosh! over most people’s heads. They would understand the idea of the bus pass but Carrie tells me that they only have a “senior discount” as opposed to the UK-wide free bus pass for pensioners which is what I’m referring to here. Now how many people will get The Brazil Hotel reference I don’t know. I saw it in a TV documentary and I’d be doing it a favour by calling it a budget hotel. I can’t even find it online. It may well have been demolished since – it was a good fifteen years ago I learned about its existence. The real joke here is that God is real. Well he was. There really was a sixty-two year old unemployed song-writer who lived in a single room in The Brazil Hotel who had a fondness for Budweisers, massage parlours but whether he in fact enjoyed walking out in front of oncoming traffic and stopping it with a wave of his hand I can’t remember if that’s true or if I made that bit up. He was on his last legs then so I imagine God is dead now.

In a short story I once wrote:

A comedian told a joke in a forest but there was no one there to hear it. So was it funny?

Living with the Truth is full of in-jokes, things that one person in a million might get which means that there is literally only one person on the whole planet who will get the book – me. But the simple fact is that I wrote the book for me and for me alone. That anyone else likes it, that people have actually been willing to pay money to read it, has been an unexpected and welcome bonus. You’ve probably seen Shrek. It’s a funny film but many of the jokes are clearly aimed over kids’ heads and that’s the best way to think about a lot of my writing. The critical thing is that the more the writing depends on what the readers bring the bigger the danger that the rest of your audience will miss the joke which is fine as long as they get the point. You don’t need to know any of the stuff I’ve just talked about to find the scenario in the café funny.

Here’s another one. In the book I mention “a joke about farts” but never say what the joke was. Well, this is the joke:

There was this class full of kids – about seven- or eight-year-olds – and one of them puts his hand up: “Please, Miss, I need tae dae a pish.” The teacher is aghast: “It’s not a ‘pish’ young man, it’s a Number One. Now off you go.” And the young boy goes off and does his business.

A little while later another boy puts his hand up and says, “Miss! Miss! I need tae dae a shite.” The teacher gasps: “It’s not a ‘shite’ young man, it’s a Number Two. Now off you go.” And the boy goes off and does his business.

Finally all the rough kids at the back put their heads together – “You dae it”, “Naw, you dae it” – and finally one puts his hand up and says, “Please, Miss, the boy next tae me wants tae fart but he disne know the code.”

Does it matter that next to no one will make the connection? No. Just the expression “a joke about farts” is funny on its own let alone the fact that Truth knows this embarrassing little fact about him, that his euphemism for masturbation is “a Number Three.”

Andre-BretonA lot of the humour in my books could be described as ‘dark’. Black humour is fairly new as a term – it was coined by André Breton in 1935 to designate the sub-genre of comedy and satire in which laughter arises from cynicism and scepticism – although to be fair people have been making jokes about uncomfortable subjects for as long as people have been cracking jokes. Joke-telling as a craft has fallen a bit out of favour in recent years in favour of the anecdote and although I like a good joke – even though I have never been able to remember many – I much prefer my humour to be less structured. I especially like the kind of humour you get in shows like The Office where you’re not quite sure whether you really ought to be laughing at this. I hate canned laughter with a vengeance I have to say.

When people talk about the benefits of humour usually top of the list is as a way of reducing stress. But what happens to all that stress? It gets transferred to the character who is the butt of the joke. When humour is directed at you it most definitely increases tension and that's the basis of most good story telling: the creation and resolution of conflict. In Living with the Truth Jonathan is the protagonist but does that make the character of Truth the antagonist? I don’t really see them that way. They’re more akin to straight man and funny man which is the basis of most comedy partnerships. Morecombe and Wise were a bit different in that way because they were both funny but of the pair Eric was still the funnier man to Ernie’s straighter man especially in the later years when Ernie took on the character of the famous playwright who, very much like most of the characters Arthur Lowe made his own, was funny because he took himself so seriously and that type of character goes all the way back to Malvolio and his cross garters.

An antagonist (from Greek ἀνταγωνιστής - antagonistes, "opponent, competitor, rival") is a character, group of characters, or an institution, that represents the opposition against which the protagonist must contend. In other words, 'A person, or a group of people who oppose the main character, or the main characters.' In the classic style of story where in the action consists of a hero fighting a villain, the two can be regarded as protagonist and antagonist, respectively. The antagonist may also represent a major threat or obstacle to the main character by their very existence, without necessarily actively targeting him or her. – Wikipedia

Truth is not opposed to Jonathan. He is his opposite – Jonathan is a man living a lie and Truth is, well, the truth – but he’s not out to defeat him or even get one over on him. Or even change him if it comes to that because Truth is well aware that Jonathan’s time is limited as is his capacity for change. So he’s really not the villain of the piece. If there’s a ‘bad guy’ then it’s actually Jonathan but he’s not bad bad in exactly the same way as Albert Steptoe isn’t a bad man – you can’t really put Albert Steptoe and Voldemort or Darth Vader in the same group, can you? – but he steptoe_150_150x180is a nail in his son’s side. (American readers please substitute Fred Sanford.) Albert never allows his son to rise to meet his aspirations and Truth never allows Jonathan to wallow in his delusions.

Steptoe and Son was, of course, the creation of writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson and I make the connection when, after Jonathan and Truth have finished their lunch, I describe them walking off along the promenade:

It wasn't even raining when they ventured out of the café. Truth had bought himself a 99 cone and a quarter of jelly babies and was busy sucking the ice cream inside the cone from a hole he'd bitten in the bottom. Nothing could've appeared more out of place. They looked like something out of the dark recesses of the minds of Galton and Simpson rejected as not commercial enough.

And of course both writers acknowledge their debt to Samuel Beckett. In fact it’s unlikely we would ever have had Steptoe and Son let alone Sanford and Son without Waiting for Godot and would we have had Didi and Gogo without the likes of Laurel and Hardy?

Humour is a great way to introduce uncomfortable topics in conversation. Humour is cathartic:

In The Catharsis of Comedy, Dana Sutton proposes that humour in a play, like in tragedy, can produce catharsis and that, "in the case of comedy, catharsis can be pinpointed in something tangible and undeniable, not the smile or the snicker, but the good honest explosive laugh". Revisiting Aristotle's Poetics on both tragic catharsis and comedy and Freud's theory on tendentious humour, Sutton suggests that comic catharsis is a process through which spectators purge themselves of the unwanted, negative emotions of fear and anxiety (pity) through their explosive laughter. When spectators accept the comic character as a surrogate who resembles a target, their identification with that surrogate prompts the bad feelings associated with the target and, thus, they are propelled into purgative laughter. Sutton maintains that, "for comic catharsis to work, the spectator must be able to perceive the target reflected in the surrogate and that the surrogate must be ridiculous". At the same time, though, true catharsis releases only a portion of the fear and anxiety. To accomplish this, Sutton determines that, "the spectator must both perceive the target reflected by the surrogate and feel superior to him so that only a fraction of that spectator's bad feelings will be purged" – Gail A Bulman, ‘Humour and National Catharsis in Roberto Cossa's El saludador, Latin American Theatre Review, Fall 2002, pp.12,13

I think this might explain while most readers don’t see Jonathan as I do; it’s because they empathise with him and, because he becomes a surrogate for them, of course they want to minimise his faults and failings. I’ve never heard anyone yet relating to Truth. The final goal of comic catharsis is not the purging of bad feelings but the modification of the spectator or reader’s attitude toward the butt of the joke. In other words: I don’t want to become like him in case something like that happens to me. If we act like Frank Spencer we’ll be treated like Frank Spencer.

The best reaction I ever had to Living with the Truth was by a nice lady called Helen who was the very first person to read the book in its earliest draft, when all the action takes place over just one day, and her reaction was, “You’ve made me think about my life.” (This was after she objected in the strongest terms to my treatment of Jonathan.) What writer could ask for a better response? She was in her early thirties and imagined that she was stuck in what was probably going to be a dead-end job with next-to-no chance of promotion for the next thirty and she realised that much like Jonathan she had responded reactively to life’s challenges and she would never truly be happy until she changed and took control of things. She had always wanted to be a nurse. I have no idea if she did anything about that, because I left the job a few months later, but I’d like to think she did. It would be nice to think that everything I put Jonathan through actually did some real good.


Art Durkee said...

Q. How many Zen Buddhists does it take to change a lightbulb?

A. One to change lightbulb. One not to change lightbulb.

(BTW, the "fish" answer is Dadaists. The answer for Surrealists is, "One to throw the brightly colored plastic machine parts in the bathtub, and the other to walk the lobster." Of course, that's just one opinion.)

Art Durkee said...

P.S. I know a lot of people probably don't think I'm a funny person, because I'm not funny in any conventional sense. I don't tell jokes—except lightbulb jokes, and rude musicians' jokes. (Q. What's the difference between a drummer and a drum machine? A. You only have to punch the rhythm into the drum machine ONCE.) But I routinely make people around me break up into laughter. I have a keen sense of the absurd in life, having nearly died several times. As the saying goes, "Sometimes the only thing you do is, you can laugh or you can cry. Laughter is better."

Marion McCready said...

I would have never imagined Captain Mainwaring when reading Jonathan, puts a whole new light on it!
Interesting what you say about humour and depression, in the weeks after my mother's death the black humour that went on in my head really was non-stop!

Anonymous said...

Two jokes that do for me every time.

A man takes his Rottweiler to the vet and says, "My dog's cross-eyed. Is there anything you can do for him?"
"Well," says the vet, "let's have a look at him".
So he picks the dog up and examines his eyes, then checks his teeth. Finally, he says, "I'm afraid I’m going to have to put him down"
"What? Just because he's cross-eyed?"
"No, because he's really heavy"

I went to buy some camouflage trousers the other day. I looked around the store but I couldn't find any.


Jim Murdoch said...

I’m just reporting what I heard, Art. At the time they had a run of interesting competitions like that. The only other one was to devise a new collective noun and the winner was: a persistence of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I have heard a few daft variations on the Surrealists joke but ‘fish’ was the answer on the radio. I think I’ll come back to this subject again in time. I’ve long been fascinated by where jokes come from – they just seem to appear don’t they? – and how one writes a joke. I’ve heard people say they’ve doubled up when reading some of my stuff and I really wish I could see my writing though the eyes of others. I know that much of it is funny but I’m a poor judge of now funny or in what way funny. And I’m also fascinated with how some things retain their humour no matter how many times you’ve heard them. When Carrie was away I dug out an old Billy Connolly DVD, a concert in Adelaide, which I’ve watched two or three times easily and yet it was still funny even when I knew where he was heading, perhaps because I knew where he was heading.

If I can quote from the book, Marion:

“God, he looked done in. He couldn’t think of a time when he wasn’t tired, he was always tired, terminally tired; he’d been born tired. That aside, actually he bore not a passing resemblance to the late Arthur Lowe (a fact which did not entirely displease him) but, thankfully, re-runs of Dad’s Army were becoming less frequent. He looked as if life had given him a good doing.”

I never saw Jonathan as Mainwaring but I do see him as Lowe. Mainwaring is a little caricatured, not that Jonathan isn’t caricatured in his own way, but he doesn’t have the pomposity of Mainwaring. That’s why I embedded the clip to Potter which is closer to the mark. I wasn’t really thinking about personality though, simply appearance. It struck me that someone who wants to be anonymous would be ill-served by possessing a famous face. What I should have done is had someone come into the shop and say, “’Ere I thought you were dead.” Too late now for all that.

And, Dick, that second joke sound very much in the style of Steven Wright. I’m a huge fan of his deadpan style of comedy in fact in the Billy Connolly concert I mentioned above Billy stops to give him a plug and tells a couple of his gags. I love those people who can keep their faces straight like that and you’re never sure if they’re cracking a joke or making a faux pas or what.

Ken Armstrong said...

Adding to the general feeling, I didn't see Jonathan as Captain Mainwaring but Paul came across intact.

I'm trying to think now who I *did* see Jonathan as... not trying to be clever but I think I actually saw him as me.

I suppose I should add a lightbulb joke and simultaneously lower the tone, as I do. How many misogynists does it take to change a lightbulb? None... let the bitch cook in the dark.

Jim Murdoch said...

I don’t think that is such an unreasonable response, Ken. I tend to forget the physical descriptions of characters in books anyway so much so that I barely described my latest protagonist at all; you don’t need it. I was younger when I wrote these books and was trying to behave more, hence all the descriptions of things I really had no interest in describing. The trouble with Arthur Lowe is that we think he and Mainwaring are interchangeable (as we do with so many characters on TV) and we forget that he is acting even if he doesn’t have much of a range – one can’t really imagine Lowe playing Lear. That said in 1968 (the same year as Dad’s Army premiered) Lowe was invited by Sir Laurence Olivier to act at the National Theatre at the Old Vic and in 1974 appeared in The Tempest with John Gielgud. I didn’t spend hours and hours thinking about it. Like most decisions in the book I made it without giving the matter much thought at all and, if I’m being honest when i think of Jonathan I see myself in the role but then I see myself in the role of Truth as you noted in your review.

Conda Douglas said...

Ah, humor. Fascinating subject, but tough to get a grasp on--you've made a good run at it, Jim. My one tidbit to add: it used to be believed that our humor was one big thing that set us aside from the other non-sentient animals. Then somebody (Jane Goodall?) proved that the apes play practical jokes. Simple practical jokes, such as hide the banana from Fred, but jokes all the same. And then they laugh.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to say I’ve never been big on practical jokes, Conda, and slapstick leaves me cold. I have never seen the appeal of the Three Stooges for example. And I especially hate messy humour involving gunge or ‘cream’ pies. I’ve always preferred cerebral humour, puns especially, and word play, things like Malapropisms and Spoonerisms – just love ’em.

Anonymous said...

Those two jokes Dick quoted are Tommy Cooper jokes. Here are a couple more:

Two cannibals eating a clown. One says to the other:
“Does this taste funny to you?”

You know, somebody actually complimented me on my driving today. They left a little note on the windowscreen. It said
“Parking Fine”.
So that was nice.

Anonymous said...

Those two jokes Dick quoted are Tommy Cooper jokes. Here are a couple more:

Two cannibals eating a clown. One says to the other:
“Does this taste funny to you?”

You know, somebody actually complimented me on my driving today. They left a little note on the windowscreen. It said
“Parking Fine”.
So that was nice.

Jim Murdoch said...

The thing about Cooper, Duncan, and this is also true about Ken Dodd, is their ability to take frankly groanworthy humour and do something with it in performance that revitalises it. You can’t really imagine a young comic getting away with it. I can’t say I was a huge Tommy Cooper fan. He was certainly a part of my childhood and I’m always happy to see a clip of him perform but Eric Morecambe was my real hero and, of course, Eric and Tommy also share at least one common trait, the ability to just walk into a room, say nothing and have people in stitches. My theory on that is that it’s not so much that their presence is funny, at least not that funny, but people anticipate and conjure up what about them has made them laugh before and so they really prime themselves. Billy Connolly is another like that but really his great talent is the ability to digress.

Anonymous said...

That's very true, Jim. The people who know Tommy Cooper will get a bigger laugh out of these jokes than those people who don't know him.

Digression is a great attention-grabber. I use it in my teaching a lot. It's the equivalent of showing a play within a play or a film within a film. We're drawn closer to the material.

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