“I wrote this for a magazine. I thought it was funny. They returned it to me. They didn’t think it was funny. They thought that it was a GCSE essay that I’d sent to them by mistake. Anyway, as I wrote it, I thought that I might read it to you all before I feed it to the shredder.” Frankie began, solemn-faced, to read from the sheaf of papers he held in his hand.
“‘In common with most nations (and some sunglasses), the UK is seriously polarised. At one end of our society there is a sub-set of the poor and disadvantaged who believe that all of their woes have arisen as a result of the actions (or inactions) of ‘the rich’; at the other end a sub-set of the rich and privileged who really do believe that those without wealth are that way simply because they are workshy; that those without education are that way simply because they are stupid; that those who choose to eat their meals in McDonald’s do so simply because they are too lazy to get the 4×4 out of the garage and nip round to the wine bar. Both views, although palpably flawed, are none-the-less deeply entrenched into the British class psyche. It is an obvious, if not particularly edifying fact, that when things get stacked-up – as societies are apt to do – something always winds up at the bottom – like Grimsby. Whilst the vast majority of us occupy the middle ground between two extremes – ineffectively dangling our balls over either side of the fence, grumbling under our breath like a disenfranchised Social Democrat about the behaviour and attitudes of those both ‘above’ and ‘below’ us – it is the rift between these two ‘poles’ of society that drives all comedy. The stooge in all comedic confrontations will be either an upper-class twit or an ill-educated lout. We feel empowered to laugh at them both because we are neither.
Our comfortable little Larnaca poolside sunbed in the ‘green zone’ between the two sides engaged in the class war is the place from where we can look in any direction and see something ludicrous. We are the sane centre of an insane universe and the idiots either side of us can’t even see it. We see that the rich are wrong to deride the poor and the poor are wrong to censure the rich, but we do not see that the one thing that unites the two is the contempt with which they view those of us in the middle. Neither one nor the other, neither twixt nor tween, neither Abbott nor Costello: we are an homogenous gloop, like vichyssoise, and there’s nothing funny about that.
Comedy is always painful for someone. I have been to many comedy gigs that were excruciating. (The problem with a bad joke is that you don’t know it’s bad until it drops onto your foot.) All jokes are battles: all punchlines are the moment when Indiana Jones shoots the giant swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The skill of the comedian is in telling you something you already know, whilst allowing you to think that they thought of it first. How many times have you watched a mammoth James Bond fight whilst thinking ‘Why doesn’t he just shoot him’? Some degree of foreknowledge from the audience is vital. Imagine a comedian with no audience (perhaps Jimmy Carr). If I fall over in a forest and nobody is there to see it, is it still funny? (Answer: only to my wife.)
In the United Kingdom, we can add to this caustic little brew the fact that the four home nations actually have very little time for one another (we are perpetually either preparing for divorce or engaged in the kind of dalliance that will almost certainly lead to one) and – except for when any one of us has an Olympic champion – we’d actually far sooner be United with anybody else other than our closest neighbours (excluding the French, obviously). All the jokes I knew as a boy featured an Englishman (smart), a Scotsman (tight) and an Irishman (stupid): there was seldom a Welshman in my proto-teenage repertoire as I was not familiar with any comedic Welsh stereotype other than a fat man singing loudly at daffodils. The English man – always a man: misogyny would have been a really good Olympic event for us back then – always top of the pile as far as we were concerned, but bottom for everybody else. For us the stiff upper lip, for everybody else an iron rod up the arse. The characteristics we most valued, being the most reviled by everybody else. Charming eccentricities are all well and good, providing that you don’t expect everybody else to share them. Ok, so we have the best sense of humour in the world, so why does nobody else get it? Perhaps they just need educating. (Many deride the French sense of humour, but they forget Marcel Marceau – or a single word he said – some say the Germans have no sense of humour, but they forget… actually, they don’t forget, perhaps that’s the problem.) Hating the English is the only thing that actually unites the rest of our Queendom (and, at times, the world). English plutocrats, looking down our noses at our feckless Celtic cousins: a class war of nations. We are the butt of their jokes as they are ours. A fun day out at the circular butt-kicking convention.
And God forbid that anyone is knowingly droll or amusing: that is just not how it is done. English characters do not wise-crack, they pratfall. Basil Fawlty was a clown, Del Trotter was a clown, David Brent was a clown: if they’d have been witty, they’d have been smart-arses and we wouldn’t have liked them at all. Funny is accidental, stupid, absent, but never intentional. Witty is annoying. It is difficult to think of a single successful sit-com character who ever ‘made’ jokes, rather than being the butt of them: an unwitting victim of circumstance. Most successful comedians stress their own fallibilities rather than those of others. Frailty becomes their strength. ‘Making fun of’ is seldom funny. Mocking political satire merely turns the ‘enemy’ into the ‘victim’. Even with a target as broad as our own Boris, it is difficult to score points without appearing mean. Nobody likes a bully, and the desire to be liked is the common thread that joins all comedians. The class clown is traditionally the shy boy/girl who has no friends until they discover that putting a drawing pin on the teacher’s chair will buy them a class full of them – as long as they find something equally funny to do the next day. It is like being court jester to a medieval king: ‘make me laugh my head off or I’ll laugh yours off’. ‘You’ve got to give it to him though, that’s a bloody hilarious pig’s bladder he’s waving.’ Has any sane person ever laughed at a circus clown? ‘So, your car fell apart, well so did mine sunshine, and nobody laughed then either.’ The biggest prize for those with no friends is the friendship of those with many. The biggest prize for those with many is the ability to thwart the aspirations of those with none. Money does buy friends, and also the ability to have no need for them. Those that have do not need, and those that need do not have, and whilst we may well be the only ones to see it, the joke, none-the-less, is always on us.’”
“I really have no idea why Woman’s Own would not accept it…”