Blog Number 37 [Tuesday 7th July 2020]. Jokes and Panto.
Mr Anastasiades, a man of extreme wealth and prominence in society, gets out of a taxi. The taxi driver, eagerly expecting a generous tip, is put out when the great man gives him a few pennies. Stung by this the taxi driver says: “Mr Anastasiades, I have to tell you this. I often have your son in the cab, and he always gives me a really big tip. To which Mr Anastasiades replies: “Ah, unlike him, I don’t have a rich father.”
My father used to tell this joke. Was he conscious of its meaning to us? I was the son of a rich father after all. He may have been but that was not why he told the joke. What he liked, what we all like about jokes, is simple. It’s the unexpected, the twist at the end. Told well, such a joke makes people laugh and in doing that the joke teller has occupied the centre stage for a short while. The joke doesn’t even have to be funny. The comedian, Tommy Cooper, told terrible jokes, most of which he messed up. That was the real joke of course. A comedian should be able tell slick jokes with great punch lines and we laugh because Tommy Cooper’s attempts always fall flat. Yet, once you have seen Cooper’s routine, you already know it will go wrong. There’s no twist. In fact, you are eagerly expecting him to cock it all up. The reason it’s funny is all in the man and the delivery. To many Cooper was a very funny man [see Antidote below].
Here’s another joke:
It’s the 2nd World War. A new inmate arrives at the POW camp where many have been interned for several years. He’s told by one of the veterans that once a week everyone piles into Hut C to listen to jokes. They go along together. They all sit around waiting expectantly. A person gets up to tell the first joke. “Number 34,” he says, and everyone bursts into laughter and applause. He sits down and the next person gets up. “Number 72,” he says. Again everyone bursts into laughter and applause. This happens again and again. Someone gets up and says a number and everyone laughs. Afterwards, the new inmate asks the veteran what’s going on. “We have all heard the jokes so often,” he says, “that we wrote them down in a joke book and gave each a number. That way we can just say the number and everyone knows the joke.” The new inmate studies the joke book and at the next meeting he decides to tell one of the jokes. “Number 49,” he says. But instead of roars of laughter and applause there’s total silence. Crestfallen he sits down. Afterwards, he asks the veteran what happened. Was there something wrong with Joke Number 49? “No,” says the veteran. “That’s an excellent choice.” “So why didn’t people laugh?” “What’s funny is not the joke,” he goes on. “It’s the way you tell it.”
Many of you will have seen this joke coming. Does that matter? A little. The first time you hear a joke is best if it has a really good punch line. Thereafter, the enjoyment is more in the anticipation of the joke, the build-up, and that is all about the person and the delivery. That and sharing the humour with your friends for shared jokes give us a feeling of solidarity. The many, many jokes about Trump, for example, provide a release for the anger and frustration people feel at having such an awful person in one of the most powerful positions in the world. Similarly, with regard to the incompetent, self-serving shower in charge of this country. Are such jokes helpful? It depends. In the sense that they provide a release, yes. In the sense that they undermine those in power, maybe or maybe not. After all Boris Johnson got where he is today by encouraging buffoonery of which he was the butt. Remember the man hanging on a tripwire? He has honed his persona over years right down to the blonde hair that he carefully tousles before giving a speech and the provocative one-liners. “Fuck business,” he said. Has that damaged his popularity? No. And yet…
In Milan Kundera’s novel The Joke, a man makes a casual, jokey remark about politics. It’s reported and his life is turned upside down. Authoritarian governments come down hard on people telling jokes at their expense. If jokes didn’t matter, why would they do this? John Lennon, responding to criticism of his and Yoko Ono’s week-long bed-in the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel, said: “It’s part of our policy not to be taken seriously. Our opposition, whoever they may be, in all manifest forms, don’t know how to handle humour. And we are humorous.” Satirical humour directed at those in power is a political statement. It provides a focus and a forum. Hence, the hashtags, the tweets, the sharing of funny videos. But how does humour fare against tanks, tear gas and the baton charges of riot police? Not a fair contest, is it? Still, even in the most dire of situations, when life is at its most terrible, a dark sense of humour can help. In Berlin, being heavily bombed during the final days of the 2nd World War and in the depth of winter when people were freezing and starving, a joke went the rounds. ‘What will you give as a Christmas present?’ ‘Be practical, get a coffin.’ Who says the Germans don’t have a sense of humour?
And coming to the present day government, there is plenty of material for humour. Here’s my take on the latest developments.
The Arts are to be awash with dosh. Rishi, the boy Chancellor, [ventriloquist puppet to Bojo who is in turn ventriloquist puppet to Dom] announces that the they are to get £1.7 billion give or take a billion or two. Hooray! On the radio this morning a little known government minister by the name of Oliver Dowden talked of this ‘world-beating’ sum of money. What? Does everything the government does have to be world-beating? I mean the world must be in a parlous state, being pummelled on all continents by Bojo, Rishi, Govey, Mattie, and not forgetting Dom Raab, which I would dearly love to do but somehow can’t. Is there anything we are not world-beating at? Joined-up thinking? Telling the truth? Publishing reports of government inquiries?
Anyone like to tell me what Mr Oliver Dowden is Minister for? Thought not. Try Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Four in one! He’s a multi-tasker! Do you notice how Sport never gets its own ministry but is always tacked on to someone else’s? I think it needs an upgrade at the next reshuffle, Minister of Health and Sport perhaps. It would suit Mattie though, sadly, I doubt he will be around to enjoy it.
‘What are we world beating at?’ I ask M.
‘By ‘we’ you mean…?’
‘Me and you, you and me, happy together,’ I sing lustily if not all that tunefully.
A long silence. Singing might not have been a good idea.
‘I’m sorry, no need to be personal. I was just trying to make conversation…’
‘I mean that’s what you and I are world beating at, talking bollocks.’
‘At least when our so-called conversations get written up into what you like to call your blog. They’re truly bollocks. World-beating bollocks, I’d say.’
I don’t know whether to be proud or insulted. I mean bollocks is a bit harsh but if your bollocks are world beating, that’s something, isn’t it? Max, you can stop sniggering. This is not schoolboy humour. [Yes it is! says a voice at the back. No it isn’t! says another]. Pantomime, flushed with a dollop of Rishi’s cash, is back. But with this government did it ever go away?
Fade to a rehearsal at the Old Vic. On stage, two actors and the two ends of a Pantomime Horse. One is a blond tousled-hair bimbo in an ill-fitting suit and the other a rake-thin SPAD dressed in unwashed T-shirt and dirty grey tracksuit trousers.
‘Which end, am I, Dom?’
Weary sneer. ‘Which do you think, Bozo?’
‘You could get my moniker right, Dom. It’s Bojo. I am PM after all…’
‘Okay, don’t get your knickers and all that.’
‘…and as PM, I…’
‘Go in the back end.’
‘What? No, surely not.’
‘Think PM. I know that’s hard for you, thinking. Not your forte. But try. The back end is the best place for you. You can’t be seen, you don’t have to do anything, and you can nap to your heart’s content while I get on with all the important things.’
Like everything Dom says, it makes perfect sense, to him at least.
Off stage, a small tremulous voice. ‘Er, lads, the horse is actually mine. A pantomime horse is part of my remit.’
‘Who the fuck are you?’ thunders Dom.
Man in a smart grey suit appears on stage. ‘Name’s Dowden. Oliver Dowden. I am Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I’m in the Cabinet.’
‘I don’t care if you’re a turd being flushed down the toilet. You don’t decide anything. You are just a Minister and in my new uncivil service ministers don’t lead. They follow. Preferably social distanced at a safe distance of half a mile. Got it?’
‘Sorry. Just trying…’
‘You are exactly that. Trying. So go and be trying elsewhere.’
It’s pantomime, Jim, but not as we know it.’
Tommy Cooper. Does his routine still make you laugh?