Writing Right with Dmitri: Humour and the Safe Place

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Humour and the Safe Place

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A lot of comedians are getting in trouble these days, especially in the US. Some of them are whingeing, 'We can't be funny if we can't be 'politically incorrect'.' While it is true that 'political correctness' – of the technical variety as opposed to courtesy, common decency, and concern for your fellow human – is posing an imminent threat to western civilisation, as philosophers like Slavoj Zizek and Stephen Pinker are busy pointing out, that is far from the only thing wrong with most 'humour' these days. So let's emerge from that sentence with our heads in a muddle, and try to make some sense of the question: How can we write humour that actually makes others laugh – in a good way?

First of all, I'd like you to try an exercise. Go back a few centuries, and try to find anything to laugh at in a contemporary joke book. This is one from a book published in Shakespeare's day. He must have found it a knee-slapper:

THERE was a man of Gotham, the which went to the market to Nottingham, to sell Cheese, and as he was going downe the hill to Nottingham-bridge, one of his Cheeses did fall out of his wallet [some kind of carrier], and ran downe the hill. A whorsons! said the fellow; can you run to the Market alone I will send the one after the other of you. Then he layd downe his wallet, and tooke the Cheeses, and did tumble them downe the hill one after another, and some ran into one bush, and some into another; and at the last he said: I charge you all meet me in the Market-place And when the fellow came to the Market-place to meet his Cheeses, he stayed there, till the Market was almost done. Then he went about and did enquire of his Neighbors and other men, if they did see his Cheeses come to the Market. Who should bring them? said one of the Market-men. Marry, themselves, said the fellow; they knew the way well enough. He said: a vengeance on them all! I did feare to see my Cheeses run so fast, that they would run beyond the market; I am now fully perswaded, that they bee now almost at Yorke; whereupon he forthwith hired a horse to ride after to Yorke to seeke his Cheeses, where they were not. But to this day no man could tell him of his Cheeses.

William Carew Hazlitt, Shakespeare Jest-Books

Wow. How could they stand themselves, they were so witty back in the 16th Century? Apparently, this sort of stuff laid 'em in the aisles back in the days of the first Globe.

Surely it got better? Let's see what the 17th Century can come up with. This guy claims to have played the Palace – not the theatre, the actual Palace. His name was Archie Armstrong, and this is one of his 'court jests' from the time of James I.

A GENTLEMAN, playing on the Lute, under his Mistresse window;
she disdaining his presence, and despising his Service, caused her servants to polt him thence with stones: of which disgrace complaining afterwards to a friend of his, his friend told him, that he had much mistaken the gentle woman; for what greater grace could she doe to your Musicke, than to make the very stones dance about you, as they did to Orpheus.

Archie Armstrong, Archie Armstrong's Banquet of Jests

I'll bet he didn't tell any Scots jokes at that court.

Ah, but the 19th Century. That was the time, right? Really good jokes back then? Most of the time, Mark Twain was pretty funny. But what about his contemporaries? By 1890, jokes in books looked like this:

' Put down Room No. 52 to be called in time for the 4:30 train in the morning, ' he said, as he leaned gracefully over toward the night clerk of a Mississippi hotel.

' Case of life and death?' queried the clerk.

'Why, no; but I want to get to Jackson before noon.'

'Hadn't you better wait for the 9:30 train?'

'What is it to you?'

'Nothing but the excitement and muss, and I shall probably have to testify at the Coroner's inquest.'

'I don't exactly catch on.'

' Come up-stairs, please.'

When they had ascended to the first sleeping floor the clerk continued:

'This is room No. 28, as you see. There are five bullet holes in the door. Man in here last week wanted to be called for that early train. Room No. 30 has seven bullet holes, but those stand for two men. This new piece in the carpet here is where a man fell and bled to death. Down here… '

'But who kills off these guests ?' asked the traveler.

'Oh, the other guests. As soon as the [completely unnecessary ethnic slur] comes up and knocks and bawls out. Col. Shaw who has No. 32, reaches for his shotgun. Over in No. 29 Judge Havens slips out with his revolver. Major Brooks, who is in No. 33, always comes in a good third with
a Derringer, and the rest of the fellows along the hall are always more or less well heeled.
We don't care so much about the [completely unnecessary ethnic slur], as [completely unnecessary ethnic slur]s are mighty cheap around here, but there must be an inquest on the body of the white man, and…

'Did I say call me for the 4:30 train?' queried the traveler.

'I believe so.'

'Then it was a mistake. I'm in no hurry. In fact, I like Mississippi in general and this town in particular; and even if I get away at 9:30 1 shall be sorry to go. Just rub out the memoranda, and if I don't get up in time for breakfast you needn't mind sending a [completely unnecessary ethnic slur] up to pound on the door.'

TJ Carey, New Yarns and Funny Jokes, 1890.

When they have to tell you the joke is funny. . . it probably isn't. There was something wrong in 1890, if they laughed at that joke. The old jokes may have been lame, but at least they weren't outright nasty.

Which brings me to the subject of modern humour. What are the comedians who lament 'political correctness' afraid of? They're afraid of losing the safe place.

What do I mean by that? To laugh at a joke, you need to be in a safe place. One where everybody in the room feels at home. Where laughter isn't out of place. Where the laughter won't break anything. That's why I showed you that ugly joke from 1890. A lot of jokes from that decade are ugly. They are based on insulting women, other nationalities, racial minorities, and anybody with a disability. I figured the racial slur was easiest to spot, no matter what kinds of jokes you're used to. Why did the 'humorist' get away with it? Because he was writing for the travelling salesman and office-guy set, who were all white men who could be expected to find it funny to make mock of everybody else. That's sad, people. Tell me again about how those were the 'good old days' you want to go back to. I dare ya. But believe it or not, that joke was in a safe place for the idiot who wrote that joke book.

Do we want to be in that guy's 'safe place'? What about comedians today? Are we really worried about their ability to tell jokes in a world gone 'sensitive'? Let's think about this some more.

Back in 1890, were there things you couldn't joke about? Or wouldn't joke about? Sure. Here's a list off the top of my head:

  • Mothers. Motherhood was sacred. Sure, you could denigrate women, but not if they were mothers. . .
  • Your country. Of course, everybody else's was fair game. The same goes for political leaders, their spouses, etc. Unless, of course, the spouses were mothers.
  • The religion you shared with everyone else in the room. Again, go ahead and make fun of somebody else's god, but not the local deity.

You see a pattern here? Jokes tend to be about the other guy. The outsider. The people who aren't here, who aren't welcome in our club. That's why the comedians are worried: who can they tell jokes about if you make up a list that says, Don't tell jokes about. . .

  • Minorities of any kind.
  • Women.
  • People with disabilities.
  • Other countries or their religions.

'What's left?' the comedians cry in despair. 'Who can we make fun of?'

How about yourself, you nincompoop?

I can't find it, but I once read a joke book published in Czechoslovakia in 1938. It was in German. It consisted of jokes about Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis. These jokes circulated underground in Germany. The jokes were listed, not by subject, but by how many months in a concentration camp you could get for telling them. That's one kind of humour: the humour that hides in a cellar to tell the truth. The safe place for that humour is very, very small. You probably need a lookout at the door.

Then there's open humour. Humour that invites, that includes. Humour that says, 'Laugh with me. You'll feel better about yourself. You'll feel better about your fellow humans, too.' Is 'political correctness' a threat here? In a word: no.

How do you tell that kind of joke? Watch Maz Jobrani. He's Persian-American, as he says. If you ever watch one of his shows all the way through, you'll notice two amazing things. First, you will laugh like a hyena. Second, you will have met many people in his audience. Jobrani finds out where they're from, what nationalities they are, and includes them in the jokes. At the end of the show, their worlds are bigger.

On h2g2, we're good at that kind of humour. How do I know? Because I'm getting close to halfway through editing the next h2g2 book, which will consist of stories and essays (and yes, a little poetry) by h2g2ers past and present. As I said, I'm less than halfway through, and I have laughed and laughed at some of this material. It's not all jokes – some of it is serious, and some of it will make you cry. But there's some genuinely funny stuff in there. h2g2ers are funny people. And you know what they have in common?

Inclusion. That's my solution. Don't draw the circle to shut anybody out, by making them the butt of the joke. Include everyone, draw them in. Inclusive humour makes everybody an 'us'. Inclusive humour doesn't worry about 'political correctness'. If you don't believe that is possible in this divided and divisive age, just read this issue of the h2g2 Post. See if your world didn't just get a little wider.

Writing Right with Dmitri Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

25.12.17 Front Page

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