"You see, I just don't have a sense of humour."
A sense of humour one of those things that women's magazines insist that men must have in order to make them marriageable. It is not an ability to tell jokes on demand, to make smutty comments or racist jibes when called upon. What it is not is knowing fifty three uses for lawyers, blondes, Essex girls, or Kerrymen.
For that matter, it is not what the Greeks thought it was. Their word for something that raised a smile was komos, which translates as a revel, from which we get the word Comedy. Their definition of comedy represented everything that their celebrated tragedies (masks, death, unhappy endings) was not. Tragedies tended to involve heroic figures, falls from power and usually had a nasty stabbing somewhere in it. Greek comedies involved real people, golden-hearted prostitutes, and happy endings.
Aristotle, in his infinite wisdom, called comedy imitation of men who are ‘inferior but not altogether vicious.’ Cicero, as with other philosophers, was very keen on making this occasionally obscene branch of theatre purposeful, and therefore respectable, and that it was as potentially useful as the purifying catharsis that tragedy allowed. Comedic plays, they carefully explained, were supposed to ring hideously in the ears of the foolish, who would then automatically retreat with their tail between their legs, and mend their ways.
Chief weapon in this regard was satire, which usually consists of a violent attack on someone or something judged to be wicked or fundamentally wrong. In its purest form, satire is not comedic at all, but horrific (see Swift’s A Modest Proposal). This element is what gives classical comedy much of its cutting edge.
As printing developed, comedy of every sort was widely disseminated and the term became a catch-all phrase for anything that is intended to raise a smile, or amuse in general. What it is important to recognise here is that there are many theories of comedy, but this one is mine. Most of them are mostly right, but there is, in reality, no one way that explains everything.
Comedy, in its broadest sense, consists largely of three elements: wit, buffoonery, and humour.
Wit is the aristocratic element of comedy. The original meaning was sharp intelligence and wisdom: an intellectual sport, as played between gentlemen, happily batting around ideas as shuttlecocks. Rich in poetic references and paradoxes, it could as a consequence only be played by those who had been expensively educated. During the seventeenth century, wit began to be used to describe not just a brilliant thought, but a brilliant thought that was also amusing—but it was not there to be laughed at, but to be saluted with a nod of appreciation, or half smile. Because of this, it was the only element of comedy that could be successfully practised in the seventeenth century, when polite society would not tolerate the sight of gentlemen roaring with laughter. Dean Swift, in fact, freely admitted to only having laughed twice in his whole life. Samuel Johnston was cherished by his friends for his laughter-inducing activities, but this side of him was downplayed by Boswell, who was hardly going to diminish his hero by portraying him as being both flawed and second-rate.
Buffoonery is at the compete opposite end if the scale to wit in just about every respect. It is cheap, it is cheerful—its sole purpose is to induce laugher, as loud, as long and as vigorous as possible. Pratfalls, custard pies in the face, funny hats and red noses. If it fails to arouse laugher it is nothing at all.
The most widespread form of buffoonery is telling jokes, which are self-contained capsules of buffoonery and are the easiest device with which to trigger off laughter—and a bout of helpless laughter is highly prized in modern times for its therapeutic value—the closest modern equivalent to the eighteenth century swig of opium. It does not cure pain and worry, but obscures the symptoms for a few moments—its the nearest thing in life to complete escapism next to the climax of lovemaking.
Most jokes, of comedians in standup, are vehicles for the ventilation of sexual anxieties and they confirm our racial prejudices. (Hazlitt wrote ‘for every joke, there is a sufferer.’) Laughing at our worries reduces their threat to us: tough guys feel the need to make jokes about homosexuals to reassure themselves that they are not limpwristed in any way. Laughing at people who are not as bright or as rich as us makes us feel warm and secure.
Ultimately, the effect of buffoonery is opposite to that of classical comedy. classical comedy aims to educate and benefit the person being laughed at. With jokes, the laugh reassures the laugher.
Somewhere in-between the two of these lies humour. If wit is upper class, buffoonery is lower class, and humour lies somewhere in the middle.
In medieval time, a ‘humour’ was one of the four cardinal fluids that were believed to be coursing around a persons body, which were blood, phlegm, choler, and melancholy, or black bile. When one fluid predominated, a person’s character was dominated by that particular humour. Too much blood was over passionate: droopiness was phlegm dominant, angriness was choler, and melancholy or black bile led to sadness. Someone displaying these symptoms was said to be in a humour or, if this persisted, the person was said to be a ‘humourist.’
By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the meaning of the phrase had moved across to mean not the person who was eccentric, but the writer who described the eccentricities.
Long before it had a name, however, humour was not the invention of Greek playwrights or Roman poets, but ordinary people. It is the oldest of the three divisions of comedy, and dates from when Ig stood up in the cave, knocked himself out with a club, making Og laugh and who subsequently tells Zog all about it. This is because humour is observational.
It is also a contribution to culture that the English, with reason, claim to have made, first made in 1690 by Sir William Temple, who claimed that humour came from England. This was mainly thanks to English liberty, because much humour stems from the expression of the individual and the perception of the odd ways in which people behaved—despotic government across Europe, he claimed, resulted in uniformity of character and people simply as either gentry or common people. Humorous behaviour requires a free society in which to flourish, and the Anglo-Saxon farming land in England’s somewhat variable climate was ideally suited to the development of the stubbornly individualistic individual. ‘We have more humour because every man follows his own, and takes a pleasure, perhaps a pride, in doing it.’
He also made the point that no other nation had the word humour in its language. French had equivalents for wit, buffoonery and comedy, but their word ‘humeur’ meant disposition, or mood. The Germans, Italians and French all had lower-class clowning and upper-class wit, but only the English, it seemed, found pleasure in the middle ground, in the recording of ‘small but significant human traits.’
Wit deals with ideas
Buffoonery is concerned with deeds
Humour is about people
Other European nations not only failed to develop an equivalent to humour, but failed to understand it - the strange alien flippancy that they encountered in English, the affection for the oddities of human behaviour, and the extent to which the English used irony as a literary device.
Jonathan Swift in his Advice to Servants:
‘never wear socks when you wait at meals... most ladies like the smell of young men’s underwear.’
European visitors found these deviations from their own pursuit of an as high-minded, rational being not only baffling but rather distasteful.
English humour may be usefully defined as an odd, embarrassing or funny incident experienced or observed, and described later in a plain manner, and which may or may not call for laughter. It is a mixture of a sense of fun and proportion, in a different way to buffoonery. Beware of people who only tell jokes, and beware of people who only laugh at jokes. There are small jokes, snigger jokes, and rolling around on the floor laughing jokes. But the difference is that humour does not announce itself by claiming it will make you laugh. To tell someone that they are going to find something funny is to dictate to them what their sense of humour should be, and a sense of humour is a most personal possession, and not to be tampered with. Any attempt to mess with this results in the owner wanting to find the recommendation less than hilarious, and rather disappointing.
This sense of humour, it is alleged, seeped over borders into the Celtic countries, and emigrants took English humour overseas with them to North America and the Antipodes. English humour remained polite and warmly sentimental, protecting the values of the middle classes through Dickens and Punch, while pioneer communities developed what is called frontier humour—more irreverent, politically oriented, normally with a conman as a hero. The great fulcrum of American writing, Mark Twain, swung American humour - or should I say humor? - into the modern era. The centre swung from the pioneer areas back to the urban centres of Chicago and New York, which led it to become more urban. Sharper. So the swift wisecrack was born. This led the way for the New Yorker to give America the lead in smart, sophisticated, intelligent humour.
The constant exchange of literature, much of it pirated, between America and Britain (Charles Dickens and Punch on one side, Twain and the New Yorker on the other) meant that the comic writing of the two nations grew closer together. And the development of radio movies and television with world-wide distribution has made the differences in the ways nations express themselves grow closer together, giving way to a bland, internationally acceptable kit of humorous values.