Sunday, 13 February 2011

Is There a Comic in the House?

"My problem," I declared to the friend with whom I was lunching yesterday, "is that I was born without the laughter gene."

We were reflecting on the David Lodge lecture to which we had both been on Wednesday and discussing the next speaker in the series, whose name I genuinely can't remember because it is someone of whom I have never heard. The main reason I haven't heard of him is because he is a stand up comedian and I'm afraid I have yet to find a stand up comic who makes me laugh. Everyone around me can be rolling in the aisles but I will just sit there looking bemused. Television sit-com is just as bad. There will be gales of laughter coming from the studio audience (OK, no real indication, I know but someone must find them funny or surely they wouldn't go on making them) while I sit shaking my head in amazement.

Perhaps it is to do with the fact that laughter these days seems so often to revolve around making fun of someone else's misfortune in a way which is frequently, or so it appears to me, to be needlessly cruel. We condemn then playground bully who makes fun of the lonely child who somehow fails to fit in, but it's acceptable if the bully is being paid vast sums of money to humiliate others in a wider public forum.

Anyway, I had decided that I didn't do laughter and that I must be the worst sort of social misfit - and then I read the next segment of Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing; the chapter in which she discusses what makes her laugh. Back they came flooding, all those occasions when I've laughed so hard that I cried. Wodehouse never fails whether it be Jeeves or Lord Emsworth, and she also mentions someone who in my mind is one of the great comic writers of all times, Gerald Durrell.

Hill talks of probably Durrell's most famous book, My Family and Other Animals, and I would rank that high up amongst my favourites as well, but for me the really funny books are those which detail his travels in search of rare animals for his conservation programme: Beasts in the Belfry, Catch Me a Colubus and above all The Bafut Beagles. For some reason I read the last of those in a hotel room in Paris and much to the distress of the other guests I was still chuckling as I went down to breakfast. Ah, these mad English!

As Hill says, what distinguishes authors such as Wodehouse and Durrell is their style. These are not writers out for a quick laugh, they are people who have something to say and say it with panache. You would want to read them whatever they were writing about simply because they know how to turn a beautiful sentence. I've spent this afternoon finding cheap copies of the volumes I remember best and in future when I worry about the state of my laughter gene I shall have somewhere to turn for reassurance.



  1. Humour is a tricky thing. I don't go to standup comics but I do like some TV shows that use comics - over here for example we've had Spicks and specks, a music quiz show but the comedy is more important than the quiz. The mc and two of the 6 panelists are comedians and it is often very funny.

    I did love to see Victor Borge ... he would have me rolling on the floor. BUT most sitcoms don't appeal to me, I must agree.

  2. I adore Gerald Durrell. He's a wonderfully funny writer and sadly underrated. Thankfully I studied an excerpt from 'My Family and Other Animals' at school which I enjoyed so much it prompted me to ask for the book for my birthday, otherwise I might not have come across him. I'd love to visit his zoo sometime. Have you ever been there?

  3. I'm all for a good laugh too but not if the laugh comes from being cruel, which you are right, an unfortunate number of comics these days seem to think cruelty is humorous. I really need to get myself a copy of the Hill book.

  4. WG, you are absolutely right, humour is incredibly personal which is why I suppose we are often left astounded by what others laugh at. But then, we so often don't understand what someone else sees in a particular book, do we. Thank goodness we're not all alike.

    OER, no I've not been able to get to Jersey. I wonder is it still going strong since he died? I must see if they have a website.

    Stefanie, you will love the Hill book. I think it's best read in small doses mainly because there isn't an obvious line of development and I find that can become difficult to sustain an interest in over a long period, but as something to pick up over a cup of coffee it is perfect.

  5. I need to get a copy of the Hill book as well. Humor is such a strange thing -- my sense of humor is much dryer and more cerebral than my husband's is (which sounds sort of pompous to say, I'm afraid) -- he finds slapstick funny, and I just kind of stare at him, as he laughs. I don't get the humor in that!

  6. Dorothy, I have never yet been able to see where the humour lies in slapstick. What I have is definitely more aligned to yours and always to do with the clever use of language.

  7. Hi Annie,

    I'm afraid that both my husband and myself have quite a wicked sense of humour, although we both see very little funny, in what passes very loosly for TV 'sitcoms', these days.

    I guess that, as we both have the traditional British ability to laugh at oneself, we rarely tend to look too deeply at how much we may be humiliating others, which is quite shallow of us when I read your article.

    Both of us detest the necessity of many 'comedians', to get a cheap laugh with the use of foul language, so for that reason, we don't watch many 'stand-up' comics.

    Best TV 'sitcom' = Outnumbered
    Best TV comedy = Bremner, Bird and Fortune
    Best 'stand-up' = Michael Mcintyre

    I still prefer the comedy of my youth, the likes of Harry Worth and Tony Hancock!


  8. Yvonne, your comment made me realise how little television I actually watch these days because I have no idea who the first and last on your list are, although I do recognise the names at least of Bremner, Bird and Fortune. Or at least I think I do. Now that I've written that I have a horrible feeling that the Bremner I'm thinking about was a footballer who played for Leeds, so possibly not the same person. I am definitely with you about the use of foul language just to get a cheap laugh, but I have to say that the one person I really have never been able to find funny in any shape or form, is Tony Hancock - sorry.